ELL:  Equity and Excellence and the Common Core

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.

Vocabulary Instruction Activity Ideas

Effective vocabulary instruction needs to be structured in such a way that students can connect definitions to their existing knowledge.  Students also need to learn word roots, prefixes and suffixes to help them figure out new words they encounter as well as be exposed to different definitions, synonyms and antonyms.  Instruction should also occur regularly and students should encounter words frequently.  The teacher should model good thinking strategies about a new word as well.  Classifying and grouping objects is also a good strategy for helping students build vocabulary.  Further, students should understand how words relate to each other and go together.  Finally, there needs to be a lot of reading and writing in an effective vocabulary instruction program.


  1. “Which word doesn’t fit.” This is an activity that you can do when students have learned enough words because it can be done as a review activity.  It requires them to remember the definitions, but it also makes them think about how the words go together to find out which one doesn’t belong, and students have to explain their thinking.  This activity can be varied among age groups and ability levels.  I have done this successfully with high school students with significant reading disabilities (and emotional disabilities).  This activity requires some important pre-planning (you can make it as easy or as difficult as you want), but it can encourage some really creative thinking as students try to eliminate words.  Finally, you should never make spelling the thing which eliminates a word–always make it relate to the definition.  Here’s an example:
  2. thwart         censure           impede            disdain
  3. woe            disdain             arbitrary           anxiety

This activity exposes students to words and requires them to figure out how they relate to each other.

  1. “True or False.” Here is an example of an activity where students need to remember the definitions (or they might even have the definitions in front of them) then they have to apply what they know to answer whether the question is true or false.   To make this a little more difficult you could even have students correct the statement if it is false (using another vocabulary word or synonym you’ve discussed already).  I like to use this activity in conjunction with a book or story we are reading to help students relate the words to something meaningful.  The following  examples come from a test I gave on the stories “Dragonsong” and “The Iliad.”

When Menolly lacerated her hand it caused her to grimace in pain.

Menolly was apprehensive about leaving the sea-hold because of the Thread, but she was audacious enough to do it anyway.

The arrival of the new harper at the sea-hold caused a lot of fervor among the girls, even though Elgion was extremely belligerent.

Mavi does a pristine job of dressing Menolly’s wound and Menolly was gratified for it.

Achilles was seething when Agamemnon took away Briseis from him.

Troy was besieged for 12 long years before the cunning Odysseus thought of the Trojan Horse.

In an impetuous act, Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the city which caused Hector’s wife to become implacable.

This activity requires students to relate their knowledge of the words to their unit of study and to decide whether or not the usage is correct.  It also exposes them to the words again in a meaningful way.

  1. “Category” This activity is for when students are first becoming familiar with some new words (and after you’ve already done something like a Frayer Model with them).  You can use any set up which allows students to physically manipulate the words and move them into categories (such as a Smartboard, index cards or post-it notes).  This activity will require you to do some preparation and pre-planning to make the cards and the categories ahead of time.  Each student or small group will have a stack of cards or post-its, and each card will have on it a vocab word or a synonym of that word.  I like to have about 20-25 cards for students to use.  Depending on your unit of study, you could relate the categories to that or you could just give categories that seem to go with the words you’re working on.  Then you name the category and students place the cards into that category; you could even do this part in multiple ways: (post-it notes placed on posters around the room for students who need to move around, place cards in baskets, simply take the index cards out of the pile and make it a separate pile.  But I like to have students pick their cards before going around the room so they aren’t picking all the same cards as other people and avoiding thinking–you could also give every group or student different words so that doesn’t happen).  Here’s an example:  A stack of cards contains the words:  defiant, demure, anxious, elegant, enormous, populous, imaginative, secretive, besiege, impetuous, cunning, apprehensive, implacable, gratified, disdain, arbitrary,  impede, thwart, woe.    For the first category I might say, “Ways you might feel if you had money stolen.”  Students pick their cards and then explain their thinking to their small group or to you.  If those words were in, say, The Tell-tale Heart by Poe, then I might give a category like, “Words that relate to the setting.”  Students will come up with some pretty creative ways to defend their choices.  This activity requires students to think creatively and to see how words relate to each other.

On Racism and Checking my White Privilege

This morning I read an amazing post by Denisha Jones on the Badass Teacher’s Association blog.  Jones explains why teachers need to be on the front line of fighting racism and prejudice.  She explains important differences between racism and prejudice, and she explains privilege and that it underlines how things in society get interpreted.  Every teacher needs to read her post.  Every human being needs to read her post.  

Even though I come from Vermont, I have the privilege of working in the one school district in the state where at the high school, 32% of the students are students of color and 29.7% have a home language other than English.  Our district has been working hard for the last several years to educate its personnel; to help us learn to see and understand white privilege; to help us understand the struggles of people of color so that we can work to end racism and prejudice among staff, and among students, and between staff and students.  While what happened to Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin hasn’t happened here in Vermont, we want to make sure that it never does.  It is important to have conversations.  To listen to each other’s stories and learn from each other.  Jones makes that point in her post.  This country isn’t going to move forward while conservative pundits spout their ignorance.  The system that allows that sort of thing perpetuates an institution that poisons people’s minds.

At the alternative school where I work, we don’t tolerate language that supports prejudice and hate.  For years we’ve worked to help students understand that when they say, “that’s gay,” they are saying something hateful and prejudiced.  It wasn’t a big leap for our staff to begin working on the district equity movement.  Now it’s part of our staff and school culture.  We are helping to do our part to educate kids not only on traditional school subjects, but also on being a decent human being.