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Policy in Action: An Afternoon with Kanoon Elementary ELLs

  ·  Cristina Pacione-Zayas

The Executive Director of Chicago Foundation for Education (CFE), Amy Sheren, recently invited the Latino Policy Forum to join her in a visit to a sixth-grade classroom at Kanoon Elementary in Little Village.  The teacher, Mr. Greg Fairbank, had received a CFE grant to enhance literacy through a peer-to-peer book club targeting English Language Learners (ELLs) not reading at grade level.  I jumped at the chance to see how the education policy the Latino Policy Forum helps shape plays out in local classrooms—especially an ELL classroom, given that ELLs now represent nine percent of students in Illinois schools.  While the percentage may appear small, it has grown by nearly 25 percent since 2004 and does not account for the many students who have not formally identified as ELLs or placed in a bilingual/ESL program.

We arrived just in time to hear book clubs engrossed in bilingual conversations, sharing the results of their work respective to their assigned roles.  Reporting out from their workgroups, students explained how the story connected to the outside world and/or their lives.  After visiting several groups and witnessing the student-led process, Mr. Fairbank called the class to attention to make formal introductions. 

These students were far from shy.  Even before we could give our names, students’ hands went up, armed with inquisitive questions: What is the purpose of our visit? Do we work in Little Village?  Can we work in the school? Can we teach them different languages? What is our racial/ethnic background? 

When it was my turn to introduce myself, I had to think quickly: How could I explain the complex work of a policy and advocacy organization in a way that would be meaningful for sixth graders, especially for ELLs who may still struggle with academic English? This a daily task for teachers who work with ELLs—it was certainly my reality while working in schools in both Little Village and Humboldt Park—but its practice is fodder for debate policy circles, especially in light of the pending implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  With its focus on academic language, CCSS will demand that all teachers, irrespective of their content area or the number of ELLs in their classrooms, consider language and literacy development in their lessons.  

My message to the class was that the Latino Policy Form works on behalf of Latino families by studying problems and offering solutions to make schools better for Latino children.  They got excited since they recognized that they would benefit, until I said something about improving academic outcomes and one student expressed disappointment with a sigh.  His response reminded me that I was slipping into “academese” and that awareness of my vocabulary would keep me from losing my audience. I moved to motivational talk about student advancement through high school and eventually college, affirmed by students’ expressed interest in achieving the next level of educational success. Although this was an ELL classroom, all discussion was conducted in English—and it was clear that students felt comfortable speaking and understanding the language.     

Students posed thought-provoking questions and engaging tangential comments throughout the visit.  One mentioned the conflict between North Korea and the United States and how he would make peace as a leader.  Another cautioned that we were getting off task and attempted to rein us in.  The students urged Mr. Fairbank to explain their “pep talk” bulletin board and share Kid President video that inspired it.  They were proud of carrying out the motivational message from the video through their classwork and spreading the word to us.  Students repeated the words of Kid President as the video was playing, clearly connecting with the inspirational—and at times philosophical—English-language message.

Amy wrapped the visit by applauding the students' work in the book clubs and Mr. Fairbank for pursuing the grant, which allowed him to expand club offerings to meet the differentiated needs of students. Aligning the book clubs with CCSS, Mr. Fairbank scaffolds students’ reading development by creating various roles for students: word wizard, summarizer, connecter, questioner and illustrator.  In each role, students build skills by learning how to make and defend claims, comprehend new words, summarize passages and make connections between texts.

The classroom was a model in successfully balancing academic tasks, relationship building and flexibility in lesson plan delivery to foster a sense of community in the classroom and ultimately engaged learning.  Seeing first-hand examples of what works well in schools informs the Latino Policy Forum’s research interests in ensuring better outcomes for ELLs.  Visiting ELL classrooms provides insight into how policy is implemented and what policy directions are needed to promote academic English.  In light of CCSS, we will need more examples like these of what works in the context of ELLs.      

Posted In: K-3