English-Language Learners Opinion

Watching 4th Grade English Learners ‘Go Deep': Part 2

By Contributing Blogger — June 22, 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).

In my previous post, I described the first stages of a two-month cross-disciplinary project carried out by fourth-grade English language learners in Oakland, California. Their teacher, who is my daughter Rosa Miller, invited me to visit on three separate occasions, as her students prepared, revised, and finally presented their culminating exhibition on social justice movements in California.

I saw Rosa steadily push her students’ learning deeper, in a potent fusion that heightened their social and emotional engagement, created personal connections to the material, and helped the children see history all around them. This unit (planned together by Rosa and her grade-level colleague, José García) is an example of deeper learning in the elementary grades, with students who are often dismissed as “not ready” for such thinking.

Choosing a focus and a purpose

The first weeks of the project introduced students to several historic social justice movements in their state--the United Farm Workers, the Black Panther Party, the groundbreaking Orange County school desegregation lawsuit.

“Now, which topics do you want to learn more about?” Rosa asked her students as the next stage of the unit commenced. After talking it over, the children arrived at six choices--largely centering on lesser-known history (such as the role of the Filipino farm workers) and unsung heroes (such as Fred Ross, Larry Itliong, and Sylvia Mendez) who had caught their imaginations.

Each child chose one topic and then joined a peer research group to go deeper with it. Though the work was collaborative, students would communicate their learning through individual products.

Just as in authentic social justice movements, the children’s own messages would go out as both posters and flyers, intended either to inform or to persuade. Together the class scrutinized examples of persuasion (like advertising or commercials) and information (like bulletins or fact sheets). The students learned to tell the difference, and then identified the purpose of the individual flyers and posters they would produce.

“Other people might not know about all these important people that we have been studying,” Dayanara told me with obvious pride. She chose to find out more about Fred Ross--a behind-the-scenes community organizer who helped spark many major labor-rights movements. Sharing his story with a larger audience, said Dayanara, “makes me feel kind of honored and important.”

Authentic high stakes -- will the audience care?

Two days before the school-wide Saturday showcase event for parents and visitors, I sat with the students as they worked to make their flyers attract a reader’s interest. Angela had titled hers “The Man Who Started It All.” She read her subtitle aloud to a peer, from the screen of her battered classroom Chromebook: “Why did people forget about Larry Itliong and the Filipinos?”

The room hummed with nervous excitement: just like social justice activists, the children would soon be handing out copies of these flyers in a gathering crowd. Were their words and format powerful enough to recruit passing adults to stop, look, listen, and take their points seriously?

Around the room, Rosa had paired students up to offer feedback that would guide revision. The children had a checklist, to verify the purpose, evidence, and effectiveness of their products. They huddled with each other, trying out changes that might make the work better.

Carolina’s project focused on the rights of contemporary farm workers. “I’ll always remember this, because this is one of the most important things that I have studied,” she told me. “Telling about that is very important. Once we tell a person, that person can tell other people, and the whole world can help the farm workers.”

Presenting and reflecting

When exhibition day arrived, the fourth graders took their places in the school library. Dressed in their best, they stood straight and made confident eye contact with the visitors who streamed in. Some students greeted and guided visitors to the information stations, where others waited behind long tables. They introduced each other, handed out their brightly colored flyers, asked if people had questions, answered with alacrity and pride. On the partition walls behind the tables, artistic posters illustrated the themes of justice and solidarity.

“Larry Itliong noticed how little the Filipino farm workers were getting paid, and he was angry and frustrated with that,” Javier told me. “So he talked to the workers and they decided to go to the community hall, so they could vote to strike.” He could envision “using this information in my life,” he said. “If I saw people who were not being treated fair, I would maybe go to the boss. I would feel like a good person who is leading a better life.”

And when Larry Itliong’s grown son, Johnny Itliong, himself showed up with his entire family, it made history for the children who had put their hearts and minds into this deeper learning project.

Later, at her student-led conference, Carolina reflected on that moment. “I felt nervous and proud,” she told her mother. “Because I was presenting to the son of a hero, about his father.”

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