Special Report

N.M. School Builds Bridge to Standards for ELLs

By Lesli A. Maxwell — November 13, 2012 10 min read
Andrew Archuleta, a 4th grader at Emerson Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., raises his hand to ask a question about a writing assignment. Teachers at his school are piloting ways to help English learners master new reading and writing standards.

In Yolanda Medrano’s class here at Emerson Elementary School, hands shoot into the air to answer questions she is asking about women and professional baseball.

These 4th grade students—most of them still learning English—have just finished reading and listening to a story about Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old girl who struck out baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig when she pitched in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees in 1931.

Noting one expression in the story, Ms. Medrano asks the students to tell her what “throws like a girl” means.

“It means you don’t throw good,” a boy answers. “It means that no one thought she should play with boys,” says another one. “It means that girls aren’t good at baseball, but that isn’t true,” offers a girl.

Ms. Medrano checks with a few other 4th graders to make sure they understand the insult, which is common in English but doesn’t exist in Spanish, the first language for most of them.

This reading lesson is part of Emerson Elementary’s, and the entire Albuquerque school system‘s, foray this year into the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics in the primary grades. The district piloted the new standards in 4th and 8th grades last school year, and this year, it is rolling them out in every kindergarten through 3rd grade classroom.

The new English/language arts standards demand that students sharpen their skills at reading, understanding, and analyzing a variety of complex texts. For teachers of English-language learners like Ms. Medrano, using strategies and supports (such as clarifying unfamiliar words and expressions) have long been crucial tools in effectively teaching ELLs, but they are even more critical for all teachers who work with English-learners now that the new standards expect that ELLs will be able to read and comprehend complex texts across all content areas despite their unfamiliarity with English.

At Emerson—a long-struggling school of about 500 students in one of the poorest sections of Albuquerque—the focus on effectively teaching the common-core standards to English-language learners is the centerpiece of a new strategy to drive up academic achievement. Nearly 50 percent of students at Emerson are English-learners.

After years of sluggish test scores and the discovery of a troubling pattern that showed very few ELLs were progressing, even modestly, in their English-proficiency over the course of a school year, leaders in the district and the local teachers’ union agreed last spring to overhaul the school.

District leaders and Ellen Bernstein, the president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, worked together to select a new principal and vice-principal, and agreed that teachers would be invited to reapply for their jobs or transfer to different schools. About three-quarters of the teachers who were hired came from other city schools; only a handful reapplied and were selected to stay. Most significantly, the district agreed to pay for an extra hour of work time each day that would be spent exclusively on professional development. Teachers would also have to start school a week earlier for training than their colleagues across the district, and all would have to hold an endorsement to teach English-learners, either in bilingual education or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

With those pieces in place, the district and the union decided to make Emerson a common-core “demonstration” school where, eventually, teachers from across the city could come to watch and learn best practices from their colleagues on teaching the common core and supporting ELLs.

Gift of Time

“We are doing common core just as every other elementary school in the district, but the benefit we have is the extra time to come together, on a daily basis, to have deep conversations about our teaching and learning and supporting our students,” said Denise Brigman, a veteran school administrator in Albuquerque who was selected to be Emerson’s new principal.

Across the 90,000-student Albuquerque school system, 18 percent of students are English-language learners, said Lynne Rosen, the district’s director of language and cultural equity. Most of them come from Spanish-speaking families and are either the children of immigrants from Mexico, or second- or third-generation Mexican-American. The district has also seen a recent uptick of students whose parents immigrated from Vietnam, Burma, and other Asian countries.

But many more students, Ms. Rosen says, are better described as “academic-language learners,” students who are still mastering more formal English vocabulary, grammar, and syntax that are not commonly part of ordinary oral communications.

Zaz Robinson, a student in Yolanda Medrano’s 4th grade class at Emerson Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., ponders the “who, what, where, when and why” of the career fair he attended with his classmates. Ms. Medrano assigned the class a journaling exercise following the fair to bring the activity within the common-core approach the school has adopted.

“No one is born knowing academic language, so this is a skill that all teachers, regardless of who their students are, must work intentionally to develop,” she said.

To help teachers and administrators understand better themselves what academic language is and why it’s so important for student success, the district has been working closely with Lily Wong Fillmore, a professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Berkeley, who has long argued that English-learners often don’t learn academic language because they are not exposed to it, either in the curricular materials they have been taught from or in the language spoken by teachers in the classroom.

There is broad consensus that widely used texts in public schools have been simplified and watered down over the years, a phenomenon that has been even more profound for ELLs, Ms. Wong Fillmore said.

Ramping Up Rigor

Last February, the district brought Ms. Wong Fillmore and Gabriela Uro, the director of English-learner policy and research at the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, to Albuquerque to talk to staff members about the opportunity that the common core presents for bringing a more-challenging curriculum to all students, especially for ELLs. Ms. Wong Fillmore also made a presentation to the Albuquerque school board, Ms. Rosen said.

