Writing Is Thinking Empowers Students to Wield the Power Tools

The following is Katy Ramón’s elaborated speech for the WritingisThinking.org Leadership Lab hosted by Teach to Leadthe US Department of Education, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards on Friday, June 26th, 2015. 

“The human condition is the heart of it all.” 
-Juan Felipé Herrera


Recently, Juan Felipé Herrera was nominated to be the first Latino U.S. Poet Laureate.  My heart burst when I read this news.  Juan Felipé Herrera is the embodiment of the vision I have for my students.  Mr. Herrera’s story is a humble beginning, much like many of my students.  He learned to wield power tools: a pencil and piece of paper.  And from that, he became a master of poetry, the U.S. Poet Laureate.  I want this for my students.  It is with this inspiration that I wrote this poem.

Part One

Put at a disadvantage
Not disadvantaged
Starving to make a change
Teach the power tools
Make that difference

She has a way to make money
Before school she goes to Stop and Shop
Self serve check out bays
In the shadows standing shyly
Fidgeting, gazing away
They always forget their change
Run after them, try to give it back
Well thank you!
But keep it child

Baseball air inflates his lungs
Heart beat base hits
Boy from the projects
The team is too expensive
Internet and a computer at home?
Pfft, jokes

Put at a disadvantage
Not disadvantaged
Starving to make a change
Teach the power tools
Make that difference

Part Two

I’m a numbers girl
Proudly taking after grandpa Dallas
Known for hiring two accountants
Even though he’d do the math himself
He didn’t make mistakes, but he sure found theirs

Writing wasn’t my thing, not at all
They asked me, so what’s your point?
In college, hours at the writing center
They thought I didn’t know what I was talking about
Because they couldn’t look at the calculations
And just understand

I knew math
Couldn't write
Nobody listened

My sister
Her writing a fine calligraphy pen
Everybody remarks on her brilliant intellect  
She knows nothing of factoring trinomials  
Or analyzing correlation with a best fit line
But when she writes about math
Everyone nods, agrees
As if Truth had finally arrived

She didn't know math
But she could write
So people listened

Write well to get your point across
Respected, educated opinion
Be a part of the decision-making process
The conversation

Write well for a clear math mind
Deepened, nuanced understanding
Break through the shallow ice
Enter the expansive depth  
Of knowledge

Put at a disadvantage
Not disadvantaged
Starving to make a change
Teach the power tools
Make that difference

Writing Is Thinking Creates Rigorous Writing Opportunities for ELLs and Students with Disabilities.

The following is Jennifer Dines’s elaborated speech for the WritingisThinking.org Leadership Lab hosted by Teach to Leadthe US Department of Education, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards on Friday, June 26th, 2015. 

“What happens when teachers treat students as intellectuals as opposed to intellectually challenged?” – Linda Christensen

In my 8 years of experience as an educator of ESL students with learning disabilities, I have treated my students as intellectuals, and I can tell you that these students are hard workers who are eager to learn and who rise to the challenges placed in front of them.

However, how can we expect this population of students to make progress towards college and career readiness when they are placed in schools that provide inappropriate or non-existent language services, low expectations, and modifications that water down content to its thinnest? Our population of English Language Learners with Disabilities deserves an education that provides them with a full command of language and prepares them to be fully participating democratic citizens.

I want to talk to you today about Nadira Abdirahman. She is currently a sophomore at the Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury and a member of their school debate team. She is a student with an IEP. She is a student considered Formerly English Limited Proficient.

Nadira arrived to the United States from Somalia by way of Kenya in 2008, and she entered the Boston Public Schools as a 4th grader at the Mattahunt Elementary. I first met Nadira when she became my 6th grade student at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in 2010. At that time, she was considered a Level 3 ESL student.

During Nadira’s 6th grade year, she was a very frustrated reader. I recall that ESL was not offered that year, and I remember that Nadira cried several times during independent reading. That year, I did her special education testing, and, after a team meeting, she was placed on an IEP. I don’t think she had a learning disability, but the thinking was that the accommodations, including having someone read aloud to her, would at least allow her a fair chance on the state tests.

During Nadira’s 7th grade year, I asked and was granted permission to teach ESL during the scheduled intervention block, and this provided two hours of weekly ESL instruction to level 3 students. That year, the school district also offered a stipend opportunity for tutoring ELLs before or after school. I re-branded the program as the ESL Scholarship Group, framing the tutoring program as a special honor for chosen scholars.

