English-Language Learners Opinion

Watching 4th Grade English Learners ‘Go Deep': Part 1

By Contributing Blogger — June 21, 2016 4 min read
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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

For the past 30 years, my work has largely centered on deeper learning in the adolescent years. But recently I got a vivid look at how an elementary school teacher fostered deeper learning by infusing personal and social meaning in academic content and skills.

On three visits over two weeks, I watched as 24 fourth-grade students (at various stages of English language learning) completed and presented a two-month interdisciplinary project exploring social justice movements in California. Their teacher was my daughter Rosa Miller, who has taught for seven years in Oakland, California, and who created the curriculum with her grade-level colleague, José García.

Investigating key concepts in social ways

To discover the meanings her students attached to the ideas that underlie social justice movements, Rosa began the unit with conversations and activities about words like justice, injustice, stereotypes, and discrimination.

But her students would also need to learn new vocabulary--words like “ally” and “solidarity"--as they researched their topic. To reinforce each new term, Rosa introduced it with a slideshow image. The classroom rug then became an “interactive word wall” on which the children laid the words written on index cards, using large arrows to link terms they saw as connected. As they explained their reasoning to each other, differing perspectives surfaced. (Watch Javier do that in this video clip.)

Rosa also taught the group a joyful song whose verses resoundingly rejected stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. The children had fun singing in unison, and the energetic social context of music helped the words, as well as the concepts, to stick in their minds.

Forging personal connections to history

After that introduction, Rosa inundated her fourth graders with readings, documentary films, and personal narratives about California’s important social justice movements. From the United Farm Workers organizing to the Black Panthers, she sought out material that would bring to life the events of that rich history.

She also recruited people who lived through those movements to tell their stories to the children. Ericka Huggins, a Black Panther Party leader, spoke to the class of her experiences. The mother of a former student at the school came in to tell of growing up in Delano, California, as the child of Filipino farm workers whose 1965 strike was the leading edge of the UFW movement.

That personal account lent extra resonance when the class watched “The Delano Manongs,” a documentary that spotlights the role of the trailblazing labor organizer Larry Itliong. Later, Rosa tracked down Itliong’s grown son, Johnny, to come and talk to the children. (See photo.) And students went on a field trip to a local farmers market, interviewing the venders about the conditions in which their crops were raised.

Johnny Itliong, the son of Filipino labor leader Larry Itliong, visits the fourth-grade researchers.

To create a common base of knowledge, Rosa read aloud a number of books, with the students following along in the texts. Diana Cohn’s Si Se Puede helped them understand the historic 1980s janitors strike in Los Angeles, and One Crazy Summer, a young adult novel by Rita Williams-Garcia, shed light on the Black Panther movement. In leveled small-group historical fiction book clubs, the students also connected to themes of justice, injustice, stereotype, and discrimination in African-American history.

Talking together as a class about their various readings, the children began to realize that not just blacks but also Latino families like theirs also had suffered from school segregation in California. The story of nine-year-old Sylvia Mendez caught their imagination: in the 1940s, her yearning for a better school sparked the nation’s first successful school desegregation lawsuit, against the Orange County school district.

As she talked with a small group about the Mendez story, Rosa asked her students, “Do you think school segregation still exists?” They shook their heads no. As she probed gently for their observations about schools and neighborhoods in their city, she drew the children into a new and critical consciousness of the hard facts about de facto residential and school segregation in the present day.

Putting ideas into action

Midway in the two-month unit, the time came for these young learners to choose what areas they would investigate in depth, and to communicate their new understanding effectively, in a medium authentic to the context of their research.

In my next post, I continue the story of how these Oakland fourth graders continued to “go deep” right through their final exhibition. Stay tuned!

Photo and video by Rosa Miller.

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