Sunday, July 31, 2011


Today I'm headed up north with my family for a camping trip.  I love the north shore of Minnesota - it almost feels like you've entered another world.  For one thing it's about 20 degrees cooler on average than the Twin Cities (especially important to me since we're having 100 degree weather!).  For another, the landscape is dramatic and imposing - almost frightening sometimes. 

Lake Superior is like a great, cold ocean (55 degrees is about as high as it gets) and the rock formations have created steep, craggy cliffs that give you vertigo in a heartbeat.  This is astonishing in Minnesota where most of the state is at sea level.   Okay, so I've said enough about what inspires me on the North Shore.  As I prepare to go camping it occurred to me, "Do any of my ELL families go camping?"   In all my years camping in Minnesota I've rarely seen families of color in the park.  Now, I don't go camping weekly during the summer so my experience is limited, and this is Minnesota, and other parts of the country have more diversity so maybe it's different.  But I know it is a growing concern for outdoor recreation leaders.

It is uncertain whether ethnic minority groups are being excluded from participating in
wilderness activities or whether they are simply choosing to participate in other forms of
recreation. If wilderness park managers are indeed excluding ethnic minorities – albeit without
intent and unknowingly – then the situation should be corrected. Parks are a public trust. Park
managers have the responsibility of meeting the public’s needs. They should not only
determine whether current recreation opportunities and park services meet visitor expectations,
but also mitigate the barriers that prevent participation among non-users. If ethnic minority
groups simply do not aspire to participate in wilderness recreation and choose other types of
leisure activities, park managers are still faced with a challenge. How will park managers and
wilderness lobby groups receive enough political support for future conservation initiatives if
ethnic minority groups are apathetic towards wilderness values?
  (Hung, 2003)

Hung's thesis, based on research and interviews in Canada, explores barriers and perceptions of minority citizens who have not made use of the parks.  My own informal experience with bilingual students and parents has supported some of his conclusions.  A Mexican mother responded to my question about camping saying, "Why would I want to do that?  That's how I grew up."    Many of my ELL students when discussing summer vacation basically spent a lot of time in and around their apartment buildings or playing video games.  Many of these students lack the resources to enjoy the outdoors the way many Americans take for granted.  They may not have bikes or funds to go to the pool or transportation to a local beach.  That said, it can also be difficult for families to take time off to take a week-long vacation and come up with the funds to support a family (even camping costs money especially when you factor in the cost of camping equipment). 

Minnesota State Parks have also recognized that many people may not have grown up camping and could use support with equipment and instruction and they've begun a program called, "I Can Camp." It provides training and equipment to those who would like to have a two-night stay and learn the basics of camping.  I think this is ingenious and I hope they have success with it.  At this point it looks like it is marketed and operated in English, but I hope they'll expand to other language groups.  I think of the benefits for many of our bilingual students, who may have grown up in a rural environment or a place with a lot of nature to explore, and are now in an urban setting with very little opportunity to really explore the natural recreation areas of a state.  I remember one fall when I took my ELL teens on a fieldtrip to an apple orchard.  They were so excited and all took off energetically into the orchard except for one boy who sat under a tree peacefully.  Worried that he may be sad or left out I went to check in with him.  He said, "Oh - I'm fine.  I just like it here so much.  It reminds me of my home and I just want to feel the sun on my face and smell the fresh air."   Such a seemingly little thing meant so much to him!  I want all ELL students to have the opportunity to fall in love with nature.

To be honest, it's not just ELL students - there is concern for youth everywhere.   In the book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv, he describes the current state of detachment, "Indeed, a 2002 British study reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pok√©mon characters far more easily than they could name "otter, beetle, and oak tree."

So, as I go off to enjoy my time with family and the pure, sweet air of the north, I will ponder ways in which bilingual families might be supported to enjoy such beauty as well.  

Man's heart away from nature becomes hard.  ~Standing Bear 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The joke goes...

What do you call someone who speaks three languages?  Trilingual.  What do you call someone who speaks two languages?  Bilingual.  What do you call someone who speaks one language?  American.  It's funny in a pathetic kind of way.  There seems to be a growing interest in language immersion programs across the country, and opportunities for students to learn such languages as Spanish, German, French, Chinese, and Hmong.  However the debate goes on about bilingual education in the U.S.  It is especially telling that 31 states that have established "English only laws" while research clearly states that learning in your first language has educational benefits.  Why would we take away the language of students who are learning English while looking for opportunities for native English speaking children to learn other languages?   Speaking in Tongues is a great documentary that explores some of these questions.  Click to see the trailer, and if you're interested you can buy the DVD or plan a screening.  Let's start an informed debate on the benefits of knowing multiple languages!

Friday, July 22, 2011

The research says.....