ESL Scholarship Group
(left) Nadira is in the red hijab, in the back row, far right. Her class is displaying books created at 826 Boston. (right) Nadira is on the right. She and Angely are collecting voter registration forms for a Mock Presidential Election.

Nadira joined the Scholarship Group. For the next two years, this group of 8 seventh and eighth grade students arrived an hour and fifteen minutes early to school to read, write, read about writing, and write about reading. The work we did had nothing added to it to make it “fun” – the students literally sat at a table with me and engaged in reading, writing, and having discussions together. The only incentive was the membership to the group itself and a twice-yearly field trip to 826 Boston, a local writing center, that included lunch at McDonald’s.

We read novels, selections from a literature textbook, and articles from the NY Times. We wrote and published literary analyses, short works of fiction, poetry, personal essays, and letters. The students joined together as a community of readers and writers, and their authentic voices began to emerge as they wrote regularly together and took risks with their writing. The group became a place where students could express the struggles they went through as immigrants finding their identities in a new country. As a seventh grader, Nadira wrote the following personal statement as part of a literary analysis piece comparing her life to the main character Arturo in the Young Adult novel Any Small Goodness:

People say that I’m bold because I wear a headscarf. People say that I’m ugly and they make me feel bad. Bad words and actions can affect my life by making me miserable. I will be so sad about my life, and I feel like I don’t want to live in the United States anymore. I want to live a hole by myself or hide from the world. It puts me into a deep, dark place that makes me really miserable. It makes me feel bad and uncomfortable. When I am around people who don’t have the same religion or culture as me, they think that there’s always something wrong with me. They think that they have to say rude things to me. I don’t make fun of people because of their culture. I could make fun of them, but I have a heart that tells me not to do it. I use my brain before I say anything.

This statement speaks to Nadira’s struggle with preserving her Muslim identity in an American world. I noticed that as Nadira continued to work with our ESL Scholarship group, she strengthened her identity and her voice through her writing. In her 8th grade year, Nadira wrote the following in a letter to Pakistani teen activitist Malala Yousafzai shortly after Malala had been shot by the Taliban:

You and your friends were standing up for your rights. I’m a girl who loves my rights and my education. I love my rights to do as I wish. The fact that you have to fight for your rights and get hurt for it makes me sad and furious because the Prophet S.W. said that if we want something for ourselves, we should also want it for our brothers and sisters. I also felt miserable that the Taliban is calling themselves Muslim, but they won’t let you get educated. In Muslim culture, education is very important.

The ESL scholarship group became a place for English Language Learners to come together to share the common bond of learning a new language and to better navigate their immigrant identities – learning how to exist in unfamiliar English language which is not the language their mothers use to wish them good night or to scold them if they’ve been naughty.

In Nadira’s 8th grade year and the year following, I was able to teach a daily block of ESL levels 3, 4, and 5, as the school had created a five day per week intervention period. Many of my students from these ESL classes received excellent scores on their WIDA assessments, and they continued onto high school without the label of being an ELL.

While I am proud that my demand to provide ESL instruction for students during the school day was finally met, I do not think that I should have had to have been such an advocate for this instruction. ESL services are supposed to be mandated for our students. Yet they are often viewed as simply time spent with a teacher licensed in ESL or just another literacy block or something that intermediate and advanced ELLs don’t really need because they sound fine when they are speaking.

It is essential that teachers are prepared to deliver instruction that will propel our students forward, not hold them back. Our English Language Learners with and without disabilities arrive at school eager to learn and are ready to rise to the challenges presented to them. They are not intellectually challenged – they are intellectuals.

Students Benefit from Writing is Thinking.

The following is Katharine Atkins-Pattenson’s elaborated speech for the WritingisThinking.org Leadership Lab hosted by Teach to Lead, the US Department of Education, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards on Friday, June 26th, 2015. 

Tell me your story. What if others told it for you and you were never given the chance? Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 9.53.35 AMWhat if the labels and codes ascribed to you by the public education system spoke for you? ELL. IEP. Low SES. Communication impairment. ADHD. Austistic. When our students’ stories go untold, these terms usurp their identities, and we fail to recognize the intellectual capacities and unique abilities of Andy, Wilmar, Shabin, Genesis, Andre, and Zion. All students are capable intellectuals who deserve to tell their story and for it to be heard.

