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Finally, Guidance for ELLs and CCSS

It’s about time.

I’m reading a book co-authored by one of my favorite bloggers, Larry Ferlazzo. He chronicles tons of resources for all levels of English . (The most recent entry has to do with Ramadan, which begins Monday.)

And I say, “It’s about time,” because so much of what is in the Common Core State Standards is just unreachable for high school students who immigrate come to the United States. With this resource, I can see some light.

Don’t get me wrong… others have been focusing on how to meet CCSS standards, Like Kenji Hakuta through Understanding Language. There are some really nice things out there.

But I’ve never really thought they’ve spoken to me.

I teach mostly very recent immigrants who belong to the refugee community. Many of them are Students with Limited or Interrupted Schooling (SLIFE, or in some states, SIFE).

And when I read in the CCSS that you should not pre-teach vocabulary, I just kind of wonder how students with limited to no background knowledge about the United States or its history could potentially understand without some frontloading of vocabulary and concepts…

Just last week, I read a book with student that had to do with the automobile. It was a fiction book from the point of view of a young boy whose father was the first in his town to get a horseless carriage.

Now I ask you, how is a third-grader who spent most of his short life in a refugee camp in Nepal supposed to understand anything about that? He read the piece nearly flawlessly, but he had no concept of what an automobile was (had the piece said “car,” he’d have been able to get by just fine) or insight into U.S. history and our particular national affinity with horses and the idealized image of cowboys on the range.

I don’t know that in the Nepali refugee camps that there was much talk about cars. I imagine not many people owned or had access to cars, much less thought about how they affected horses and changed the way of life for millions of people.

So what Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski are doing is being CCSS interpreters. I had, for example, never heard that the CCSS writers had “dialed back” the emphasis on not preteaching vocabulary, but rather gleaning meaning from context.

And they seem to “get” where I’m coming from. If a student comes to me in 9th grade with very low literacy skills in any language, I can’t see the goal of “college and career ready,” the mantra of the CCSS movement.

We are all for having our students be “college and career ready,” but we’re not sure that the socioeconomic infrastructure is there yet to support student, teachers, and schools in meeting the Common Core standard’s definition of that state of readiness (p8).


So the setup of most chapters is actually quite predictable, and therefore quite digestible for the average teacher. I don’t know about you, but I tend to skim rather than read deeply, which is what we are supposed to be teaching our students. Because the format’s always the same, I know I can go back and read the information that I know I didn’t absorb before.

First, they give an overview of the CCSS and then “Creating the Conditions for English Language Learners to Be Successful in the Common Core Standards.”

That’s what I’ve been looking for all along. How do I take a student who is not literate in any language in 9th grade and get them to think deeply in a topic in English? These authors get this. This chapter focuses on socio-emotional skills that students need to learn to really play the game of student well, such as goal-setting, meta-cognitive thinking, and asking questions, to name a few. Each of these has lessons and resources to teach these across the continuum of English Language Development.

They split the rest of the book up by domains (reading, writing, speaking/listening) and then go into Language, another focus of the CCSS, as well as content areas, presented by others who know more about it: Math, Social Studies and Science.

Each of the chapters starts with the Anchor Standards, the ones considered to be the most important for all teachers to focus on to help students reach that college and career-ready standard. And then it gives explanations, what it means in the classroom, tech tools, example lessons and tons of resources.

The lessons are well scripted and innovative, beyond the regular stuff.

This book serves a guide to help teachers navigate this course with a special eye on those learners who need that extra support and need to learn how to do it without the scaffolding. And it’s a guide that we’ve needed for a long time.

Some states do a great job making sure all teachers are aware of the CCSS and how it should be affecting our teaching and students’ learning, but here in Vermont, I feel like teachers think this is just the next fad. I heard from the beginning that people thought our Vermont State Standards were so much more rigorous than the Common Core. “Take these rocks from this place and restack them over there.” Just another lens through which we do what we’ve always been doing.

But still, I have to wonder who is holding our feet to the fire. And if we were so much better than the Common Core, why were students still falling through the cracks? Especially the New American students that we expect to conform without really adjusting our teaching?

Teaching is more than standards. And I’m grateful to hear from people who have been in my shoes how I can help hone my practice so I can be a better teacher than I was yesterday, meeting the needs of those kiddos in front of me.

At the end of the year, I always find myself getting very excited about next year. Clean slate and all. And I know this book will help me think about it more deeply.


Headaches and more headaches…

2teaching_and_learningYou know it’s the end of the term when the trees get leaves overnight, everything has a dusting of pollen on it, sneezes and itchy eyes greet you each morning, your throat closes up…

Oh, and then there’s the grading.

And the students needing help RIGHT NOW.

I wish there were a way to get my mainstream colleagues to see how our students function on immediate relevancy. And how giving them a month’s notice doesn’t really help them on their journey toward graduation.

That’s a hallmark of Students with Limited or Interrupted Education–or SLIFE. It’s a new catchphrase. I just wrote about it last week at the training.

At one session at MATSOL, I heard that Massachusetts is moving toward not just making sure that these students get a suitable education, but also naming them as SLIFE. Not just EL (English Learners) or LEP (Limited English Proficient, the unfortunate federal code for our students). But SLIFE.

What makes a student SLIFE? Here’s what WIDA has to say in a recent focus bulletin:

SLIFE usually are new to the U.S. school system and have had interrupted or limited schooling opportunities in their native country. They have limited backgrounds in reading and writing in their native language(s) and are below grade level in most academic skills (Freeman & Freeman, 2002). Students who have these characteristics could be refugees, migrant students, or any student who experienced limited or interrupted access to school for a variety of reasons, such as poverty, isolated geographic locales, limited transportation options, societal expectations for school attendance, a need to enter the workforce and contribute to the family income, natural disasters, war, or civil strife.