I'm at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Educational Research and Dissemination (ER & D) training in Baltimore this weekend.  It's exciting to see so many talented teachers coming together to share their expertise and dedicate their time to improving instruction.  ER&D courses are based on research and provide practical classroom applications.  Today we discussed research - specifically the different types of research.  This reminded me of how important it is for teachers to understand current (and sometimes older, tried & true) research and be able to question the purpose, methods and findings.  There are three levels of research teachers need to understand.  Level I is theoretical research.  This means the research has been done and the findings are supported by observations, field notes and some quantitative data.  The research leads to a conclusion but needs more testing.  Level II is classroom research.  This means the method or strategy has been tried out on a larger, more diverse group, such as a classroom.  The findings are more reliable because they show effectiveness with a larger group and across many variables.   Level III research is proven research.  This means the method or strategy has been applied in a large setting such as a whole school or district and the positive results have been replicated.   ER&D courses are based on Level III research combined with the expertise that comes from years of classroom practice.   When I think about conversations I've had with others about the best way to educate ELLs, research is often misunderstood, misapplied or misquoted.  For example, educators may quote a research finding that recommends a certain reading strategy, then make the assumption that it would work well for ELLs as well.  It's common to hear, "Good teaching is good teaching."  This isn't exactly true.  Educators need to understand what kind of research is being quoted, who was the subject of the study and what variables might affect the outcome.  Another common misinterpretation of research about ELLs is that a study may have included ELLs, but the researchers may have filtered out ELLs with lower language abilities (because it is very difficult to measure effectiveness when students don't understand the language) or they may have included just one "type" of ELL - for example elementary U.S. born Latinos.  That ELL population would likely produce different results than a population of older refugee students, or a class with mixed language abilities and cultural backgrounds.

An example of Level III research for ELLs is Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas from George Mason University.  They studied ELL instructional programs for 10 years, in school districts across the nation, and including analysis of over 2 million student achievement records.  They found that:

Enrichment dual language schooling closes the academic achievement gap in L2 and in first language (L1) students initially below grade level, and for all categories of students participating in this program. This is the only program for English learners that fully closes the gap; in contrast, remedial models only partially close the gap.

Their point is that learning a language is an enrichment activity for all students.  In a dual immersion program students from two different language backgrounds, such as native Spanish and native English speakers, learn content together and their instruction is provided in English and Spanish.  In this way both language groups are challenged.   Collier and Thomas proved that learning in the first language is beneficial, therefore more educators and leaders should be looking for ways to develop ELLs first language skills as much as possible. 

So as I reflect on different research findings I've heard about or used in my own trainings, I am rethinking it.  What kind of research is it?  How do I know it's good?   Diane August and Timothy Shanahan did the follow up research for the National Literacy Panel on, "Developing Literacy in Second Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth."  Guess what they discovered?  There is very little reliable research to guide us on best practices for ELLs.  What does this mean?  It means that currently educators need to rely on research that may not be that reliable for ELLs.  Further, it means that educators should question all research carefully before accepting that it is sure to work with ELLs.   Do you have recommendations for Level II or III research on ELLs?   I'd be very interested to hear about it!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How it's Being Done

I  was recently inspired by the American Federation of Teachers TEACH conference in Washington, DC.  There were so many talented teachers with creativity, knowledge and passion for their work.  It made me feel like educators could take ownership of the word, "reform."  Recently it seems that the word "reform" is used as a license to bully and punish teachers - to narrow the curriculum and tell them exactly how to teach regardless of what they know about their students.  However, there is research that reveals that true reform doesn't happen without kindness.  In her book, "How it's Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools" Karin Chenoweth studied five schools that had high poverty, high diversity and had shown dramatic growth in academic achievement!  Yes - it happens.  One of the common denominators among all the schools was, "kindness."  She interviewed students - who all liked their schools and felt that teachers really cared, teachers - who all felt like there were standards for dealing with conflict and that they were a team, and administrators - who felt that it was very important to reinforce a culture of kindness.  Chenoweth states,  

In essence, the It's Being Done schools have an atmosphere of respect and caring that emanates from the teachers and principals.  As Ware Elementary teacher Lisa Akard said, "We're a kind school.  We really care about each other.  The teachers care about the children." That caring is reciprocated by the students.

So, I highly recommend Chenoweth's book for anyone who is interested in how to make a difference without losing their sanity.  Each school has to pave it's own path to success, but there are some things that are not negotiable - like kindness.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It's time to get started

I decided I've let this blog languish long enough.  I'm going to commit to posting on a regular basis and I hope to get followers who will add to the conversation.  There is so much information, and misinformation, out there about immigrants and ELLs and how to improve academic achievement - that it's important to advocate for them using research, resources and the energy of those dedicated to the cause.  The question I hear a lot from ELL advocates is, "How can we help people to 'get it'?  How do we get them to really care?"  I maintain that many people just don't understand the realities, so we have to start with the facts and personalize them to get people on board.  If people see "immigrants" or "ELLs" it is a faceless group.  If they see students, "Maria, Mohamed, and Mai" it makes a difference.  People say they want facts, but actually they internalize stories.  Tell us about a bilingual student who made a difference to you!   Also, teachers - here's a great link about a teacher who created a unit to help her students understand the refugee experience.  They learned a lot, and the classroom is a good place to start.