Mission Murals to Remember

The Mujeres Muralistas collective decided we would design images of our Mexican/Latino culture, who we were, where we came from. That was really important to us. And we also looked at the community–who is our audience, who lives here, who’s going to see the mural images and learn from them–and it was the children born here and all the Latino Community living in the Mission. The murals were created to honor the beauty and color of the Latino American culture. The way that we knew we were right on with our plan is that people would come and look at the murals that we were painting and sit there on a bench and cry. And then the next day they’d show up with lunch or beer as thank-you gifts. And we’d ask “Do you like the mural?” “Oh yes, it’s beautiful…because you’re speaking directly to us. We’ve been here all our lives…we risked our lives crossing the border to get here to have a better life and nobody knows that we live here, nobody knows that we exist. And these murals are showing that we are alive, that somebody’s thinking about us. Thank you for painting our culture.”

–Patricia Rodriguez (The Mission, pg 73)

There were too many murals in The Mission and Bay Area to capture–so much that was larger-than-life, bright, emotive, and filled with layers of history and meaning. In our first post, Balmy Alley: The Desire Path, we wrote about the ways that our guide, Carla Wojczuk, showed us to take in murals. We recommend reading that post before this one. In this post, we are remembering in writing the murals we saw in the Mission that we will bring back to our classrooms for our unit about how borders and walls impact identity (both personal and communal), and how the experience of crossing can be told by pen, by paintbrush, and by tongue.

Much of what we know about the murals below is a combination of information from our tour guide Carla, and two books that we purchased at the Precita Eyes Mural Center: The Mission: Photographs by Dick Evans and Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, edited by Annice Jacoby for Precita Eyes Muralists. The books are also where we found the quote above, which we will use to introduce our students to this unit.

500 Years of Resistance (1992), Isaias Mata

St. Peter’s Church stands on the corner of 24th and Florida Street. The church served as a sanctuary for political refugees from El Salvador in the 80s and early 90s, many of whom were single men fleeing forced conscription into the army and military oppression of the poor. Among these political refugees was Isaias Mata, a professor by trade. Though eventually allowed to return to his home country, he stayed in St. Peter’s for more than a year, and, during his time in the parish, he painted a three panel mural (visioned along with Father Jack Isaacs, a priest at St. Peter’s) titled 500 Years of Resistance, a reference to the 500 years since the Spanish invasion of the Americas.

St Peters Panel 1On the 24th Street side of the mural, there are two panels. One frames the entrance to the parish. Over the entrance is a figure blowing into a conch shell, which is a reference to the method in which many indigenous religions salute the four cardinal points of the universe. Speaking to the power of ancestral knowledge, on either side of the open doorway, looking from bottom to top, the viewer sees rainbow-colored leaves below a strip of almost-black that contains several skeletons. Above the skeletons, a layer of more recently buried indigenous people whose flesh has not yet gone to the earth. Above the soil, Mata has created a lush landscape that includes corn, cacti, trees, grasses, and flowers native to the Americas. Connecting the landscape to the people below the soil are thousands of thin roots. This, we learned from Street Art San Francisco, is a reference to Diego Rivera’s mural in the Chapel de Chapingo, depicting the idea that the bodies of the dead serve as nourishment for those that still live.

The middle panel, upon which the rainbow leaves at the very bottom continue, includes several larger-than-life faces. The struggles depicted on this panel are a amalgamation of the many battles that indigenous communities faced at the hands of oppressors. Most striking to us was the section, greenish in color, that shows a troop of conquistadores with spears advancing. Upon second look, we noticed that, while many of the conquistadores wear historic battle dress, the figure closest to us is wearing a gas mask. The connection this makes about ongoing violence and destruction of indigenous lands and communities gives pause.

The third panel, facing Florida Street, radiates the grueling effort of revolution. Directly in the center is a gargantuan wheel being pushed from below by three large figures and pulled from above by six figures straining at a rope. Between the wheel and the six figures above are flames, symbolizing the friction produced by change. In the bottom left corner, people stream down from a city skyline in a protest march, holding signs that read “Viva La Huelga Strike,” “Paz y Justicia,” “Pan, Tierra, y Libertad,” and more. Balancing that image in the top right corner are images of social justice leaders including Oscar A. Romero, Sor Juana J. De La Cruz, Fray Bartolome De las Casas, Kateri Tekakwitha, and others. Finally, in the bottom right corner are two young people holding flowers and a white flag. This panel addresses the question “Do the oppressed have agency?,” and question we will address with our students as we move through this unit.

