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. 

 

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.

Building Vocabulary: Using Project-Based Learning to Understand Organelles and Their Functions

Introducing students to the invisible world of microscopic life has always been one of my favorite scientific investigations. Students broaden their understanding of the surrounding world by examining tangible evidence of scientific concepts that cannot be proven with standard empirical observation. For example, students are taught that all plants are made up of multiple cells, but this concept is not made real until they see the layers of green bricks that construct a small portion of a leaf they found outside. The deeper they look, the broader the scope of science becomes, and with that depth comes an array of new terms and concepts that must be acquired. In this investigation, students had to stretch their understanding beyond the magnification of the microscope, and demonstrate knowledge of new invisible structures that made up cells: organelles.

As I began to develop my lesson plans, I found myself staring into the unknown as my curricula no longer served as a map to our final destination. According to the Massachusetts science standards, students must learn to identify the structure and function of organelles in a cell, but the district-provided curricula does not offer a way for students to meet this standard. In order to prepare my lessons, I needed to independently research the content and create instructional materials for this

This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like
This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like “cell” are challenging for many ELLs, and I was proud to see the spontaneous use of creativity and humor to display a complex concept.

portion of the unit. Students not only had to master novel scientific language, but they needed to use this language to describe how organelles interact to create the smallest unit of life. I knew that students needed a creative approach to mastering these novel terms, one that would help them demonstrate their mastery both using oral and written language. After conducting research and consulting colleagues, I decided that the best way to accomplish this task would be to have the students work on a project in which they either would build a cell model or create a poster that demonstrates how organelles are analogous to other systems.

This project-based learning approach proved to be an engaging strategy that allowed students to actively synthesize information, rather than just practice rote memorization of cell parts. At the center of this project was a two-fold writing process. As students constructed their project, I asked them to to write about the function of each organelle in order to learn about the cell. Later, I required that they demonstrate their knowledge by completing a writing assignment that asked high order thinking questions around organelles in plant and animal cells. This powerful process gave me insight into my students’ learning and helped me to better understand the ways in which I can support the English Language Learners and Students with Special Needs in the classroom.

The Project

I was nervous during the onset of this project, as I had never attempted an artistic, open ended assignment like this in my class. My supplies were limited, and it required a great deal of imagination and effort from each student to complete construction of cell model. Students needed to bring in materials from home to complete the task and had to rely on their own understanding of cell structure to complete the project.  I was afraid that, while students were able to construct a model or build a poster, they would get caught up in the creative process and not internalize the names and functions of the cell. These fears subsided soon after the project began.

Early in the lesson planning process, I realized that the key to a successful project would be in providing a clear objective. I developed a rubric that ensured all students were able to write about specific organelles and allowed students to either focus on a model of a cell, or create a poster that served as an analogy of the functions of the organelles. This level of choice provided an opportunity for students to select their own accommodations, and this freedom ultimately resulted in a higher level of engagement. In fact, some students decided to go beyond the assignment and merged the two projects by constructing cell analogies in a model form.

In the end, four types of projects emerged:

The Cell Analogy Model

A small group of students had their heart set on building a model, but wanted to go beyond constructing a replica of a cell. This resulted in these students creating PhotoGrid_1432689212260their own “Hybrid Project” in which they took elements from the Cell Analogy poster, and combined it with the 3-D model aspects of the cell model project. Two groups built a Cell City, where different city structures represent parts of the cell, while another student worked independently to show how a cell is like a family inside their home. In all cases the students that took on this ambitious project were my top performing students, and they had no problem demonstrating they had mastered the material, orally and in written form.

Cell Analogy Poster

Not very many students chose to create a cell poster, but those who did gained and in-depth understanding of the cell functions. Students that had a better understanding of different organelles gravitated to this project, and the results were impressive. Students were able to personalize the project and allowed for a different type of creativity than building a 3D model. In one particular project, a group of English Language Learners was able to match the attributes of their favorite futbol players to organelles in the cell. I knew nothing about these different players, and they took pride in being able to teach me about the player’s strengths and relating all their knowledge back to how organelles function in a cell. My favorite analogy was their comparison of mitochondria to Eden Hazard who serves as the “power house” of the team.PhotoGrid_1432688608468

Poster AD

When asked what they meant by “power house” they said that he gave his teammates energy on the field, just like mitochondria in a cell. Overall these students did an excellent job of orally explaining the cell functions, and the formative written assignments were thorough. The summative assessment showed that 4 out of 5 of the students who completed this project demonstrated knowledge of organelle functions, while all of the students could write about the differences between plant and animal cell organelles.

Cell Model

A vast majority of students decided to build a 3D model of a cell out of household items and recycled trash. Working in pairs forced students to use the technical language as they discussed the materials they would use to build each part. One of the most inspiring moments was listening to a group of intermediate ELL students debate over what should be used to construct a vacuole in their plant cell. They ultimately decided on a water bottle as it was the right size and actually held water as it would in the cell. Overall, students scored very well on the oral assessment PhotoGrid_1432776640536(with the exception of the only homogenous ELL group), as well as the formative written assessment. In the oral assessment, I found that the majority of students were able to correctly identify and pronounce the names of various organelles, and explain their function in the cell. This process was done without the aid of any written content. The homogenous ELL group however, struggled with recalling the names of the different organelles hindering their ability to correctly identify the organelle functions. During the formative writing assignment, every student was able to create an explanation of each organelle function and match that function to the proper organelle.

Pre-made Cell Cut Out

The fourth type of project was one that had all the organelles of a plant cell and an animal cell already prepared with labels and explanations. The students had to cutPhotoGrid_1432776322030 out the organelles, place them in the correct cell, and explain their function to me in the oral assessment. This project was created to help two of my students with more intensive special needs overcome the executive functioning demand that is associated with managing a vast array of materials. This simple accommodation proved to be valuable, and allowed those students to work independently on accomplishing the same objective as the rest of the class.

Conclusion

Planning this assignment was not easy, but after the initial heavy lift, I found it to be worthwhile. The writing component that accompanied the project demonstrated student understanding of each organelle and their function, and the oral component offered deeper insight into aspects of the assignment that challenged students.

One week after the project was complete I gave a written assessment in which the students had to identify the function of different organelles and write about 3 differences between an animal and a plant cell. While grading this test, I immediately identify a crucial mistake in planning the project: I did not provide a pre-test by which I could accurately measure growth.

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This is a writing sample from one of my top performing general education students. This student decided to construct a 3-D cell model.
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This is a sample from a English Language Learner who is also on an Individual Education Plan. While he did not score high on the oral portion of the exam, he did very well with recalling vocabulary and key differences between plant and animal cells.

While I was pleased with how well the class did overall, I could still see a gap between my ELLs and other students. A pretest however would help put this gap into perspective, as I would be able assess the gains of each individual student after the project was completed. It would be naive of me to believe that one project-based learning assignment would erase the gap, but this experience has shown me the value of project-based learning.

These few days were filled with qualitative and quantitative data that amounted to tangle learning in my classroom. The hours of engagement, the rich level of content-based discussion, and the higher order thinking exhibited during this project serve as strong evidence that combination of writing techniques and project-based assignments will result in measurable learning for all students.

Below you can find the Rubrics used in this Project:

Cell Anology Poster Rubric

Cell Model Rubric