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

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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

Paredes Que Hablan: Language Arts on the Borders

Happy summer, everybody! Our brilliant WritingIsThinking colleague-friend Christina Kostaras once wrote a post about teacher summers and how they are a necessary part of the work we do. We use them to get smarter at our jobs, to make ourselves better for our students in the coming year. Christina says we do this because our students deserve “absolute greatness. Always.” I couldn’t agree more.

FFT-Fellow-PlacardThis summer, my colleague Kat and I received a Fund for Teachers grant for our project Paredes que Hablan. Here are some excerpts from our proposal that explain what we plan to do:

As urban teachers for Boston Public Schools, we work with a diverse student body. Over 80% of our students are classified as high needs, over 60% of our students are English Language Learners, and over 40% of our students have special needs. Our students cross borders every day…Every time these young people change spaces, they must reconcile their identities and pasts with their presents and futures. We know that in order for our students to truly succeed academically, they must see mirrors of themselves in our curricula–art, poetry, and text–and validation of their identities in our classrooms.

…This project seeks to build a robust first unit across two schools in Boston that will provide students opportunities to explore the multitude of ways that activists develop their messages and make themselves seen and heard. Students will begin to understand how the personal is political while exploring multimedia resources, all the while developing visual thinking, close reading, questioning, flexible thinking, executive functioning, understanding of audience, and empathy skills that will serve them as they explore texts for the rest of the school year and the rest of their lives.

Our project proposes, at its culmination, to surface these crossings and to give students critical thinking tools, opportunities, and resources to grapple with the complexity of personal identity in multiple spaces. Through art, poetry, and text, students will have multiple ways to enter this conversation about identity, simultaneously seeing themselves–their ideas, their pasts, their futures–in literature, the school community, and each other.  At the end of this unit, students will create multiple responses to the question “How do we show other people the depth of our past and the strength of our future?” that leverage the knowledge collected during this project. They will write, draw, compose, and record their responses.  They will also design a mural that encapsulates the border crossing they do each day.

To gather resources and knowledge for this project, we propose to spend 22 days exploring “literary arts on the border” with a focus on mural creation, zooming in on the many Latino cultures from which our students are rooted. Our project will take us to California, Arizona, and New Mexico to examine murals and artwork that are products of, and in many case images of, immigrant experiences. Along the way, we aspire to interview artists and collect resources about the artists’ diverse creative processes. During the first two weeks of our project, we will visit San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, and Santa Fe, visiting murals and the artists/artist collectives from which they originated. We will also visit museums that capture different experiences of immigration, as well as centers of immigration in different cities.

The second part of our project will take place on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where a mural project was completed in 2014. We will spend a week in Haiti and the DR discovering everyday culture that will allow us to better understand both the artwork created on the bridge between the two countries and the identities of many of the students in our classrooms.

…Walls and borders often give people places to hide. We hope to use this project to reframe the divides that exist in our classrooms, school systems, and cities, so that students can see how sharing identity and stories creates rather than destroys.

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Above is a map of each of our stops, and below is an overview of our itinerary with some of the highlights from each stop. We’ll post in detail about each stop along the way.

Location/Dates Important Stops
San Francisco, CA

July 4th-7th

Precita Eyes Murals

Galeria de La Raza

67 Suenos

The Mexican Museum

Los Angeles, CA

July 7th-9

The Art of Indigenous Resistance Exhibit

Los Angeles Mural Mile

Los Angeles Immigration Center

San Diego, CA

July 9th-11th

Hands of Peace

Chicano Park (and this link, too!)

Galeria de la Raza

Tucson, AZ

July 11th-13th

Meeting with Dr. Curtis Acosta

Tucson Mural Arts Program

Santa Fe, NM

July 14th-16th

Indigenous Arts Festival

Art and Remembrance

Mexico City, MX

July 16th-23rd

Museum with Indigenous Ruins

Teotihuacan Ancient Ruins Day Trip

Toluca Day Trip (50 mins) Stained Glass Murals

Frida Kahlo Museum

Diego Rivera Museum

Puerto Plata, DR

July 23rd-30th

Border of Lights

 

Here’s to a summer of sunshine, new places, and teacher-driven learning,

Alice + Kat

Nerds Rule! Creating 8 Page ‘Zines with 5th Grade Students

As anyones who grew up in the 90’s knows, ‘zines (handmade mini-magazines) are the epitome of cool. And thanks to Boston Public Schools teacher Christine Beggan, an incredibly cool group of Gardner Pilot Academy nerds is digging the ‘zine genre.