Un Pasado Que Aun Vive/A Past that Still Lives (2004), by Joel Bergner

This mural, located about halfway down Balmy Alley, shows the echoes of the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992). The center of the mural is a paved road, showing that time does not stop in the face of tragedy. At the end of the road, in the foreground of the mural, are a mother and son in the back of a cart. The mother looks wistfully ahead, holding the sleeping boy in her lap. In her hand is a letter from her husband, who has moved to find work in the US. This practice is common, and tears families apart still today. This mural juxtaposes ongoing daily life with the ghosts of war. One extraordinary example of this juxtaposition is top center, where a man is walking down the street, but his shadow is crying, head in hands. Another is on the side of the building labeled Papusaria Paty. There families are eating breakfast. Meanwhile, the silhouettes of three soldiers, a firing squad, are shooting and killing civilians.

This mural is a statement that the artist and many others stand in solidarity with the liberation movements in Central America. The mural welcomes the thousands of people exiled from their homes, searching for a safe place to raise their families.

La Cultura Contiene la Sevilla de Resistancia que Resplendor de la Flor del Liberacion/Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance, Which Blossons into the Flower of Liberation (1984, 2014), Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thiele 

This mural is the last remaining PLACA mural. The PLACA muralists were a group of artists who spoke with the residents of Balmy Alley, gaining permission to paint a the first series of murals meant to give voice to people being oppressed by war and violence in Central America. Their narrative countered the “official” narrative of the American government, and spoke the Mission community’s truth. On the right panel is a bountiful agricultural scene, filled with smiling people and music. In the corner, a young woman holds a book titled “Nuestra Historia.” On the left panel, the eye is drawn to man, bent over, the sack he holds spilling golden corn out onto the ground. The bag reads “Solo para exportacion.” The large boot of a solder steps into the spilled corn, seemingly disregarding the value of the crop. To the right of the bent man is a group of women holding weapons and photos of los desaparecidos, a few of the thousands of dissidents and innocent civilians who vanished without a trace after the military junta seized power in Argentina in 1976.

La Llorona’s Sacred Waters (2004), Juana Alicia

La Llorona Whole.JPGLocated at the corner of 24th and York Streets, the wall that is home to La Llorona’s Sacred Waters used to be home to another of Juana Alicia’s murals, Las Lechugueras (The Women Lettuce Workers). After that mural suffered water damage in 2001, Juana Alicia chose to adjust the theme of the new mural to reflect urgent issues of the day.

This mural, almost entirely blue, is an homage to water-centered conflict. There is a thin red stroke at the top of the mural, visually separating its content from the blue sky above. La Llorona, the myth tells us, is a woman who drowns her children and then drowns herself. Unable to enter heaven without finding her lost children, she walks the earth forever, crying. At the center of this mural is a woman holding a young boy in her left arm, and reaching into the rushing water with her right. A large tear rolls down her cheek.

Also found in this mural are references to the farm workers in India’s Narmada Valley who protested against their government’s dam projects which caused their homes and towns to flood, the Bolivian women in Cochabamba who fought to keep corporations from buying water rights, and women protesting the unsolved murders of Juarez women. The mural calls attention to the fact that women disproportionately bear the weight of poverty and the consequences of environmental devastation.

Indigenous Eyes: War or Peace (1991), Susan Kelk Cervantes

Eyes.JPGSusan Cervantes is the founder and director of the Precita Eyes Muralists in the Mission. She repainted this mural in 1991 after the garage door hosting the original mural (painted by Nicole Emmanuel in 1984) was destroyed. This new mural honors the previous by restoring the original images on the garage structure. The garage door now features they eyes of a Nicaraguan child, in which is reflected the impact of Nicaragua’s civil war. In the pupil of one eye, there is a a skeleton soldier, symbolizing the violence that the children surviving in the war witness on a daily basis. The pupil of the other eye shows a dove, the symbol of peace, and in the iris to the right floats a question mark.

More Mission Murals to Remember (In No Particular Order)

La Rumba No Para: The Chata Gutierrez Mural (2015), Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez with the Precita Eyes Muralists located on 24th Street near South Van Ness

Community leader

Naya Bihana/A New Day (2002) Martin Travers with Gustavo Sanchez, Pooja Pant, Eric Norberg, Paulette Liang-Norberg, and Kaira Portilla located in Balmy Alley

Naya Ana.jpgCultivating Resistance (2017), Clarion Alley Mural Project located in Clarion Alley

Imitation is the Whitest Form of Flattery (2015), Texta Queen located in Clarion Alley

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For the murals below, we have incomplete information. One of the big learnings from our first mural walk is that we need to be more vigilant about collecting as much information as possible when we are looking (location, artist, title, date, etc), and we will be much more careful about that going forward.

