It’s true that many of our students face seemingly insurmountable challenges: Nutritional issues, sleep deprivation, limited extra-curricular experience to supplement schema and help make connections to various classroom texts and tasks… and all that in addition to varying degrees and kind of “natural” intelligence. But if one believes in the infinite capacity of the human spirit, as I do, and if one has read the research on brain plasticity, one cannot help but commit fully to moving each student in ones care forward along his/her individual learning continuum.
I *do* believe that – with the right scaffolds and instructional experiences (and this includes enthusiasm and optimism of the teacher!!) -- all students can learn.
One big hurdle many students in our school face is that the language of instruction, English, is not their first language. And although the research on transfer of literacy across languages is very positive, some of our students – due to various complicating factors –have not had the opportunity to develop literacy in their first language, so that in addition to learning to read, write, speak and understand in a new language (English), they are learning to think critically, period.
In some cases, students arrive on our doorstep never having been to school, ever! And we suddenly expect them to think deeply about a text they have read, infer, visualise and make connections, when in actuality, they have never even sat behind a desk in a room with 20 other children before!!! Obviously, the ramifications of such a situation are significant.
One incredible strategy that a former colleague and mentor shared with me is “Language Experience”, a very specific and structured instructional activity that allows students to “experience” language in a low-stress, engaging manner. The activity, a modified version of which is recognizable from “Reading Recovery” work, first requires a very small group of students (or in some cases even just one student) to be guided by a teacher through a shared experience, rich in oral language immersion. This experience could be as “big” as a trip to the local grocery store, or as simple as a shared game of toy cars on a track in the classroom. The idea is to immerse the student(s) in as much relevant and contextual language as possible, as this "experience" will later form the basis for writing a “story” (sentence).
The student has now interacted verbally and emotionally with other English speakers, has constructed a cohesive sentence, has re-constructed the sentence multiple times (thinking about structure and form each time), has read the sentence several times, and has written the sentence. The pattern is locked into the student’s mind. If they “went to the store and bought some fruit” this time, perhaps next time they will “go to the gym and play a game”, or “go to the library and find a book”. Each experience brings a slew of new vocabulary with it, but the familiarity of the structure provides the scaffolding necessary for success.
My former colleague has many hundreds of stories about students of all ages who underwent language experiences with her, and who – once the scaffolding was eventually removed – were able to read and write quite confidently and successfully in English.
My own journey this year begins with a small group of grade threes, one of whom has been in Canada -- and school -- for less than a year.
Yesterday, we built a mansion in my classroom. Tomorrow, we take on the world!