I first caught wind of the 5th grade ‘zine project when checking my teacher mailbox. Along with the usual school mailings I routinely receive, there was something very unusual and surprising – photocopied fluorescent booklets with hand-written and hand-drawn pages. Even more thrilling, the books were about a sub-culture very near and dear to my heart – NERDS!

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While the three ‘zines I received all focusthe subject of nerds, the three youngsters that created them took different approaches.

In Cool Nerds in HistoryCaricaturist Eva M. profiles six different nerds
with a portrait of each as well of an explanation of why each subject qualifies as a nerd.

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Expert portrait artist Alex A. zeroes in on two Steves – Urkel and Jobs – in his brief work Cool Nerds. Alex informs the reader that Urkel is categorized as a “funny” nerd.

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And finally, researcher and historian Dorlie wrote Nerd Wars in History in chapters. She provides a detailed etymology of the word “nerd” as well as the transition of the “nerd” from an outcast figure to one who commands respect. Consider the following tidbits:

  • Excerpt from Chapter 1: The word “nerd” first appeared in 1950 in a Dr. Seuss book called “If I Ran the Zoo”. It was about a creature named Nertile “Nerd”.
  • From Chapter 2: People usually think about how some kids “become” nerds. Was it the way they were born or was it their development in society?
  • From Chapter 4: The percentages of approval on nerds were low until the early and mid 2000s. Now approval has reached 100% for the first time in nerd history.

The woman behind the nerd ‘zines, Ms. Beggan, could very well be considered a “nerd” herself due to her accomplishments in vinyl record collecting, filmmaking, and German language scholarship. When her 5th grade class chose”nerds” as their homeroom theme for School Spirit Week, Ms. Beggan dreamed up the nerd ‘zine project as a way for students to research and write about the nerd world, a topic not accessed often enough by children in urban schools.

“I wanted every student to realize that it’s cool to be obsessed with learning. That’s why it’s so important for the students to learn about the achievements of nerds – it’s another way to connect them with school,” explains Ms. Beggan, “My students love science, and they were able to learn more about computer geeks, inventors, and the power of problem solving. A ‘zine was non-intimidating, quick, and immediately accessible to all of my students.”

If you want to take on ‘zine-making for yourself or your classroom, here is a helpful article from one of my favorite online creativity magazines (written by and for teenagers of any age): Rookie!

Top left: Cool Teacher Nerd Ms. Beggan with nerd colleague Ms. Mustonen; Bottom left: A handful of cool nerds; Right: Alex A. and Eva M.

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).

Life Under a Dictatorship – UDL in Action

Over April Vacation, I taught English Language Arts to 7th grade students for four days at the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury as part of the Acceleration Academy program. The Acceleration Academy is an additional week of academic instruction and enrichment activities provided for students at selected schools

While I have taught in the Acceleration Academies for several years, in both Boston and Lawrence, this year was quite different in terms of curriculum. In the past, the Academies have focused on preparation for the MCAS exams, and each teacher planned his or her own sequence of instruction. This year, however, a group of teachers (including myself) participated in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) training provided by Goalbook and created a set curriculum for the academies based on pre-selected texts .

This UDL-based curriculum proved wildly successful for my 7th grader scholars. Every scholar, within the span of the four day program, completed a final project that expressed understanding of Life Under a Dictatorship. They garnered their knowledge of this topic from selections from Julia Alvarez’s YA novel Before We Were Free and non-fiction articles on the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. I particularly enjoyed teaching with the curriculum because it allowed for inclusive classes in which all students, including students who are in substantially separate special education and SEI classes, could complete a cognitively demanding independent project without any teacher hand-holding. The students’ pride in their work was evident as we did a gallery walk-final circle in which each student presented his or her project to the group. One student announced over and over,”This class is LIT!”, which he explained to me meant that it was an exciting experience.