On the side of the Galeria de la Raza building in The Mission:

Galleria de La Raza Mural.JPG

Name and Artist Unknown, located in Lilac Alley

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Balmy Alley: The Desire Path

The Mission District, the historic Latinx neighborhood in San Francisco, is home to officially 99 (but arguably many more) murals. Murals are part of the literal and figurative color of The Mission community. Wednesday morning, joined by Kat’s parents, Phil and Wendy, and sister Liz, Oakland natives and our generous hosts, we began our mural learning with a guided tour. Artist Carla Wojczuk, a Precita Eyes muralist, led us down 24th Street to Balmy Alley, which, Carla says “is the grandmother to the mural alleys in the Mission.”

Precita Eyes Shopfront

Precita Eyes Tour SignBalmy Alley Street Sign

 

 

 

 

 

Carla began by pointing out a blank wall and saying that it all began with the children’s mural, which is now hidden under layers of paint. The story goes that the first mural was painted by kids who came to 24th Street Place, a community center for neighborhood children. The mural that they painted has since been painted over, but that mural, that history, still exists under the new layers of paint. The history is part of the art. Carla’s knowledge of the murals in Balmy Alley and the larger neighborhood refined and directed our process of looking for the day, and probably will for the rest of our study.

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The looking can be difficult. How far away is the viewer standing? From which direction does she approach? What does he see first? How does her personal experience inform her viewing?

What We Learned About Looking: Where to Start

Enrique's Journey Whole

Some murals unfold their stories from one end to the other. The mural Enrique’s Journey (2009), painted by Josue Rojas who was assisted by Maria E. Garcia, is read from right to left. It depicts the story of a young boy’s journey from Honduras to the US (also chronicled in a biography/memoir of the same name by Sonia Nazario). At the far right, a train–La Bestia–steams downward through the rolling hills. In the foreground on the right, Enrique stretches his arms out as if he is flying toward the US. La Bestia, otherwise known as el tren de la muerte, is infamous for horrors such as robbery, injury, police encounter, and death that migrants experience on their trip northward. On the left is Enrique’s mother, who he imagines will be waiting for him as soon as he arrives, arms wide open. The heart outlined on Enrique’s mother’s chest is echoed by the heart over the Honduran countryside (top right). Between Enrique and his mother are the very real obstacles labeled “ICE,” “La Migra,” “Fear,” and “Unjust Immigration Policies.”

In contrast, some mural themes radiate from the center. Victorion: El Defensor de la Mision (2007), created by Sirron Norris, does just that. The strength of the transformer-esque figure in the foreground draws the eye first. With each step closer, the viewer uncovers new evil that Victorion (composed of Victorian houses historic to the neighborhood) must guard against. For example, the building at the bottom left appears so overcrowded that arms and legs burst from the windows. Meanwhile, the “Organic, Fair-Trade Condos” above do not have the same problem. On the street corner behind the pink bunny are two stores, The Cornerstore Classroom, advertising beer, wine, candy, pain, revista, lotto, and soda, and Hipster Unique Together. In front of the stores are two newspaper holders labeled “Lies” and “More Lies” and a trash can with an arrow pointing towards it indicating “Blanco Basura.” Carla told us that the man on the skateboard holding the dog is the artist himself, a part of the community. His image, in relation to the people at the bus stop, is huge. Carla reminded us that the choices artists make about scale are all intentional, reflecting the message of the overall mural.

Victorian Whole

Zoom in Skateboard VictorionZoom in Victorion

What We Learned About Looking: Seeing the “Trapdoor” Images

Norris’s mural, located toward the start of Balmy Alley, is one example of the ways in which mural artists communicate an obvious message with many subtle secondary messages embedded in the scape. Often, the viewer needs both context and a good eye to notice these embedded symbols and coded messages.

As we continued down the alley, we talked about the details in these murals that connected to our personal experiences and knowledge. In Carla’s introduction to The Mission: Photographs by Dick Evans, they write “Within each mural, there are myriad ‘trapdoor’ images –hidden visual details that lead the viewer down secret pathways of local and ancestral knowledge.” These conversations made us wonder what other viewers notice when they see these murals, and the intentions of the artists. Who are the details for? Are they for the artists themselves? Are they to affirm the experiences and knowledge of the community members? Are they to shock or humor outsiders? These are questions we will continue to explore along our journey.

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Mission Makeover Adam and EveWe found this to be particularly true for a mural located a little further down Balmy Alley called Mission Makeover (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza. At first glance, the theme of this mural is gentrification; however, a closer look reveals the specific agents responsible for the forced displacement of this Mission residents. Mission Makeover StarsucksAt the top right, the muralist has included logos of Google and Facebook, and a lightly penciled in Twitter logo on the riot gear of the officers forcing Adam and Eve out of Eden. The tech industry has raised the cost of housing in the Bay Area to a level that squeezes long-time locals out of the city or into homelessness. Featured in the lower right panel are logos such as “Starsucks,” Wealth Foods,” and “Trader Foes,” establishments that pop up as neighborhoods gentrify. A white cop and a well-dressed white woman share a cup of coffee, oblivious to the man sleeping on the sidewalk to their left.

