The Deathless Power of Teachers

“In her classroom our speculations ranged the world. She breathed curiosity into us so that each day we came with new questions, new ideas, cupped and shielded in our hands like captured fireflies. When she left us, we were sad; but the light did not go out. She had written her indelible signature on our minds. I have had lots of teachers who taught me soon forgotten things; but only a few who created in me a new energy, a new direction. I suppose I am the unwritten manuscript of such a person. What deathless power lies in the hands of such a teacher!”

                                                            —John Steinbeck, recalling his favorite teacher

Wow.  I don’t know about you, but reading Steinbeck’s description of his favorite teacher makes me want to become a better teacher.  I wonder what my current students would write about me?  Would the description carry the same zest, the same passion?  Perhaps it is only after reflection and more experience that a student can reach this level of nostalgia for a teacher in his past. Perhaps not?  We can always strive to be our best teacher self, as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  But are we always better teachers for all of our students?  Who are we teaching to each day?  Do we consider every student in the room?  I am guilty of sometimes falling into the attitude of, “Well, the students should already learned this before they come to my class so if they haven’t learned it already, too bad.”

I have to stop myself and take a look around.

All of my students have different experiences, levels of interest, and skills.  I cannot hold a student responsible for what I think he/she SHOULD already know.  Yet, this is often what we do with the English Language Learners in our classrooms.  We feel that they should know more, be able to write without any grammatical errors, be able to read aloud confidently, and be able to speak fluently in front of an audience of their peers without hesitation. We argue they have to do exactly what the other students are doing or else they cannot pass or earn a high grade.

Instead of becoming that inspirational teacher Steinbeck recounts, we become a teacher our El students fear.

This issue is complex and I am not going to pretend to understand how to solve all of the problems that a mainstream teacher faces when teaching EL students. However, I will always try to be a light in the lives of all of my students. Certainly, I don’t ever want to be the cause of dimming their light.

Last week at Professional Development we learned about changes to the way in which English Language Learners will be assessed for reclassification.  What are the implications for our own teaching?  As Christine pointed out, the texts and audio the students will encounter will be drawn from all content areas.  For example, the activity my partner and I analyzed included a picture of a basketball game.  A students would need knowledge of this sport from his physical education class and would need to be able to recall the specific vocabulary associated with the sport. We heard audio of a science example and learned about the history biography the students would read.  Obviously, all teachers from all content areas must address the needs of English Language Learners. As Christine said at our PD, the teaching practices that will accommodate the needs of these students are good for ALL students.  

Read the following excerpt from an NGSS Case Study:

In addition to the focus on disciplinary core ideas, these standards emphasize scientific and engineering practices. Many of these practices are language intensive, and so the standards cannot be achieved unless students and teachers recognize and address the increased language demands and opportunities. This is especially true for the millions of English Language Learners (ELLs) in the nation’s schools…The research literature indicates five areas where teachers can support both science and language learning for English language learners: (1) literacy strategies for all students, (2) language support strategies with ELLs, (3) discourse strategies with ELLs, (4) home language support, and (5) home culture connections.

This excerpt comes from the new Social Science Framework:

A Literate Discipline Instruction in history–social science poses cognitive and content area challenges because it is a literacy-dependent discipline; its thinking is constructed in language. Students are better prepared to understand historical texts when they learn how to decipher the grammatical and methodological choices made by historians (Schleppegrell and Achugar 2003; Schleppegrell, Achugar, and Oteíza 2004). Students must receive explicit instruction on how to break text apart to gather further meaning, grapple with difficult discipline-specific vocabulary, and deal with how history is often written, reconstructed, and presented. Teachers use Part II of the CA ELD Standards as a guide for showing ELs how different text types are organized and structured (e.g., how a story is structured or where in an argument evidence is presented) or how language is used purposefully to make meaning (e.g., how sentences are combined to show relationships between ideas). For example, a history teacher identifies a particular sentence in the textbook that is challenging for students but critical for understanding the topic. The teacher leads a discussion in which the class unpacks a dense sentence for its meaning by using more everyday language.

As you can see, there are structures built in to the new standards that will help teachers address the needs of EL students and will also be good for every student in the room.  The prospect of teaching EL students of all levels in mainstream classes encourages us to see our teaching in a new way. However, before we learn new strategies and change our teaching practices, we must first harness the power of introspection.  Ask yourself: Am I a teacher for ALL students? Am I that vivacious, dynamic teacher who seeks to inspire each and every student in the room?  I know that I want to be the teacher Steinbeck depicts for all learners regardless of race, gender, and ability.  And I am sure you do, too.  But perhaps you are not completely on board with the idea of teaching EL students in your classrooms and you are not sure why?  I am going to propose you ask yourself some challenging questions now. Take some time to reflect.  Really examine how your perceptions might be shaping the way you see certain students and the way you teach them.  I suggest writing about these and discussing them with a colleague you trust.  This may be uncomfortable, but it is certainly necessary if we are to grow and to embrace English Language Learners of all levels in our classrooms.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Do I seek to address the needs of ALL learners in my classroom?
  • Do I provide grade level and age appropriate tasks to ALL of my students?
  • Do I consider English development to be my responsibility as a teacher? (This is a hard one…but think it through carefully. Really, is there another alternative?)
  • Do I consider prior knowledge, educational experiences, and academic needs of ALL of my students when planning and teaching my students?  Or do I take a one-size-fits-all approach?
  • Do I grade on individual growth or on a single benchmark that all must reach?
  • Do I understand who my EL students are?
  • Do I know their stories?  Have I considered their points of view?

Remember your “deathless power.” Your influence carries on long after these students leave your classrooms. Make sure they look back at the time they spent with you and feel nostalgic, relive your passion, recall your inspiration. Make sure they felt you were teaching to them. All of them.

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