Curriculum Planning Resources

Gr. 7 Before We Were Free Curriculum Resource Document

Gr. 7 Before We Were Free Final Project Lesson Plan

Final Project Gallery

Life Under a Dictatorship Podcast

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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

Daily Writing to Deepen Math Understanding

My ELD level 1 & 2  students took the Achievement Network “Assessment 3”(a benchmark test to collect data on their progress in specific math standards) on March 23. Though each grade level (I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders) showed significant growth from “Assessment 2,” and in many cases outperformed the group of schools to which our school is compared, there was still something nagging at me when I looked at the data. More than half were leaving the constructed response problems blank. ABSOLUTELY BLANK. Even with all of the modeling close reading and teaching how to write sentence starters based on questions, there were so many blanks. Scoring them was incredibly frustrating: 0, 0, 0, 0.  A realization came over me: we just aren’t doing enough writing. Having students write answers in complete sentences with their reasoning just isn’t enough. So, I started implementing daily writing in my classroom on Monday, March 28, 2016.

Day 1: Do Now: Write a letter to your little brother/sister/cousin explaining what mean is. What is it? How do you find it? Draw an example to help further explain your thinking.

10 hands shoot up in the air. “Missy, this is too hard!” “Y si yo no tengo hermanito o hermanita o prima?” “Ven aquí, missy, ayudame por favor.” “I don’t get it.” “What is the question?” “How do I answer?”

 

Day 2: Students are handed back yesterday’s writing with my written feedback. Sentence frames to support students who have trouble starting are written on the board to help support their language development.
Do Now:  When is the mean a precise indicator of a typical value in a data set? Create an example to explain your thinking further.

10 hands shoot up in the air. “Que significa indicator?” “I don’t get it!!” “Como empiezo?” “Es que yo no entiendo, missy.” “I don’t want to write, can I just tell you?” Individual conferences occur during the 12 minutes of independent writing time.


Day 4: Write Now: What does it mean when we say a number has a specific deviation from the mean?

5 hand shoot up in the air, and some students just call out (gotta keep working on that), “Close together!!” “Spread out!!!”

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Day 7: Task: Write a letter to Mr. Garcia about what we have been learning so far about statistics. Make sure you are using precise language, vocabulary and definitions, and you are telling him the purpose of what we are learning. Consider examples and models to support your explanations. Questions to consider include: Why do we use data? How can we use data to describe tendencies in our world? What is mean? What are the different ways we can find it? How do we describe data distributions? What is Mean Absolute Deviation?

“YOU WANT ME TO FILL ALL THESE LINES??!!” Silence. Writing.

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Day 10: Task:
Complex multi-step constructed response ANET task that synthesizes content understanding.

Silence. Writing. Productive Struggle.

Evidence I have collected on the impact of this writing includes: increased vocabulary retention, enhanced student capacity to speak academically, deeper summary  discussions, and it has also given some students who struggle with computation a chance to shine. By day 10, all students were able to access and compete the constructed response task that two weeks ago would have been left blank. Since we began, we have built up our independent writing stamina from 3 minutes before someone interrupts with  either a question or chatting, to more than 15 minutes of engaged math writers.

By reading their writing I am able to tease out the differences between students conceptual, procedural, or application understanding of the standard we are working on. But while my conferencing is more targeted and my feedback is more concrete, there have definitely been days where I have failed at implementation: either I don’t have time to give enough or even any feedback,  or my question isn’t quite as rich as it could be, or I get frustrated with students for talking during writing time and instead of redirecting them in a calm, collected, supporting manner I was just not the best teacher I could have been.

So this is all pretty great! Right? Well, I have a confession: This past week before break I haven’t been implementing the “Write Now” as much because of excuses: artifact deadlines, practice PARCC exams, the week before break. So, I decided to write this blog. To hold myself accountable. To make what I’m doing public. To make sure I keep up with what works even when it’s hard. To ask for help so that I can think of a way to make giving feedback sustainable because when I get home giving feedback to a stack of 47 Write Nows is pretty much the last thing I want to do. The truth is that implementing daily writing has made my students better statisticians, and it has made me a better teacher of statistics. Because I am the first math teacher my students have when they come to their new, scary, foreign home, it is imperative that I not only teach my students grade-level content, but also help mold them as better writers because I truly believe that being a better writer ultimately makes them better readers, speakers, thinkers, doers, and problem solvers.

Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston

We are two middle school ELA teachers who teach in different neighborhoods in the Boston Public Schools. Through our WritingIsThinking collaboration, we created an Independent Reading Pen Pals Program for our students. Beginning in October, students from each class write and address letters to students in the other class across the city several times throughout the year. At the end of the year, the two classes will come together and meet one another. The following is the first in a series of posts about our process of collaboration, the blooming relationships between PenPal writers between our classrooms, and our learnings. 

penpal letters

Post 1: The Preparation

Dear Kat,

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our conversation yesterday when we talked about creating an Independent Reading Pen Pals program between our classrooms. I’m imagining a new kind of authentic engagement from our students with their independent reading books. Plus, an authentic Pen Pal letter definitely beats a typical reading response that I’ve been using in my classroom the last few years. As we make this idea into reality, we should keep the goals we talked about at the center of our work.

The first goal we set was building a community of readers across our city. We can have our students suggest books to one another, and maybe they’ll read the same book at the same time and compare their opinions. The pen pal relationship could be so crucial to the way that students approach finding their books. Maybe we can even set the expectation that they’ll meet in person before the year is out. We also talked about authentic accountability for independent reading. Because students will be “real” with one another, we will have insights as to how our students are thinking about text  and that they will select challenging texts to impress their pals. They won’t only be doing the work to please us as their teachers, but to be able to have a conversation with a peer. Finally, we spoke about the individualized nature of letter writing, and how we want kids to value the letter because it is something that another person put time into that was created just for them. This will augment engagement and make for long, fluent letters by the end of the school year.

I can’t wait to kick this off! Talk soon.

Always,

Alice

 

Dear Alice,

I hope these lines find you well. I am ecstatic for my students to write to yours this week! I have been talking about our upcoming partnership with my students for the last four weeks, and now the time is finally here! To help us match pen pals, I thought it would be easiest to create an excel spreadsheet in Google drive. I have inputted all of my students and some information about them that would help us match pen pals. For each student I included some of their interests based on their “Meet the Author” pieces, the types of independent reading books they have been reading thus far this year, if they have an ELD or SPED code, and some other details about what they would bring to a pen pal relationship or what I would ideally like for them to get out of one.

I have been thinking a lot about the potential these partnerships have to lift many of my students, both in regards of engagement in reading, and friendship. Here are a few of the students I am most excited for:

  • Mitchell: A sweetie-pie. He is a big kid who loves the Celtics and spends all of lunch making free throws. He is a little lonely (social pragmatics challenges) and all of his realistic fiction stories this year center around kindness and accepting everyone. He works really hard and will be a very diligent writer. I think matching him with someone who can really affirm him will be powerful!
  • Daniela: Her disability and language needs are compounded which makes her writing very challenging to read. She does produce a lot of writing in volume though. She loves animals and wants to be a vet. I will provide her with appropriate scaffolding and read her letters with her before she sends them. I would pair her with someone who is either at a similar level or has some empathy. 🙂 She loves and is currently reading the graphic novel Drama.
  • Sergio: Loves football, has a very low self esteem with regard to writing, but is a strong writer. Pairing him with someone who will ask questions and push his writing would be awesome!!!

I have also been thinking about a few of my students who have been struggling to get into independent reading this year and whom I believe this partnership could engage. I think we should be prepared that the first few letters may not be book related at all, but may just get kids writing! They may just want to talk about social topics, but I think that’s ok, as building a sense of community is one of our objectives. I think we can teach into writing about reading comprehension once the engagement is there. One of my students is constantly on my mind when I think about a need for community, and for engagement in text:

  • Armondo: Our toughest Tier 3 kid this year. He needs a lot of love and someone to listen to him. Mom just had a baby. He has been reading the Simpsons comic books this year. He hates doing assigned tasks, but I think will respond well to someone who is focused on just him. 🙂 Would benefit from having a pen pal who models what letter writing should look like. He loves football and basketball.

Since our schedules are so packed and we aren’t able to meet face-to-face before I launch the letter writing in my classroom this week, I propose we use google docs to match pen pals. Why don’t you use your class roster to try and match students based on your knowledge of your students and what I have included in the google doc. If you need any clarification on any of the students, let me know!