Mission Makeover Top LeftIn contrast to the mainly white figures on the right panel of the mural and the signature businesses of gentrification, the left panel features businesses and landmarks native to The Mission, such as Discolandia, papel picado and a piragua cart. The house behind the bus on the left panel reads “Eviction.” A family exit, holding heavy bags and boxes. Most prominent, police hold two young Latino men in handcuffs in the foreground. The officer’s hat has Mickey Mouse ears on it, signifying “Mickey Mouse Cops,” and his nameplate reads “Rentacop.” The cop’s crossed out eyes and the graffiti on the bus were added by members of the community.  An additional piece of political significance in this mural is the bag of Skittles falling from the jacket of the young man on the bench.  This mural was painted right after Trayvon Martin was murdered and the Skittles are a marker of the danger all young men of color face. These details make a viewer stop to look a 4th, 5th, 12th time.

Misson Makeover Mickey Mouse Cop

 

What We Learned About Looking: Finding the Links

Rainbow Connection.jpg

Near the end of the alley, we spent a long time looking at Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance, Which Blossoms into the Flower of Liberation (1984 and 2014) by Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thiele. We will discuss this mural more in an upcoming post. However it is an example of the awareness these muralists have about the work surrounding their spaces. Featured prominently on the right panel is a sweeping rainbow connecting the hard-won resources in the woman’s basket to the joyful music of the man’s guitarra. Lu_The WandererThe rainbow extends, appearing in the mural directly to the right, called Lu/The Wanderer (2011) and painted by our guide Carla Wojczuk (!!!!) and Julian Roward. Traces of the rainbow can be seen up and down Balmy Alley. The ways in which artists connect their pieces to those of other artists are subtle, but speak loudly of the respect that the artists hold for one another and the power of many united voices.

As we approached the end of Balmy Alley, we heard a camp counselor shouting “If you need to use the bathroom, use it now,” in the park across the street. Carla told us that in the early 1970’s, when kids were making their way to 24th Street Place from the housing projects behind the park, they were often warned that the alley was unsafe. Despite the warnings, kids continued to take the alley as opposed to longer routes. Carla told us architects refer to this phenomenon as the “desire path,” a path created as a consequence of human foot traffic. As the desire path leads to a more responsive architectural layout, the art in Balmy Alley is about embracing and responding to the beauty that is The Mission.

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A HUGE thank you to our guide, Carla Wojczuk. At the end of our tour, Carla told us that the more a community loves a mural, the more likely it will be protected. After spending time with Carla, we can tell how deeply loved and protected these murals are by Precita Eyes and The Mission community.

In solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Spelling as Social Justice at the Boston Teachers Union Professional Learning Conference

This year I took a course that challenged both my writing and thinking abilities – the Boston Teachers Union Inquiry Project class. Once on month on Fridays throughout the school year, a group of five other teachers and myself met to pursue our own individual teacher inquiries under the guidance of three master teachers  – Steve Gordon, Crystal Haynes, and Bob Comeau.

The course had me undertake a process that I found difficult yet incredibly worthwhile and engaging – it demanded that I find a question, gather data and research, analyze, reflect, and then find a more specific question, in order to come to deeper and deeper levels of understanding. The course resulted in my production of a final paper that synthesized both research and pedagogy along with deep reflection about my teaching practice: Spelling As Social Justice: Empowering Students Learning English as a New Language Through Explicit Spelling Instruction (pdf).

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Jennifer Dines with Inquiry Master Teachers Steve Gordon and Crystal Haynes

I am very proud to be presenting a workshop on my inquiry work at the Boston Teachers Union 3rd Annual Professional Learning Conference on Saturday, June 4th, 2016. Here is a description of the presentation:

Spelling as Social Justice: Empowering Students Learning English as a New Language Through Explicit Spelling Instruction

How does spelling support development of language control and linguistic complexity? What is an effective approach to teaching spelling to middle school ELLs? Participants in this workshop will understand spelling as a gatekeeper to proficient academic writing, as well as gain insights into the practice of systematic spelling instruction connected to culturally responsive YA literature.

Additionally, teachers who underwent the inquiry process this year will be participating in a panel about the course. Here is a link to my colleague Colleen Mason’s fascinating paper Does the Project Approach Work?: A Case Study Exploring Emergent Curriculum in an Inclusive Pre-K Setting (pdf).

Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston (Part 2)

Post 2: The Launch

Dear Alice,

What a week! We launched our pen pal letter writing on Friday. One of the biggest changes between independent reading last year and this year is that students are beginning and ending their week with independent reading time in class. On Mondays, students read, and, on Fridays, students are writing letters to your students or taking a field trip to our local Boston Public Library to get new books. This pen pal letter writing relationship is going to help keep this routine exciting and fun for the students.  

To launch the letter writing process, we did three things as a class. First, students read a letter that I wrote to you in partners and discussed and captured what I was doing as the writer in each paragraph in the margin of the letter. Essentially, my letter was the mentor text for their launch letters. Then, we examined a handout that had the components of a strong pen pal letter and discussed sentence starters. Finally, students wrote their own letters to your students using the letter I wrote as a mentor text and the directions and sentence starters as resources.

Dear Anejia

The most interesting part of this lesson was when student interest and engagement really turned on. Some students were hooked from the beginning of the lesson but some either due to trepidation over being vulnerable or a lack of interest in writing altogether spent a few minutes groaning and complaining when they saw how the long the model letter was. It wasn’t until I handed out little cards with their pen pals’ names and addresses at the beginning of the letter writing time that just about every student in the classroom became excited. I realized there was something about the name of their pen pal that made it real and increased the intrigue of this process. Many students spent a few minutes trying to figure out what ethnicity or culture their pen pal is from and if their pen pal was a boy or a girl. The difference in our student populations, GPA being over 63% latino, you have a significantly larger African American and African population. Here are a few photographs of some of my students who were so thoughtfully engaged in their letter writing that they wrote for over 30 minutes with sustained focus.

Another thing that didn’t necessarily surprise me but that I didn’t think about when we initially discussed the project is, what about students who prefer to type their letters as opposed to handwriting? I have two students who struggle a great deal with processing while writing by hand, and another student for whom using a laptop automatically increases engagement in the task, so your students will be receiving a few typed letters.

Lastly, I noticed some students did not write at all about their book, and instead wrote about themselves and asked questions to their pen pals. For a few of these students I think this is an indication that they are lacking an independent reading book that they are engaged in. For a few others, I think I’m going to need to teach into the letter writing process to a deeper level. I hope we can think about this wondering the next time we are together.

I cannot wait to hear about your students’ experiences receiving their letters and continue developing these relationships of readers and writers!

Fondly,

Kat

 

Dear Kat,

My classes loved opening their letters!! Students were up out of their seats showing parts of their letters to one another, commenting with excitement about what “my pen pal” is good at, where “my pen pal” lives, and what “my pen pal” is reading. As soon as they opened their letters, the activity became less “school work” and more about the passion of talking to someone else about life experiences and books. They were ready to write back immediately on their own lives, books, and, of course, to ask lots of questions.

My mini-lesson for their first letter was about direct  response. Our activator (after our 20 minutes of independent reading, of course) was students making two-minute lists of all the questions that they have when they meet someone new. They shared out several of their questions with the class, and we collected the common questions on the board. Then, we talked about how writing back and forth with someone you’ve never met is an opportunity to get to know a new person as well. In these letters, not only were they going to share about themselves and their current IR books (using the same template you gave your students with the three paragraphs and the sentence stems), but they were also going to build their relationship with their pen pal by asking a few questions based on the information they received in the letters. I projected the letter you wrote me on the board and did a read aloud/think aloud, underlining all the questions  that you asked me and writing my own questions and comments in the margins for you so that I would remember to include them in my letter.

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After the Read Aloud/Think Aloud, I asked students to help me figure out which of my comments and questions I should include in my letter back to you. For example, I wrote “cool!” and “me too!”in the margins quite a bit. Through our class discussion, students vocalized that, while your cooking skills are really cool, it was more important for me to share the “me too” moments because it would help you get to know me better and it would build our relationship around common interests. We also chose two good questions to ask you based on your letter, one about your life and one about your book. When we concluded our discussion, we had created a “Criteria for a Great Response Paragraph.”

By this point, students were getting antsy. They really wanted their letters. I had them take out two blank pieces of paper (raising the stakes on length just to see what they would produce if they knew they could use multiple pages) and their writing utensils and put everything else away. We did a drum roll on the desks, and then a mail call. As I read of their names, students bounded out of the seats to the get their hands on the letters. The build up made it that much more engaging for them when they got their envelopes. They tore them open and, after the initial exclamations and discoveries, got right to work annotating their letters and responding to their new pals.

I can’t wait to hear how your students receive this round of letters!

Always,

Alice

Book Review: Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, Johanna Stirling, Lulu: Raleigh, 2011, 279 pgs.

