Big Unanswered Questions

Now that we have discussed how designated and integrated EL work in tandem and watched strategies for the integrated classroom (small groups, project-based learning, visuals, gesturing, closed-captions on for all video clips, allowing students to access materials in their own languages) here are some of the big, huge, gargantuan questions that we all still have.  

  1. How do I even start to become an integrated classroom?
  2. How do we grade our students…especially the EL students?
  3. What about homework? How do I make homework equitable?
  4. How can I incorporate more project-based learning?
  5. How do I make sure the EL students feel welcome and then actually participate in the class without fear?

In reviewing the PD exit cards and in talking with teachers after last week’s PD, these questions kept coming up. These are all questions I have myself and, to be honest, I have little to no real answers.  We are all navigating these new waters together and will need to have department and whole-staff conversations to address these issues, to explore new approaches, and to come up with solutions.  I do not see this as overwhelming or even burdening. This is an exciting time to be teaching and I am happy to be part of a new direction that will provide equity in our classrooms and prompt us to rethink how we deliver content. So here it goes: The “big questions” to which I have (little to) no answers… (yet!)

Big Question:  How do I even start to become an integrated classroom?

Okay, so for this questions I may have *some* answers.  First, start with becoming acquainted with your students.  Who are they? Where do they come from? What languages do they speak?  What are their interests? This can be accomplished quickly on a Google Form and then you can begin to engage in conversations to learn more.  Next, language objectives are going to become key in planning your lessons. What is a language objective? Glad you asked! We will be training teachers on language objectives next. In the meantime, you can learn more here.  Finally, try one new strategy a week or a day if you are ambitious. Start with building in ways and protocols to help students engage in meaningful conversations.  Here is a protocol I have done in my class to help students with peer feedback on their research project ideas.  The protocol can be adapted to help students talk about any concept. Have students talk about a novel, the chapter of textbook, a movie clip, a piece of art, steps to solving a problem, predictions for a lab, results from a lab…anything! See me if you would like more information.

Big Question:  How do we grade our students, especially the El students?

Grading is such a hot topic right now.  Some schools have opted for standards-based grading.  Points for participation, for turning in homework, etc. have no place in this type of grading system.  Did you know? Placerita has actually moved to a standards-based grading system! Want to learn more?  Check out these free webinars.  Grading on growth is another hot topic being discussed.  Students come in at all skill levels and with different academic experiences. Grading based on growth provides more equity in grading.  I like the idea of offering a great deal of (ungraded) feedback before then having a student demonstrate mastery of skill and providing an equivalent grade.   Here is one teacher’s take on going gradeless.

Big Question:  What about homework? How do I make homework equitable?

I hear it all the time… El students just won’t turn in assignments.  First, we must discuss why they may not be turning in homework. Are they able to do their homework on their own?  Do they have anyone to turn to for help at home? What do our EL students have to do after school? And let’s remember that mainstream and even AP kids do not turn in homework.

So are the questions we all need to ask ourselves are:  

  • What is the purpose of this particular homework assignment?
  • Is the homework necessary for ALL students?
  • Is this homework something kids can simply copy from one another? (They do it all the time! From EL to AP, my students copy fill-in-the-blank worksheets and even short answer worksheets from all content areas.  Using their phones, they snap pics and then forward the responses.). How can we design homework to combat this?
  • If a student has mastered the skill needed to complete the homework, does he really need to do the extra practice?  
  • If a student needs the extra help but is unable to complete the homework at home without help, should we penalize him for it?  
  • Is the homework equitable?  
  • Are we grading students on their mastery of skills and standards or on their organizational skills and on the access to materials and resources they have at home?  
  • What constitutes meaningful homework?

Okay those were a lot of HARD questions about homework.  Like I said, I don’t have all the answers.  Here is a little secret, though.  I don’t assign all that much homework.  Homework in my class might be to finish something we have started in class (boy, would I love block schedule!)…to read (after we have read a model text together and practiced the reading skills for my content)…to work on research or to write.  My students do not have homework every single night and I assign everything about a week in advance. I do this so they can then learn how to manage their own workloads (much like college!). For EL students I make homework something I think they can achieve on their own without help. If they don’t finish we talk about why and they are given time to complete the work. Usually they don’t finish because they simply were confused. I also never give them more than about 5 words to study in a week…long vocab lists to memorize mean nothing without context and without discussion.  Most often they choose their own words to study.  Want to know what students at Hart High have to say about the “homework ban debate” that has been discussed of late? Check out this Padlet discussion board where they weighed in on the topic. 

Big Question:  How do I incorporate more project-based learning?

Project-based learning… this is the future.  I hear about schools involved in PBL at every conference I attend.  On Twitter chats I learn about the project-based assignments other teachers have done.  I know that PBL is important to prepare students for 21st century learning. So why aren’t we doing more of it?  Fear would be my guess. We were not taught in this manner. Of course something that completely changes the dynamic of the classroom and seems to give more power over to students seems scary.  However, after the video we watched last week that had a heavy-focus on project-based learning, I talked to many who want to know more. So PD on PBL coming soon!

Big Question:  How do I make sure EL students feel welcome and then actually participate in class without fear?

We will not be able to move forward with true integration if ELs do not feel that they are in a safe learning environment.  In my PD session on Wednesday we talked about how the importance of the classroom culture.  The culture on our campus within our student body is equally important.  We have had instances when students in a mainstream class refuse to work with EL students or just won’t even speak to them in a class. Imagine how isolating that must feel!  So how can we mindfully group ELs?  How can we make sure our English-speaking population welcomes students and engages with them? How can our seating arrangements encourage more peer-to-peer collaboration? When we call on students, we need to be mindful of our EL students.  Never call out an EL student in front of the whole class without giving him/her an opportunity to engage in a discussion with other peers beforehand. How can we construct collaboration to be meaningful and follow certain protocols so every student has an opportunity to both speak and listen?(Speaking of…take a look at this Constructive Conversations Placemat…there are more of these for specific content areas!) These are all hard questions about classroom culture that we, as a faculty, will need to tackle together.  

So there you have it… the big questions to which I had little to no answers. Here is an interesting statistic: The percentage of Californians who speak a language other than English at home is almost 45%, and in California schools, nearly 1 in 4 students is learning English.  And, of course, here at Hart have the highest numbers of EL students in our district.  We all care about our students. We all want to move them forward and have them graduate with the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in the 21st century. We have big questions…now let us begin to discuss these with our colleagues to work on solutions that will revolutionize our classrooms and our teaching.  We have the power make a positive change and make a difference for all students at Hart High.

Want to discuss some of these big questions?  I would love to talk shop with you! Reach out any time.  After all, we are all in this together.



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