Genesis using her voice to speak for the importance of continuing history education in Boston Public Schools’ core curriculum
Andy using a graphic organizer to plan his argumentative essay.

Tell me your story. My story begins with this very question and two students: the Aguilar twins. I met Noe and Claudia the fall semester of their senior year of high school in rural Adams County, Pennsylvania. Noe and Claudia had crossed the US/Mexico border four times and numerous state borders with their mother following agricultural work. Their guidance counselor didn’t know what to do with two English Language Learners who had interrupted schooling. I met with Noe and Claudia to discuss their post-secondary plans and both expressed big dreams of attending college. Noe envisioned himself as a probation officer and a football coach and Claudia dreamed of becoming a pediatrician and helping immigrant families raise healthy babies. Neither of them had taken the SAT’s or the TOEFFL, or had met with a guidance counselor yet. I told them they would have to write a college essay, and it would be essential to tell their story. Claudia looked at me quizzically and said, “No one has ever asked me to tell my story.” For homework that night, I asked them to go home and write the story of how they got to be where they are today.

Noe, Claudia, and I on Decision Day celebrating their college plans.

The next morning when I arrived at school, Claudia and Noe stood waiting outside my office door, clutching several sheets of lined paper. Their drive to go to college was so great that they had each written five single spaced, handwritten pages that detailed their journey. Sitting at the table in my office, I read each of their stories aloud with them. I only made it through two paragraphs of Claudia’s essay before tears pierced the back of my eyes and slowly rolled down my cheeks. Claudia’s words painted images that lept off the page of the two of them as five year olds playing under a shady tree in Texas while their mother picked fruit under the scorching summer sun. Noe’s anguish and assumed male responsibility when his father left their family gripped my heart. Although their writing had errors in grammar, syntax, and word choice common in students learning to speak and write in standardized academic English, thematic threads of sacrifice, humility, perseverance, relentlessness, and drive were woven throughout their stories. These are the ingredients that every college admissions counselor seeks in a prospective college student. Noe and Claudia’s stories prove that all students are capable intellectuals. This picture, taken on the day Noe and Claudia signed their college acceptance letters is framed on my dresser and I look at it every morning as a reminder of how high the stakes are if our students’ stories go untold.

Senior year is too late for students to begin telling their stories to engage communities of intellectuals. The themes of Claudia and Noe’s college essays are common to many immigrant and first generation college students. My 7th graders spend the year exploring the theme of survival and focusing on the essential question: How do individuals survive in challenging environments? We begin our 7th grade year reading Linda Sue Park’s novel, A Long Walk to Water, and analyzing how geographic environment and access to water impact the war torn tribes of the protagonists Nya and Salva. Then, we travel to 19th century Lowell, MA. Whilereading Katherine Paterson’s novel Lyddie, we meet the protagonist, a 13 year old factory worker in a textile Mill. We make connections across time and place between the working conditions and labor organizing in the textile mills of the industrial revolution, Cesar Chavez and the UFW, and our responsibility as consumers today. We end the year, examining what gives stories enduring power, and transforming excerpts of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative into children’s books that deliver messages about the power of literacy.

I am From poems mapped on my classroom wall.
Students referring to their poems throughout the year.

My students consistently rise to the challenge of identifying common themes and connecting their character traits to the protagonists in the novels we read. Writing is their access point. Their first assignment of the year is to write an I am From poem and to share it with their class. We map where we come from and keep this map and our poems up for the entire year as a living, breathing primary source document. Through this project every student in my room successfully publishes a piece of writing and develops a voice in my classroom. These poems are sources of strength that we draw upon over the course the year: a reminder that we are each capable writers, and to make connections between our stories and the character traits and themes in the stories we read. We began today’s presentation with student voice and I think it is fitting to end with it as well. This is an I am From poem written and performed by Junior Polanco, a 7th grader in my class this year from the Dominican Republic.

Teachers must own this passion that our immigrant and second-generation students possess. In teacher preparation, all teachers must be writing teachers because student voice will be the voice of our society in the future. Developing student voice and equipping students with the tools to tell their stories in ways that are appropriate to audience and purpose trains students to be future teachers, city leaders, and community organizers. It equips them to talk back to the status quo with confidence and persuasion. It buys them a seat at the table, from where they can create relevant change from the inside, not from the outside. As teachers we must recognize and honor this passion in each of our students and capitalize on every moment of instruction to accomplish this goal.

Students using their voices to keep history curriculum alive in Boston Public Schools.