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Johanna Stirling’s Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners advocates for explicit spelling instruction as a tenet of writing instruction for students learning English as a Second Language. Stirling views poor spelling as an obstacle to language development, but also sees it  as a hindrance to future educational and career opportunities.

Stirling sets out to present a new look at an old and infamous problem – the spelling conventions of the English Language. She examines the complex orthography of the language, and she offers educators with instructional strategies that address English spelling.

Additionally, Stirling indicates the importance of spelling skills to producing quality writing plainly stating: “…if you are too busy concentrating on spelling letter by letter, your brain is unlikely to be at its creative or intellectual best.”

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners is divided into three main sections. Part A provides an overview of the challenges of teaching and understanding spelling. Part B presents an approach for instruction in spelling. Part C offers more than 50 instructional strategies for teaching spelling, most of which are interactive, engaging, and multi-sensory. The intended audience for this book is teachers of adolescent and adult English Language Learners as well as teachers of struggling readers and writers who are native speakers of the language.

I chose this book because it appears to be the only comprehensive text on the subject of spelling for English Language Learners. There are only a limited number of scholarly articles that address this topic specifically, so it did not surprise me that there were only two books available through amazon.com on the subject.

Analysis

Personally, Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners provided me with a deeper perspective on the emotionality that poor spellers experience with writing. Chapter 15,  titled “Tackling Psychological Barriers to Writing”, provided me with a better insight and empathy towards the frustrated learner of English spelling. I myself have always been a good speller and reader, but I know that in my practice it is important to be able to view literacy tasks through the eyes of my students.

Indeed, this year especially, working with a group of middle school students whose struggles with literacy have previously been ignored, I have personally witnessed their reactions to their low self-esteem around language learning. My students absolutely employ all of the “face-saving strategies” detailed in the chapter: “avoiding writing altogether (so they can’t fail), blaming others for their weaknesses, denying that there’s a problem, or just making out that they don’t care”.

This descriptor helped me contextualize my students’ behaviors and I have been deliberate and strategic about addressing the emotionality by using the strategies Stirling lays out in my lesson planning and instruction: assessing students’ spelling abilities, conveying enthusiasm and providing positive encouragement, connecting spelling to authentic texts, and explicit teaching about English spelling patterns.

I very much enjoyed Chapter 3, “A Brief History of English Spelling”. Although I have read bits and pieces about this subject, Stirling provides a very clear and concise overview of English’s evolution from Old English to Modern English, which includes information on how pronunciation and handwriting over time has affected our spelling system. Stirling clearly demonstrates that there are “historical explanations for many of the apparently irrational and complex forms of English spelling”, and, indeed, it is empowering to know how English evolved and came to its complex orthography.

A very clear pie chart at the end of the chapter shows the origins of current English words: 26% Germanic, 29% French, 29% Latin, 6% Greek, and 10% Other. Reading this chapter and viewing this data prompted me to not only check out Wheelock’s Latin from the local library but also to revisit the Duolingo app’s French language program in an effort to increase my understanding of English.

Language is a tool that we use so much, we do not often analyze it or think of it as simply another, albeit highly complex, technology. In a historical context, however, one realizes that language is indeed a human invention, and is therefore ever-evolving and subject to political and sociological influences. This is a powerful realization as a language teacher because it makes it clear that what we should truly focus on are the mechanisms of the language system and engaging our students in analyzing and manipulating them. Regarding language as a tool with a history and sense of flexibility makes it far less daunting than simply accepting and memorizing abstract rules and facts without understanding their origins.

Professionally, I appreciated Stirling’s “polysystemic” framework of English Orthography. She organizes her discussions of language and spelling around 5 separate systems: phonological, graphemic, etymological, lexical, and morphological. Stirling dedicates one chapter to each system, and she provides concrete examples of spelling patterns based in each.

Stirling also provides clear insights about the interconnections of these systems, and she is definitive about how these systems interact with one another. For example, she states: “Etymological factors often take precedence over all the other systems of English orthography”. She then goes on to detail orthographic patterns from Old English (wh-, kn-, -gh, aw, ow), Latin, and French. Stirling also challenges the ever-popular yet non-sensical “sound it out” strategy by evidencing that only about 50% of English words are phonetically spelled.

I especially appreciated Stirling’s attention to the lexical or “purely visual” system of English, which emphasizes “similar spellings of words with related meanings”. This system is frequently and shamefully overlooked, even in post-graduate courses for reading specialists and speech language therapists.  Yet, the lexical system provides a bounty of connections among words in our language. For example, the word “sign”, which comes from the Latin signum (mark, token, indication, signal), forms lexical connections to at least twenty words, including signature, design, signify, resign, and assign.

