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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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