Teaching is Advocating.

In our literacy course, I have been working with a first grade student who is an English Language Learner. She speaks primarily Spanish at home, and this is only her second year in an English-only environment. Before meeting her, I was told that she is a very struggling reader. In fact, literacy was becoming such a challenge for her that her teacher has been considering referring her for Special Education services, which would only be appropriate if she has a learning disability. I was eager to work with this student and see what I could uncover about her literacy development and abilities.

Our first meeting was a couple of weeks ago. As she started to read her “just right” books, which were short simple-predictable texts, I realized she was not paying any attention to the print. All of her interpretations and meaning were drawn directly from the images. My efforts to engage her with the print were unsuccessful. Then we read the book Siete Ratones Ciegos (Seven Blind Mice) by Ed Young, which is a pretty complex story for a first grader to follow. She was super excited to read a book with me in Spanish, and was really engaged from the start. As we read, I asked her at various points to retell the story, discuss/analyze particular events, predict what would happen next. Her responses blew me away. Not only could she completely understand the story and retell it with total accuracy, but she made thoughtful, detailed predictions, mostly in Spanish. By the end, she identified the main points of the story and retold her favorite parts. Then we read Sneetches by Dr. Suess, an even more complex text, this time in English. Again, she could comprehend the entire story, analyze what I had read in connection to pictures, and make detailed (and shockingly accurate) predictions about the story. She has never read Sneetches, or any other story by Dr. Suess. This one thirty-minute interaction completely destabilized the assumption/suspicion that her literacy struggles are due to a learning disability.

During our second meeting, we created our own I See book. It started with “My name is ___ and I see many things. / Mi nombre es ___ y yo veo muchas cosas.” Each following page repeated “I see ___. / Yo veo ___.” in English and Spanish, followed by the name of an animal that matches a picture for her to draw. For example, one page said “I see a cat. / Yo veo un gato.” By the end, she was reading both the English and Spanish accurately. Her confidence was heartwarming—when we returned to her classroom, the first thing she did was run up to her teacher to read the story we created together (again with near total accuracy). She can read! ¡Ella puede leer!

This experience has led me to realize how important our role as Advocates can be. Without someone to talk with this student in her native language and to discover her incredible ability to comprehend very complex texts, it would be very easy to assume that she has a learning disability. Without someone to tell her how cool it is that she can speak and read and write in two languages—to validate her bilingualism, her culture, her native language—it would be easy for her to view herself negatively in relation to her peers. As an Advocate for our students, we must ensure a growth mindset, both in the perceptions others (colleagues, parents, peers…) hold/carry of our students, and in the perceptions our students hold/carry of themselves.

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7 thoughts on “Teaching is Advocating.

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more about how we need to be advocates for our students. There are so many influential factors in our students lives it is important to teach about the greatness of our individuality; to embrace our differences rather than outcast what is unfamiliar. I also believe that to be a true advocate for these kids we have to really know them. This is challenging, but I know we are all preparing to really understand our students to best teach them.

  2. amys50 says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I have a large number of English Language Learners in both my main placement and dyad classroom. I am seeing that it is a very complicated task to diagnose the source of learning difficulties in 1st grade when children come not only from homes with various levels of English competency (from near 0 to 100) but also from a wide variety of Kindergarten experiences (none, 1/2 day, full day, Montessori, private, public). I know a bit of Spanish and can sometimes discern a language issue from a competency issue and show first-had that I value my Spanish-speaking students’ bilingualism, but what about our students whose second language are Russian, Farsi, Chinese and Hindi (to name a few)? How can we make the same sort of connections with them? I hope that I will be able to learn at least a bit of each language represented in each of my future classrooms — maybe not enough to evaluate their literacy, but enough to show that I value their language and culture.

    • RLT says:

      Learning a bit of each language represented in our classrooms is a fantastic first step. Imagine how cool some of our kids would feel if they got the opportunity to teach the class some of their home language?

      As for negotiating disability vs. language development issues, I wonder why there can’t be a better system for analyzing students’ comprehension in their native languages. We have translators (at least by phone) for over 100 languages at hospitals in the Seattle region. Why can’t such services be expanded to other service fields? So far, it seems to me like much of this negotiation can be assessed fairly quickly. And don’t we owe this to our kids, especially if it prevents them from a 12+ year label of having a Learning Disability (and even more importantly, more accurately guides the services/supports they need)?

  3. lotsirb says:

    This story and your insights reminds me of an assessment we gave to a Russian speaking student who joined our classroom in late September. His English was extremely limited, but one could see the incredible amount of effort he was making to remain engaged in the classroom culture and instruction. I remember helping him with his math assessment, and feeling so frustrated for him. I was restricted to reading the questions to him, and was not supposed to offer him any other support. I could see that he was strong in math. He confidently and quickly solved the problems on the assessment that were written “in math.” However, he gave incorrect answers or left blank most of the questions on the test, since one needed a good grasp on English to understand the question even if the question was not a story problem. As a result, he scored something like 7 out of 25, and it almost made me want to scream. I knew he could have done better! Just think if this test was more high-stakes!

    Sorry for my ramble-y comment…tired this Sunday night. 🙂

    • RLT says:

      This just goes to show how important it is for us to recognize the contexts of our assessment, and ensure that all students have access to our instruction and assessment strategies! Thank you for sharing, this is such an important piece of our practice.

  4. […] immediate responses in the face of controversy and discomfort to stories of specific students’ struggles and successes, I am starting to build a digital record of the toolkit I am currently/continually […]

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