A Testing Ground

By Debra Viadero — April 21, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: The number of students enrolled at Starlight Elementary School in Watsonville, Calif. was incorrectly stated. The correct number is 680.

The school, Starlight Elementary, is a testing ground for researchers from CREDE.

Don’t be fooled by the lime-green pants or the glitter gel that glints off Chloe Gonzales’ cheeks. This 9-year-old can talk the talk of academics.

Ask Chloe how she likes school, and the 3rd grader goes on about how Venn diagrams and graphic organizers have really helped her writing. “And I’m learning about more ways to solve different problems in math,” she adds, before returning to her tangram puzzle.

Chances are that Chloe’s academic lingo grows out of her experiences here at Starlight Elementary School. The school, a predominantly Hispanic, K-5 school nestled in a hilly agricultural valley between Salinas and Santa Cruz, is a testing ground for researchers from the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, & Excellence, known as CREDE.

For a center whose work specializes in devising ways to meet the needs of the growing numbers of students nationwide who come from nonmainstream cultural and ethnic backgrounds, the school has been an apt choice. Of the 68 children enrolled, a majority are learning English. More than three-quarters come from families poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized school meals. And many of those families work in the orchards and vineyards that stud the valley, in the flower and berry fields surrounding Watsonville, or in hotels and restaurants in nearby Santa Cruz, educators here say.

Student Mobility

When agricultural jobs grow scarce in winter, nearly half the children leave school for weeks at a time while their families search for jobs or return to Mexico, where they can live less expensively.

The federal research center, which is based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has spent its time here testing five standards that CREDE researchers believe distinguish effective instruction for students from culturally diverse backgrounds. The standards call for dialogues between teachers and students, for adults and students to engage jointly in productive activities, and for students to grapple with challenging concepts, among other characteristics.

Not all teachers here rely on the standards, but Chloe’s teacher, Carol Murphy, does. Chloe probably picked up her language arts terminology through a teaching technique that center researchers call “instructional conversations.” Those conversations are dialogues between teachers and students that usually take place around a collaborative activity, such as producing a conceptual understanding or a product.

The center’s researchers say it’s particularly important to steep students from nonmainstream cultural and language backgrounds in academic language, because they may not hear phrases such as “graphic organizers” anywhere else. Yet studies show that minority students and youngsters at risk for academic failure often begin to falter in school at precisely the point where academic language becomes most important.

What Murphy likes best about the instructional-conversation technique, though, is that it gives her an opportunity to get to know her 20 pupils and to better assess what they know.

“You find out some subtleties, too,” she adds, “like some of the kids not even knowing vocabulary that I might assume they do. For a lot of kids, even the word ‘curious’ was difficult.”

She says the dialogues also help draw out the quieter students whom teachers might not normally call on in whole-class discussions. Take Billy Zamora, a smallish boy in a hooded Spiderman sweatshirt. According to his mother, Anita Zamora, who works nights in a local juice factory, Billy spoke only Spanish when he started kindergarten. In this class, though, she says he holds his own.

Spanish and Tagalog

Murphy has four or five other pupils who are also newcomers to English. She estimates that a dozen more hear a mixture of English and Spanish or English and Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines, at home. For many students, the only time they speak English all day is in this classroom.

To accommodate those more intimate learning conversations, Murphy breaks her class into groups for part of the day. During language arts and mathematics, the students get “menus” listing activities they can do while Murphy and her student-teacher teach lessons to groups of six to seven students. The children might choose, for instance, to play a multiplication board game or to make index cards for the “six times” tables. At some point, though, they must finish their menus. And everyone gets time to work in the teacher-led groups.

Today, Murphy is working hard to draw some complex thinking out of her students in a lesson on triangles. She begins by asking the students what they already know, a strategy that CREDE researchers call “contextualizing.”

Juan is the first to volunteer. He says, “Triangles have three equal sides.”

“Juan said something great for our lesson today,” the teacher says. “Do all triangles have three equal sides?”

Then she hands the students different shapes and sizes of triangles and asks them to sort them and explain their reasoning. Some of the children notice that some of the triangles have different-length sides and different-size angles.

“Look, Ms. Murphy,” a student volunteers. “If you cut this one in half, you’ll have two triangles with right angles.”

Eventually, the pupils come to learn the names for the triangle types they have sorted: equilateral, isosceles, and scalene.

Reorganizing the structure of the classroom, as Murphy has, is key to using the standards effectively, according to CREDE researchers. (Some other CREDE-trained teachers also organize their instruction around centers.) Studies conducted at Starlight and another school here in the Pajaro Valley show that students learn more when their teachers both adhere to the standards and restructure the way their classrooms operate, even more so than when teachers just incorporate the standards into more traditional classroom contexts.

Some could argue that what’s going on here sounds like just plain good teaching. The CREDE researchers wouldn’t disagree.

“A five-standards classroom is better for everybody. It’s what you find in a lot of gifted-and- talented and special education programs,” says Roland G. Tharp, the center’s director. “But it’s particularly important for the children who are usually left behind.”

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