Editors note: At Ellevation, we take pride in sharing insights from exceptional practitioners across the country about promising instructional models from the field. Here’s an article from Marysa Sheren, a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Ellevation’s Instructional Strategies Intern. Formerly, she served as a classroom teacher and literacy coach in Miami, FL.
It was 3:05pm on a Fall afternoon when I heard my name over the PA system. I was teaching 8th grade Language Arts in Miami, Florida. Unsure why I was summoned, I felt clammy and apprehensive as I traveled the familiar route to our main office wondering what this could be about.
When I reached the office, our school guidance counselor was there waiting.
“How is Cristian Ramos doing in your class?”, she inquired with a hint of accusation. “He has been crying in my office about 7th period Language Arts. He says he feels overwhelmed and intimidated in your class.”
I was stunned. Cristian’s performance in class was subpar, but I assumed it was a motivation issue. I had no idea that staying afloat was a stressful effort for him.
She continued, “Cristian is in our ELL program, and this is his first year in an ELA class taught by a mainstream teacher. What are you doing to meet his needs?”
Fast-forward one year. I had just begun working as a literacy coach in a large high school and placed in charge of leading the first-year implementation of the Common Core State Standards for literacy, which coincided with Florida’s adoption of WIDA. With nearly 1,000 students in our ELL program and a 40% reading proficiency rate school-wide, the CCSS and WIDA implementation required a team effort across the content areas. My first day on the job, I met with a 9th grade World History teacher to plan upcoming support.
“How can I teach history to students who don’t speak English?” he challenged. “We have to get them to pass the EOC, but they don’t even understand me. They have to learn the language first.”
Where Common Core Meets WIDA
The era of testing and accountability has placed unprecedented pressure on teachers and students to reach ambitious learning goals. As educators align instruction to national standards designed to increase academic rigor and prepare students for the 21st century, we sometimes feel pulled in opposite directions. In Florida, the same year we were being asked to meet the unique needs of language learners through the implementation of WIDA, we were also being asked to push students to new heights of analysis and evaluation across the content areas, to read Shakespeare in English and tackle complex word problems in math. Many teachers doubted that our language learners could benefit from being in Common Core-aligned instruction before mastering the fundamentals of the English language. Others were unsure what to prioritize in inclusive classrooms: language acquisition or content standards.
Here’s what we learned in Florida: It’s not only possible but optimal to do both. All language learners have special learning needs. Some students, like Cristian, will fly under the radar as they seem to follow along and blend in with the pack. Others, like the newcomers struggling to comprehend their Social Studies instructor, may be easier to identify because they require robust supports. In either case, WIDA helps us to be cognizant of each learner’s current skills and needs so that they can access academic material. It asks us to be mindful of the key difference between their unsupported abilities and supported capabilities, so that we can employ tried-and-true strategies to make content comprehensible. Teaching WIDA and the CCSS at once is both a science and an art, but the two aims are complementary, not contradictory.
I was fresh out of the classroom this summer when I joined Ellevation’s effort to help content-area teachers make their curriculum reachable for ELLs. Since then, we’ve been focused on designing Instructional Strategies and creating research-based activities that maximize learning for ELLs. We know that the demands on educators are immense, and we want to free teachers to spend more time on their students and less time at their desks puzzling over their plans. Our work on Instructional Strategies is powered by the belief that best teaching practices have a game-changing effect on language learners like Cristian and millions others like him who rely on us to make success possible.
Curious about how to start scaffolding to support students’ capabilities? Download this free Scaffolding for ELLs menu, which can be a handy tool when lesson planning.
Note: All names have been changed.