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Three Districts Test Model Common-Core Unit for ELLs

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 15, 2013 4 min read

Seventh and 8th grade English-learners in selected urban schools will soon dive into some of the most celebrated speeches in U.S. history. They’ll dissect, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream,” and Robert F. Kennedy’s “On the Death of Martin Luther King.”

Though their English-language skills are still developing, the students will read the original texts, not watered-down versions.

This brand-new English/language arts unit on the use of persuasion was designed to show how reading complex, informational texts and writing arguments—a key requirement in the new common-core standards—can be used with English-learners to deepen their learning of content and concepts as well as language.

Called “Persuasion Across Time and Space,” the five-lesson unit is the first major classroom resource produced by the Understanding Language team, a group of English-language-learner experts led by Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University, to help educators grasp the central role of language in the rigorous Common Core State Standards and to give teachers resources for providing higher levels of instruction and demanding content to ELL students.

The efforts are underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Carnegie and Gates help support coverage of business and innovation in Education Week.)

The unit—to be piloted in the coming weeks in classrooms in Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; and Denver—is meant for middle school students with at least an intermediate level of English-language proficiency. It’s designed for 7th and 8th grade classes with a mix of native speakers and English-learners, or just ELLs. A small number of teachers in New York City and Oakland, Calif., tested the unit with English-learners in summer school last year.

‘A Potent Lesson’

Art of Persuasion

Experts are pilot-testing an English/language arts unit that aims to model how common-core standards can be incorporated into a lesson for 7th and 8th grade classes that include English-learners with an intermediate level of English proficiency.

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SOURCE: Understanding Language

“This is a good, potent lesson that can be scaffolded in diverse degrees of intensity, depending on the level of support needed for the English-learner,” said Aída Walqui, a member of the Understanding Language team and a main author of the unit. “This unit shows students what they are capable of intellectually, and that they can deepen their conceptual [skills], academic skills, and their communication skills at the same time.”

Ms. Walqui, the director of teacher professional development for WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group, said targeting the team’s first common-core instructional unit to middle school made sense because both elementary and high school teachers “can see themselves” in how a unit like this could work in their classrooms.

More importantly, Ms. Walqui said, the middle school years are a critical transition period for ELLs. “It’s in this period that the types of texts really start to perceptibly shift” to more complex readings, she said. The team designed a unit around persuasion, in part, to counter misconceptions that persuasive writing appeals only to the emotions, Ms. Walqui said.

“Persuasion begins with an argument that appeals first to intellect,” she said. “For students who are beginning to grapple with issues of justice in the world, persuasion would be the perfect anchor for them as they start to see an actual role for themselves in society.”

Students will be exposed to divergent perspectives. They will read “The Civil Rights Movement: Fraud, Sham and Hoax,” a speech delivered in 1964 by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and a speech on race relations written and delivered by Barbara Jordan, the late congresswoman from Houston.

George Bunch, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who advised Ms. Walqui and her co-authors in their efforts, said teaching the unit requires fundamental instructional shifts for ELL teachers. One critical one, he said, is that the unit has an “explicit focus on language” at the same time students are engaged with complex texts.

Broken into five lessons, the unit’s texts and multimedia materials start with familiar content—television advertising—and move into less familiar works, such as the Barbara Jordan speech. Each lesson includes activities to draw students into the material. It outlines levels of supports teachers may use to bridge linguistic, cultural, and historical gaps for students who are learning English.

Central to the unit is the second lesson, which features Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It starts with interactive activities, such as discussions of photos from the era, to build students’ background knowledge about Lincoln, the Civil War, and the battle fought at Gettysburg, Pa., before they read the 267-word speech."The power of that lesson is that it gives students a fighting chance to understand the speech without taking away their opportunity to engage with the text through close reading,” said Mr. Bunch.

In the fifth and final lesson, students view a 1992 speech written and delivered to the United Nations by Severn Suzuki, an 11-year-old Canadian girl. It’s meant to inspire them to write and deliver their own persuasive texts, Ms. Walqui said.

Susan Pimentel, a lead author of the English/language arts common standards—which 46 states have adopted—and a member of the Understanding Language team, said the persuasion unit is especially strong in its “range and quality of text.” During a webinar on the unit last month, she called it a “model in what the common core means” by selecting text that is connected by purpose and topic.

Charlotte, Chicago, and Denver were named as pilot sites, in part, because they are in different parts of the country and serve a broad cross section of ELL students, said Martha Castellón, the teams’ executive director.

The team will provide professional development to teachers, and then monitor implementation and collect feedback to hone the lessons. The results will inform forthcoming efforts to develop instructional resources in math and science, as well as in English/language arts, for use by educators nationwide.

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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 January 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Model Common-Core Unit Piloted for ELL Teachers

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