So I’ve been helping bunches of students hurry up and get stuff done before classes end on Monday. It’s been exhausting. And headachy.

And what’s worse is that we could avoid this end of term rush, if we were all addressing these students needs in a culturally appropriate way. What we call procrastination in students who grew up here and should be able to respond to forward thinking assignments is really an inevitable thing for these students.

It has to be relevant. Now. Tomorrow will come tomorrow.

It’s all about the relationship. If you know me and I know you, I’ll work for you.

It’s all about moving them from the oral to the written, from the collective to the individual.

These students all come from collectivist societies. I just read last week that 85% of all societies are collectivist. Only North America and Europe are not. And Australia. Can’t forget Australia.

We are individualistic. We all need to fight our own way. It’s a dog eat dog world. If you want something done right, do it yourself. We all need to earn our own grade. We simply have not been taught to sink or swim together, whereas our students might have to miss school if there is something more pressing at home.

I’m going to be working toward becoming a MALP trainer in the fall. That’s Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm, a plan created to move these students more toward our version of academic thinking.

Maybe then I’ll make some headway in helping people bridge this gap. Instead of spending every free moment of my spring sneezing and talking students through assignments that mean nothing to them.

Seeking culturally responsive teaching

Today, I spent the day re-learning about SLIFE: Students with limited or interrupted formal education.

From the beginning the presenters were quite clear that we should be working from the opposite of a deficit model approach to learning. I’ve seen a couple of terms for this: Abundance based; strengths based.

It seemed odd to me, though, that the “SLIFE” term even has kind of deficit terms embedded…



After it was all over, I had a chance to talk to presenters Andrea and Helaine, though, and they said that they were actually trying to get away from talking about SLIFE and more about culturally responsive teaching.

That’s really where the conversation should be.

Do we know our students? Are we culturally aware of their challenges and strengths?

Partner teacher Suzy and I have been working to create a presentation on why we need a dropout prevention coach for ELL students. We as a department have been asking for a dedicated guidance counselor, but we really need more than that. We need someone who really knows these kids and why they do what they do.

Partner teacher Suzy is the FBI. She asks all the right questions, and the students know that and trust her and answer.

And we need someone to stem the tide. Because the kind of teaching we do now is not culturally responsive. We think we are teaching them to be responsible adults, but when you don’t grow up in this culture with the same privileges, the same tactics just don’t work.

Making Connections Through a Crisis

This year, like almost every year, I’ve been asked to teach a different course. And though it’s been taught before, we have no good way of handing over curriculum, so teachers end up making it up as they go along.

This is pretty frustrating, to say the least.

There is no continuity. And one is constantly having to reinvent the wheel.

But there is a good side to this.

Many of the former refugee students at our school are students with interrupted or limited formal education (SLIFE). And how could you not be one of these students, living in a camp that doesn’t necessarily have running water, reliable resources and progressive attitudes about education? Camps are really awful, no matter how good they are.

So this year, I’m teaching intermediate readers. And one of the cardinal rules of teaching SLIFErs is that what they are learning must be relevant to the students’ lives. It must somehow connect to their own sense of self in order for it to matter. I mean, if you just spent half your life learning via a language that is not your own and then suddenly get thrown into a culture/language with norms that don’t make much sense to you, wouldn’t you react the same way?

So now there is a crisis with refugees in Europe. Lots of people are displaced. And my students can relate to being displaced.

I just found a great site that will help start that conversation. It’s a beautiful watercolor comic that lays out the whole conflict and its origins, in language that intermediate students can grasp.

I can’t wait to give this to my students next week.


alphabet-379221_640So, @TESOL15 today in Toronto.

My local public librarian is emailing me, asking for support to find books for a new initiative that our district’s after-school program is putting together: Parent University. It’s literacy support for New Americans. Most of the parents are Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education, or SLIFE. New term. Old concept. But really a hot topic right now in the world of TESOL.

The librarian wants to find out what publishers could accommodate low level ELL parents. She wants kindergarten-level readers with grown-up themes.

Easy, right? There’s lots of possible topics.

Think about all the things you face when you come to a new community:

  • getting a job,
  • sending kids to school,
  • renting an apartment,
  • dealing with police,
  • buying stuff that is too expensive,
  • not understanding other people
  • going out to have fun
  • noisy neighbors

Gosh. The list could go on and on. Could you say this in simple sentences with one sentence per page? That’s really what a Level D text looks like in Fountas and Pinnell, the leveling system Burlington School District uses for elementary texts.

But, sadly, there’s not much to be had, according to the publishers. One saleswoman actually told me I really needed to be attending a special ed conference to find that. 😦  Small percentage of the population. Specialized.

But it’s really not so small or specialized anymore. Most of the parents we’ve been interviewing this year have little to no formal education. That qualifies them as SLIFE. There are entire sessions devoted to teaching content to SLIFErs. Just look at the research.

Here are the resources I sent to my local librarian. If you have more, please please please let me know:


http://www.ergo-on.ca/ (has printable readers and lesson plans)








http://www.grassrootsbooks.net/catalogue2011.pdf (grassroots easy readers)

The woman who told me I should be attending special ed conferences also told me I could create a list from National Geographic offerings, but there were none already ready. I kind of doubt that.

Maybe I’m not looking hard enough.

Anybody want to start a publishing venture with me?

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