When teachers work with a population of students (be they low SES, new Americans etc…) they need to have cultural sensitivity and they need to understand where the child comes from and how that affects how they learn. The teacher is one of the most important factors to helping kids become more literate. It is also important to remember that teaching a child is not just the job of the teacher; the parents and the community need to be part of the equation as well. It’s like a tri-pod: one leg is the parent, one is the teacher, and one is the community–the student is the “camera” on top being supported by the three legs. If everyone is working together then a child is being educated better and will become more literate.
In our school district we have partnered with a neighboring district and the two school communities to help bring equity and excellence to our schools (www.partnershipvt.org). The goal is to create equitable curriculum and education practices that take cultural backgrounds into account and prepare Americans and New Americans for high school graduation and beyond. Further, teachers are trained in equity where we talk about issues related to diversity and tolerance, and we are given training in biases in order to better understand them, so that all students can feel safe and respected, and so that we, as teachers, can provide a bias-free classroom. Historically there have been huge bullying issues among students of different races, backgrounds, and cultures, and there has been discrimination toward students by teachers; those problems are not completely gone now, but teachers have been trained to address it–not ignore it or think its “normal.” When there is a general feeling of safety in a school then kids are more able to attend to their learning. You can be the best teacher in the world, but if your classroom isn’t a “safe” space, then the anxiety a student feels will block him/her from being the best learner they can be.
Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp state that very early in life: “Children learn to use symbols, combining their oral language, pictures, print, and play into a coherent mixed medium and creating and communicating meanings in a variety of ways.” What we need to remember is that a child can be literate in their native language and we should be measuring their progress in reading and writing in that native language. An ELL child should be immersed in English, but we shouldn’t test their literacy in it until they’ve had several years of instruction and immersion in it. Literacy is extremely important and being literate in the language of the country you live in is beneficial, but remember that individual students need to feel safe and respected and teachers need to treat students equitably and they need to be properly trained to work with students from different cultures and backgrounds.
Common Core and Special Education
I refer to the Common Core Standards quite frequently with my students to show them exactly why they do the activities I have them do. I also do progress reports for students bi-weekly (since we have parent-teacher meetings every two weeks) so parents can get feedback about how their child is progressing and I am able to show parents the standards. My students are all on IEP’s so I also have to keep track of reading comprehension goals that they have; at my school we (the teachers) have worked on developing reading comprehension goals that are realistic but that also support Common Core standards.
Helping my students meet standards is difficult. Many of them have reading levels significantly below grade level (4th or 5th grade on average with some students at 1st and 2nd grade). Having them meet high school standards (or middle school standards for those in middle school) can be significantly daunting. If we didn’t have one-size-fits-all expectations then students could show that they are progressing. For example, if a student can choose details from a text at their instructional level which support his/her thinking then that, to me, is just as good as being able to do that from a text at his/her grade level. The student has shown me that she can do the skill so has met the standard. Working with the student to help increase their reading level is still a good idea, but it’s not realistic to think that a student who reads at the 2nd grade level in 10th grade is ever going to read 10th grade material–not without significant intervention that takes away time needed for learning other school subjects. By the time a student is in high school he or she has learned many accommodations for reading and writing. Many teachers use audio books or audio formats to reach these students because a student can show comprehension and understanding without having to read a 10th grade text (for example), and students can dictate into software like Dragon in order to get their thinking across in writing. Students can be thinkers and can participate in discussions without being “literate” according to the Common Core.