“The key lesson from her to our staff was that ELLs have to have access to grade-level, complex text,” she said. “That is revolutionary.”

Staff members at Emerson have embraced the idea that no one is a native speaker of academic language as a central mantra and have spent hours talking about the use of complex texts and how they must change or augment their classroom practices to support students, said Ms. Brigman, the principal. Together, teachers pore over the units of study developed for the new standards by a group of nearly 100 teachers from across the district and “figure out how they need to take those lessons and adapt them specifically for the kids in their class,” said Penny Zink, an instructional coach hired as part of the team to turn Emerson around.

“This gives teachers a lot of responsibility, but it also gives them an opportunity for ownership,” Ms. Brigman said.

Elvira Desachy-Godoy, who teaches a 3rd grade dual Spanish/English class at Emerson, says she finds the daily collaboration with her colleagues “energizing.”

“I am listening to what they say they are doing in their classrooms and the next day, I am probably going to try the same thing,” she said. For example, she has started to use more games to engage her students and has starting mixing up the configurations of her small groups so that lower-proficiency students have more opportunity to interact and learn from their higher-proficiency peers.

In a separate, but related, effort, a small cadre of teachers—brought together by the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers—began meeting a year ago to study the common-core English/language arts standards and craft model lessons based on grade-level-complex texts. Through the local union, the teachers are providing professional development to any colleagues looking for help with selecting texts, planning lessons, and providing supports to English-learners. The teachers’ model lessons will also be videotaped and posted on the bilingual Colorín Colorado website as a free resource.

The initiative—which paired the teachers with Diane August, a language-acquisition researcher and former teacher of English-learners—is supported by the AFT’s Innovation Fund.

Yolanda Medrano discusses a nonfiction text with students at Emerson Elementary. The 4th grade teacher says English-learners may need extra help, such as clarifying unfamiliar words and phrases, to master more complex texts.

Some teachers involved in the project say they were stunned to discover that much of the text they had been using in the district’s English/language arts curriculum, for example, was not just below grade level, but far below.

“I was stupefied,” said Maria Padilla-Enyart, a middle school English/language arts teacher who is part of the cadre. “I had been teaching 4th-grade-level text to 7th graders who were in general education. And what about my ELLs? They were getting an even more watered-down version.”

Norma Lujan-Quiñones and Loyola Garcia, 1st grade teachers who are also part of the common core/ELL group, said the same was true in the lower grades, with reading content too often presented in pictures rather than words.

“It’s an injustice to these students,” Ms. Garcia said. “Those days of watering down material for them have to be gone if they are going to succeed with the common core.”

Adapting ‘Little Red Hen’

Ms. Lujan-Quiñones recently presented a lesson she developed on “The Little Red Hen” folktale to about two dozen teacher colleagues from around Albuquerque. A more condensed version of the story is in the district’s 1st grade basal reader, but she built her lesson around a longer, more language-rich version, which forced her to think more carefully about the supports she needs to give the 10 English-learners in her class of 18 students. She says she may spend as much as two weeks on the story. In the past, it might have been just two days. On the first page of the story, the writer uses “sleep,” “nap,” and “snooze,” words with similar meanings, but only one of which—"sleep"—might be familiar to her ELLs. In her lesson, Ms. Lujan-Quiñones will point out “sleep” and ask her students to tell her if they read or heard another word with the same meaning. She’ll ask them to act out “sleep,” “nap,” and “snooze,” as she says the words aloud.

“For me, as their teacher, I have to spend much more time reading and thinking about the text myself before asking them to tackle it,” she said. “And it’s not enough just to read it to them or read it with them, we’ve got to break it down and have discussions.”

Preparations for All

Back at Emerson, the team emphasizes how nascent their efforts are—not only in figuring how best to teach the new standards to ELLs, but also in establishing a strong school culture, with involved parents and strong community partners. They are less than three months into what they hope will be a transformation of the school and a model for the city.

But Clint “Tee” McDougal, a 4th grade dual-language teacher before he was tapped last spring to be the school’s new assistant principal, sees signs of promise.

“I did a classroom observation in 5th grade and watched these small groups of English-learners reading and discussing a science text on the Albuquerque aquifer,” Mr. McDougal said. “First, just seeing these kids work with a complex science text is a huge shift, and seeing them persevere with it shows me that our teachers are creating the conditions students need to stick with something until they understand.”

But educators here are also concerned about how they can make sure that all teachers across the district will be prepared to change their practices and provide the intense supports that English-learners need. One of the next major common-core-related initiatives in Albuquerque involves intensive professional development for principals on the needs of English-learners. In addition, the district is getting ready to release an adaptation of its common-core English/language arts units of study for dual-language teachers who also teach Spanish/language arts.

“We do worry about the children who could be left behind by this,” said Ms. Rosen. “But then you have to turn that worry into figuring out how we make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Building Bridges for ELLs


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