Fondly,

Kat

 

Dear Kat,

That google doc was the perfect idea. I matched my students in column D of the spreadsheet and, if I thought there were things that you should know about that particular student, I noted them in column E (IEP needs, language information, etc). I’ve also been talking about this relationship for the last four weeks, so kids are itching to hear from your students.

Always,

Alice

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Screenshot of google doc used by teachers to match students based on interests, strengths, and needs.

Using Writing to Teach Self-Advocacy

When do students with special needs who have been supported in all aspects of their educational experiences become active participants, instead of passive bystanders? When do they transition into being self-advocates, instead of being the reason for teacher advocacy?   How does this transition happen, and how can writing help?  These questions were on the forefront of my mind as I launched an investigative journalism unit in our 8th grade writing class while also recalling the mantra of our special education team- “No decision about me without me.”  How do I teach both advocacy and grade level writing standards without forcing a connection or having students merely regurgitate my ideas?

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In an effort to address barriers with engagement for the writing unit, students were encouraged to investigate an issue that mattered to the community but also to them as individuals. Many students chose the Boston Public Schools high school selection process wherein an algorithm determines a child’s future.  Boston Public Schools holds an annual lottery wherein families rank their high school options and a computer generated program determines their high school assignment based on location, ranking, sibling school placement, ESL codes and Special Needs codes.  There are also schools that require an application process and/or an exam score for the opportunity to attend. The high school process in Boston is similar to applying to college in terms of selecting from various options and having different requirements for admission. In the case of students with IEP’s who receive educational support either in an inclusion setting or in a sub-separate classroom (80% of their school day), these students have less school options that go into the algorithm.

At the outset of the unit, I conferenced with students who were struggling to identify a relevant issue, and when meeting with one of my inclusion students, Andy, I mentioned the high school process and asked how he was feeling about it.  I explained that he would get fewer options and asked which options he hoped he had.  At the time, Boston Public Schools was not able to provide the inclusion seat options to students and families so the discussion was based solely on what we hoped we would see on his list of school choices even though non special education students were aware of all of their options.

This fact that he had less options and something different from his peers was life changing for Andy.  As a student with language based learning disabilities who uses English in school and Vietnamese at home to communicate, one could argue he spends a great deal of his day working on using his language skills for self-advocacy, especially since his expressive and receptive language skills are low in both his L1 and L2.  Language does not come easily to him.  He is often quiet and frequently relies on his peers for expressive language  and his teachers for receptive language.

When he learned of the inequity happening to him in regard to high school, he found his voice.  I was nervous to name the issue because I worried about his self-perception and wanted to protect him from the harshness of a system that, for the fourteen years of my teaching career, has continued to disappoint me when it comes to supporting transitions for students from 8th grade to 9th grade.  Was this more about my feelings than Andy’s? I had to name for myself that I was only giving him facts, and it was Andy who generated the real feelings that mattered the most.

Andy's Article

Andy surveyed his classmates to gauge their reactions to learning students with IEPs get a reduced number of high school options.   He interviewed his assistant principal in person and also  interviewed the head of the Boston Public Schools Guidance Department via e-mail.  Andy then participated in high school research—studying websites and visiting schools.  With teacher support, he created a multi-paragraph news article highlighting the inequity that exists within Boston Public Schools for students with specific special needs.  The fact that he produced multiple paragraphs that reflect grade level standards of including claim, evidence, and reasoning in his writing exceeded his IEP goals and highlighted his potential that had previously been unseen.   

However, perhaps the biggest transformation that occurred is that for the first time in Andy’s life, he exercised his power through language and independently completed the application to his most desired high school.  He had to complete a paper application that included family input, to request his transcripts and to generate an essay explaining the characteristics of a good school and a good student as well as detailing why he wanted to attend this specific school.  It was the first time Andy was independent with a task involving multiple steps.  He found his voice, and it was one of power.

I didn’t have to speak for him. He was able to speak for himself. Through discussing, thinking and writing, he was able to exercise his independence for the first time. I realize I don’t need to be advocating for him, I need to be advocating with him.  How do I increase student voice and advocacy from those who need it most?  This is the question I will continue to ask my students so that together we can be agents of change for a transition process in Boston Public Schools that is in desperate need of updates.

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Andy reads his news article draft out loud with pride so he can receive feedback from his grandfather at the GPA Writing Celebration on December 16, 2015. 

 

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.