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.

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