One weakness I found in the text was Stirling’s lack of knowledge around assessment of existing developmental spelling tools. Although Stirling offers some self-created assessments, I was disappointed and surprised that she failed to mention the widely-used Words Their Way Spelling Inventories as an assessment of developmental spelling (note: For FREE access, simply register with the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project).

Additionally, while Stirling does indicate short vowels, vowel digraphs, and silent-e syllables as common trouble spots for ELLs, she makes no mention of the six syllable types: closed, open, silent-e, r-controlled, vowel team, consonant-le. Since Stirling advocates that we maximize awareness of the language systems of English, not mentioning the six syllable types feels like a glaring omission.

Conclusions and Evaluation

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners is an essential read for anyone who teaches writing to struggling learners in grades 3 and up. It is clear, concise, and well-organized, and the strategies in the book can be easily implemented without any special materials or programmatic structures. I think that this book is impressive because it provides such a wide-ranging overview as well as very practical, multi-sensory, and engaging strategies that can be used right away in the classroom.

This book makes a wonderful pairing with the scope and sequence laid out in Marcia Henry’s Words. In my own classroom, I have been using Words as a resource for generating word lists from a class novel. I then use the instructional techniques from Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners to create my lesson plans. The pairing of these two books makes for a dynamic duo that allows my students to make progress with their spelling in an enjoyable way that is connected to the texts we are reading in class. Since the beginning of January, my students have demonstrated mastery of consonant blends and consonant digraphs and trigraphs, and I can see their confidence growing as they discuss and apply their metalinguistic knowledge.

I highly recommend this book to educators seeking to enhance word-level writing instruction in their classrooms. It is a quick read, and it will become a go-to reference for engaging spelling instruction. Stirling’s http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/ offers supplemental resources for the book, and her website English Language Garden provides additional articles and materials for ELL teachers.

 

7th Grade Novel Engineering Project: Increasing Rigor Through Writing Across the Curriculum

Check out the 7th graders at Gardner Pilot Academy explaining their Novel Engineering Projects!

Objective: I can use the steps of the Engineering Process to engineer an original solution for one of the challenges a character faces in A Long Walk to Water.

Stay tuned for our upcoming blog on our collaboration process as teachers to create this amazing learning opportunity for our students!

Teaching: The Greatest Profession

Editor’s Note: A Literacy Design Collaborative Lead & Learn Fellow, Christina Kostaras teaches middle school English Language Learners how to communicate and problem solve like mathematicians and scientists. She works at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Last week at the SREB Conference in Atlanta, Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) Lead & Learn Fellows Lisa Hollenbach (@lisa_hollenbach)  & Sheila Banks (@ehretbanks) hooked me into their break-out session when they did a quick Google News search of the word “Teacher” and a whole slew of negative images and headlines appeared on the screen.

lead learn graphic

My entire body ached as I read them. I questioned, How did we get to this point? In lieu of placing blame, Lisa and Sheila provided us with an antidote to combat the media contagion affecting teachers: use tools such as blogs and social media to start controlling the conversation.

I began thinking about another communication medium we should begin to control: in-person conversations.

The conversation described below happened to take place on an airplane, but it could have happened any place that lends itself to small talk with strangers – a friend’s party or at the park with my niece and nephew.

Gentleman on airplane: (smiling and engaged) “Wow – you’re a teacher! I don’t know how you folks do it…. So, what do you teach?”

Me: (somewhat unsure of my response) “Well, I teach Math & Science but I teach it to students who are English Language Learners who have recently arrived in the last year or two, so really I teach them how to read and write in English while at the same time making sure they can solve complex math and science problems.  Oh yeah and also some of my students have learning disabilities so I have to make sure all of the reading, writing, math, and science is accessible to them so they can learn, too!

Gentleman on airplane: (with a look of sheer bewilderment on his face)  Wow! Yeah, like I said, I don’t know how you folks do it – thank goodness for the summer though, right!? I’d kill for 8 weeks off!

Me: (slightly perturbed from hearing the summer comment yet again, but smiling) Yeah, summer is nice.

After sharing that I’m a teacher, the following question from my conversation partner is generally: “So, what do you teach?”

This is the point in the conversation at which I can start professing our greatness. I’ve found that when non-teachers ask,  “What do you teach?”, they are usually anticipating a quick, one or two-word answer. They are quite unprepared for my 30-second-word-vomit-schpiel of me trying desperately to explain my position, officially  “Bilingual ESL Math & Science Teacher”.

The conversation about my work usually ends there. And what I’m realizing now is this conversation is all wrong as in the past, I’ve made no profession of greatness.  From now on, I plan to use these conversations with friends-of-friends and strangers to talk about how awesome my work is.

