Fostering Book Discussions
"You have to have high expectations for students, no matter how well they speak English or how low their reading level is. They will work. I let them know exactly what I expect from them. I acknowledge that it's hard, and that I believe that they can do it."
Maria Ruiz-Blanco teaches third grade at the Belmont-Craigin School in an urban neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, home to a predominantly Latino population. The Belmont-Craigin School reflects the surrounding demographics, with 97 percent Latino students and a minority of African and Caucasian students. Most of Mrs. Ruiz-Blanco's 28 students are recent immigrants and English language learners. Mrs. Ruiz-Blanco speaks both Spanish and English, as do most of her students. She makes an effort to visit her students and parents at home, getting to know them and developing relationships.
The featured lesson is part of a yearlong unit on immigration called Cultures in Contact and Conflict. Mrs. Ruiz-Blanco begins the year with Native Americans and Europeans, then explores Jewish immigration, Ellis Island, the social context and consequences, the internal migration of African Americans from the South to the North, and the late migration from Latin America. Book group discussions, which take place two to three times each week, always feature books tied to immigration. Mrs. Ruiz-Blanco models questioning as a strategy to engage students and to teach them how to generate discussions in small groups. She leads a separate lesson on asking questions, referring to thoughtful questions that promote analysis as "thick" questions, and more general recall questions as "thin" questions.
In this lesson, the students were introduced to the book My Name Is Maria Isabel by Alma Flor Ada. This mini-lesson segued into a book group discussion. Mrs. Ruiz-Blanco intentionally chose a book about Latino immigration not only because it was part of the larger unit, but also because she knew that many of her students would be able to relate to the story. Another activity in this unit entails interviewing parents, grandparents, or friends about their immigration experience. Students ask what the economic and political reasons were for the move, and what the trip was like. With this activity, Mrs. Ruiz-Blanco encourages parent involvement, as students and parents read together, and emphasizes the value of telling their story of coming to America.
There is a range of reading levels among her students, and so Mrs. Ruiz-Blanco makes sure that when a book is challenging to some of her students, the topic is relevant and interesting to them. Although some students struggle to read and speak English, their interest in the reading topic gives them added incentive to participate. Mrs. Ruiz-Blanco encourages students to work together, with stronger students helping struggling students.