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ELLs Are Focus in Teacher-Led Project on Common Core

A select group of 1st, 4th, and 8th grade teachers in Albuquerque, N.M., are in the middle of a major project to develop specific lessons and methods for teaching the new, more-rigorous common core standards in English/language arts to English-language learners. These teachers are doing the kind of concrete, nitty gritty work that I suspect scores of their colleagues across the country are hungry for as more states and districts move into the era of putting the common standards into practice in the classroom.

The Albuquerque project is a unique collaboration of the local teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers national union, and Colorín Colorado, a bilingual website that offers comprehensive resources on English-language learner issues to educators, parents, policymakers, and the general public. Colorín Colorado is an educational service provided by WETA, the public television broadcaster in the Washington region.

The group brought in Diane August, a language acquisition researcher and a former teacher of English-learners, to advise them. The local union—the Albuquerque Teachers Federation—has a two-year, $266,000 grant from AFT's Innovation Fund to support the effort.

Yesterday, at AFT's headquarters in Washington, Ms. August presented some of the work that the Albuquerque teachers have already done to a small audience of union leaders, language acquisition experts, advocates for ELLs, and federal education officials. The teachers will be putting the lessons they've developed into practice this fall and their efforts will be videotaped and shared on the Colorín Colorado website.

Ms. August highlighted the steps that the group took to develop a lesson around a text for 8th grade English language arts: The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin.

The teachers settled on that short story, written at the turn of the 20th century, only after first choosing several other texts that Ms. August said were "about three grade levels below" what they needed to be for 8th graders. Selecting texts that are below grade level is too often a problem, especially for English-learners, she said.

The second step in developing the lesson was identifying the types of supports that ELLs would need to understand this particular story.

Ms. August advised the teachers to start with a "very strong mainstream lesson" that would be taught to non-ELLs and then "back up" to figure out what supports ELLs would need to gain full understanding. She emphasized that "there is no packaged program to do this," and that any lesson that teachers develop will require a great deal of time, attention, and care to adapt it for English-learners.

After the first read-through of the Chopin text, the teachers will ask English-learners to answer basic questions about the story, and will show those answers visually in a Power Point presentation to help them understand, and reinforce, the meaning of the text, she said. Also, she said, the teachers designed a simple graphic organizer to help ELLs understand who the characters are in the story and their connections to each other.

For a second read of the text, Ms. August said the teachers will carefully select high-frequency words that recur in this story as well as other texts as a strategy to teach vocabulary. One example: the word "reveal." Teachers will provide a definition, as well as synonyms in Spanish (assuming that's the primary language of the ELLs) to help students understand the meaning.

Once teachers have offered those various supports for ELLs to understand what's happening the story, Ms. August said they will turn to higher-level "guiding questions" to get a deeper discussion going about the text.

To size up how well the students have grasped the story, Ms. August and the teachers devised a formative assessment that divides them into small groups, has them review the guiding questions, asks them to summarize a section of the text in their own words, and requires them to create a visual tableau of their summaries and photograph them before presenting them to the rest of their classmates.

"It keeps them very engaged," she said.

Creating this lesson, and the others that are in the works, emerged from collaboration, Ms. August said. Before that, the teachers "had started with nothing."

I hope to get out to Albuquerque this fall to write about the teachers putting their new lessons into practice.

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