Melrose Elementary School
Talk about your school's bilingual program.
My school has a transitional bilingual program. In the primary grades, the kids focus on Spanish language arts: learning how to read and write and also do math and other academic subjects in their native language, and building those academic language and literacy skills in Spanish first. At the same time, they also work on oral English. Then as kids move up in the grades, they transition into doing more and more of their work in English. The goal is that in the primary grades, the kids will have built a strong language and literacy foundation in Spanish and be able to build on that as they transition into English.
I think teaching in a bilingual program is really important for a lot of different reasons. One reason is just the social aspect of being in a school, being in a classroom where people speak your language. I think that was something the kids really picked up in the literature, what it felt like for immigrants to come to a school where their native language was not seen as appropriate to use in class, where the teacher did not speak that language, where they felt really kind of isolated and couldn't communicate. This bilingual program enables students to be able to really feel present and comfortable in the school and the classroom community.
Academically, I think they gain a lot from being able to do harder reading and writing and cognitive activities in their native language, activities which some of them just don't have the language skills yet to do in English. At other times of the day we're working on those English-language abilities, but this is a place where they can really do the kinds of work that 10- and 11-year-olds do in their native language. I think it's really valuable for them to have that strong foundation in Spanish, because so many of those academic skills and academic language and literacy abilities are transferable between the two languages.
Even though in fourth and fifth grade most of my kids have transitioned into English language arts, I still think it's really important for them to build those language and literacy skills in Spanish because if they stop doing Spanish literacy in third grade, it's really not such a developed state of literacy. So that's why I continue to do some literature work with them in Spanish and some writing and social studies work with them in Spanish.
Why did you choose to teach immigration stories?
All of my students either are immigrants or their parents are immigrants, and using this literature enables them to do pretty high-level discussion and thinking because it's about something really relevant and accessible to them. They can draw on their own experience and their family's experience instead of reading about something that is disconnected from their own reality, and it helps them understand literature that otherwise would be more challenging for them. It's also a way for them to bring what their families know into the classroom and to feel like that's valuable information.
I also wanted to choose literature that pushed them beyond their own experience. As immigrants, almost all of my students come from Mexico, so I also wanted to choose some pieces that include people from other Latin American countries, people from Asia, people from Eastern Europe. Part of my job as a teacher is not only to build on what my students bring to the classroom and teach them in a way that's relevant to their own experience, but also to expose them to things outside of their reality, outside of their community. So I try to use literature to show them other experiences that they may not have access to in this classroom or in the community.
Talk about having parents involved in the lesson.
This lesson is one of the times I've connected my work in the classroom to families and really been able to bring what families know into the work in the classroom. So much of the work that the kids did required them to go home and interview family members at a couple of different stages. So their parents always knew what we were studying, and in conferences the parents could talk about the work the kids were doing, about the kinds of conversations they've had at home. One mom told me she was really impressed with the kinds of higher-level thinking that her son was doing, and she was really surprised that her kid was able to do that kind of thinking.
I think it's really valuable for the kids to talk with their parents about what they're studying in school. I think that the parents have a lot of opinions about these ideas, about immigration, because they've experienced a lot of problems that we are researching. And so by sharing these experiences, the parents can add to the children's thinking and push the children's thinking a little bit about the issue. This is really a place where the parents are resources and have a lot of information that they can give their kids.
How does this unit fulfill language arts standards?
This unit has gotten into a lot of strategies of reading comprehension. We've practiced using strategies like context clues or word knowledge to figure out the meaning of unknown words in the texts. We've also been working on making connections to texts from our own lives and also making connections between texts, comparing and contrasting.
We've worked on other strategies, like visualizing when we read and asking questions about texts and then inferencing: to be able to read beyond the literal that's happening in the book and use imagination and background knowledge to infer about characters' intentions, their feelings, why they do certain things, and what will happen in the story.
In terms of writing, we've been doing multi-paragraph report writing. The students interviewed a family member who is an immigrant, or wrote about themselves, and wrote a five-paragraph report about it, with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. We're doing persuasive writing, and to get ready for their persuasive writing, the students have been doing research on the problem they're studying and possible solutions.
In terms of English-language development standards, before writing their persuasive letters, the students worked together to articulate their ideas orally. The debate was a way for kids to rehearse for the writing, to practice making an argument. This stage in the writing process is important because my students are all English-language learners.
I think one thing I've learned teaching the past few years is how important content is for kids engaging in any kind of learning. One thing that was really valuable about this lesson was that I was able to combine the skills and the academic abilities that kids need to be able to learn in fourth and fifth grade with real, meaningful content that was important to them and important to their families. With that combination, the kids were really able to do much better because they cared about what they were doing. It was something which drew on their knowledge and their families' knowledge. I think because of that connection, the piece of work that they were able to do was so much stronger than it would have been otherwise.
Talk about the role of activism in this lesson.
This whole project is a way for kids to see writing as a form of social activism. Sometimes writing isn't meaningful to kids because there's no audience besides the teacher or they don't care about what they're writing about. This lesson was one way for them to see that by writing, they can communicate their experiences and opinions for real purposes. If they're doing it around something that is really meaningful to them and relevant to their experience, they'll create better writing than if they were writing persuasive pieces about something disconnected from them.
It's also more motivating for kids to write when they see that there's a real audience for their writing, and I think it will be valuable for the kids to feel like their voices are heard if they can get responses from the people that they wrote to. It'll be a really affirming process for them.
Beyond writing the letters, the whole process really got the kids outside of the classroom, because they went home at a couple of different times in the unit and talked to their family members about these issues. I think that conversation between children and their families is really a form of activism and developing an awareness of their role in the world, of the problems that they face in the world, and of their successes and achievements and struggles.
All of that is developing students' activism and developing their ability to articulate an opinion. When you have that kind of adult conversation with your mom or your dad, you're hearing how an adult articulates their opinion and you're learning how to do that yourself. That's an important part of your personal development and an important way of learning how to be an activist.
Would you teach this lesson to students in a different community?
I think this lesson would be really useful and really different in a different kind of community. If I did not have immigrant students, I would probably highlight the literature even more because the literature is a way for kids this age to connect with those experiences and to really empathize and get into the mindset, get into the experiences of the character. I think that would be really valuable for students who are not immigrants because I think that that kind of work is really important for all of us to do in this country, for everybody to consider other people's experiences and push their thinking and their political views further.
How did you prepare your students for this unit?
I do a lot of modeling of the kinds of strategies I hope students will engage in when they read. I explicitly teach a reading strategy by modeling and engaging in it with the class during a read-aloud. Then, in small reading groups, we also practice these strategies collaboratively with text at the students' instructional level. Similarly, when I teach writing I model each step of the way, writing an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion, and then revising and editing my writing.
A really important piece to this unit was activating kids' preexisting knowledge about immigration so they could use it to engage in the reading, speaking, and writing activities. We spent one whole lesson just brainstorming with partners and then sharing what we already knew about immigration and asking any questions we had. Then we took our knowledge and questions and grouped them into different topics related to immigration.
How did you assess your students' work throughout the unit?
Students engaged in activities with their groups after or while reading the literature, activities to clarify unknown words, story maps, etc. I used those to assess their comprehension, as well as my observations of them working together to do those activities.
I have students assess and revise their own writing with checklists to hold them accountable for using aspects of the genre we are writing (i.e., a thesis statement) or language forms (i.e., dependent clauses) that I have taught. Then I read their writing and conference with students based on my assessment of their needs.