It all starts with our answer to the question, “So, what do you teach?” The answer to this question cannot be simplified by one word. One word cannot express the demand that all teachers must be reading & writing teachers within their content area. It also cannot be verbal finger-painting of the exact picture that already exists in the media: overwhelmed teachers complaining about all the work they are charged with doing.

So as I sit here and think about how I should respond, I think about my intended audience, word choice, and modality. I know that in order to be prepared for these conversations, I must first write it down. Think it out. I realize the response should be a perfect blend of all the writing styles the Common Core standards ask of our children: narrative mixed with expository and a dash of persuasion may be just the recipe for a new-and-improved conversation.

Here is a script I created to guide me through future conversations with non-teachers:

Woman at friend’s wedding:  Wow! You’re a teacher, that’s great. My mom was a teacher, so I know what hard work it is. So, what do you teach?

Me: I teach middle-school aged immigrants how to effectively communicate as mathematicians and scientists, both orally and in writing. I also teach them how to inquire and think critically about the world around them and their role as individuals in it.

Woman at friend’s wedding: So interesting! Hmm, I’ve never really heard anyone put it like that. Oh boy, middle school, that’s rough – but it’s so nice that you get all that vacation, especially summer!

Me:  Yeah! Summers are great because I get to spend them taking courses, researching, and collaborating with my colleagues so that we can elevate our work as teachers. We really take this time to make sure that we are prepared to have the best courses. We also take time to reflect on our behavior management systems and how we can improve and be the best versions of ourselves when we are in front of children. We do this because they deserve absolute greatness. Always.

Woman at friend’s wedding: That’s so nice to hear.  I hope all teachers feel the same way you do!

Me: Trust me, they do!

It’s easy to answer the question about what you teach with one word and brush off comments about what we do with our time outside of school rather than educate others on the work of teachers.  But know that when we do this, we do our profession a disservice.  We must be more articulate about how truly incredible our work is. We must craft our responses to these questions. We must write them down in order to be prepared to respond in a thoughtful yet understandable manner. And the next time you are asked the question about what you teach, take it as an opportunity to profess your greatness.

I Teach

Why Writing Is Thinking Works for Teachers and Students

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 1.19.23 PMI am an English/language arts teacher. A teacher of writing. But no teacher taught me how to write. My dad did. When I was little, he would sit at the computer, and I would sit next to him. I would read what I had written by hand, and he would type it into the computer. And we would go over it together and make it better.

When I got older, I would do the typing, but he still edited every paper I wrote in high school, most of the papers I wrote in college, and each of the blog posts I’ve posted to WritingIsThinking.org. And that’s not embarrassing for me because I know that great writers have editors and thought partners and people who believe in the power of their ideas.

In my classroom this year, I have a student named SJ. If you spoke with him for two minutes, you would know he loves basketball and his baby sisters. That he wants to play in the NBA. That he lives in Mattapan. What you wouldn’t learn about him is that he speaks five languages. That he has only been tardy one time this year. And that he’s an A/B student. That he pokes his head into my room every morning just to make sure I know he has arrived.

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You also wouldn’t know that SJ has a learning disability that affects his communication in all of the languages he speaks. At the beginning of the year, I couldn’t for the life of me get him into the task of independent reading.

On a particularly rough day, I asked him to stay after school, and I called him out. I said to him “SJ, your behavior makes me think this work is too hard for you.” And he said to me “Miss, I can’t really read. My seventh grade teacher had me read articles online because I don’t read books.”

Although I had suspected that reading was difficult for SJ, in the first week and a half of school I hadn’t yet discovered quite how hard a task it was. In that moment, I said to him, “If you work hard, you will not fail this class. If you work hard, I will work hard to teach you how to read.”

So we started to work. Hard.

Throughout the year, SJ’s reading and writing have developed. He uses sentence stems and CLOZE paragraphs and graphic organizers. He records himself and takes notes on his own thinking. Then he organizes it and writes his essays. But I’m afraid that what happened at the beginning of the year in my classroom will happen every year for SJ. That he will always be dependent on a good relationship with his teachers in order to eventually own his writing. That he will float through school with an ELD level and a Special Education code, never challenged as much as he could be, and as much as he deserves to be. That he will graduate from BPS a good person, but not a good writer.

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Now I know that not all my students have computers at home, or parents who are available to sit next to them and work on school work for hours. I know that, even though I want to with all my heart, I cannot be that person for each of my 94 students. So we as teachers have to teach writing smarter. We have to work together as teams of teachers to give our students that support and empower them as writers, thinkers, intellectuals, and academics in every classroom. We have to do that work for SJ and for the hundreds of other students like him.

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

pencil_and_paper_by_rainsage-d3dbu30

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

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

Tiana
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

Pedro
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

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

Part Two

Me
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
Justice

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

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