Part 12 of Teacher Perspectives

Using Curriculum to Send Essential Messages to Students

How Wit & Wisdom Supports English Language Learners

Last week I was listening to Carol Salva’s Boosting Achievement podcast which chronicles her journey in teaching and reaching students who are learning English. She referred to four essential messages to send students:

  • You are important.
  • What we are learning is important.
  • We will not give up on you.
  • You can do it.

Simple but powerful messages. It made me reflect on our district’s journey into implementing a rigorous, Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum: Wit & Wisdom. This has been a challenge for many teachers and students, including many of our English Language Learners (ELLs). I work in the Mad River Local School district outside Dayton, OH. We have more than 60% of students on free/reduced lunch. We have 146 students classified as ELLs, a number that has grown 507% since 2012. Many of our teachers do not have experience teaching ELL students and our district is trying to figure out the best way to meet the needs of these students while raising rigor and standards for all students.

When I reflected on Carol Salva’s essential messages, I realized that we are better off than we thought, simply because of the power of our new curriculum. In a recent post, I detailed my own classroom experience with Wit & Wisdom. This year I have been supporting ELL teachers and students in middle school Language Arts classrooms, and I have seen each of these messages woven into the layers of this integrated curriculum.

You are important.

Students feel valued in classrooms where they can see themselves reflected in the texts they are reading. The texts chosen by Wit & Wisdom value diverse cultures and experiences. For example, 7th grade students use Code Talker and Farewell to Manzanar to discuss diversity during WWII and the effects of balancing two cultures within the United States. The following year in 8th grade, students read The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and explore the power of storytelling, including the importance of finding your own voice.

What we are learning is important.

Each module in Wit & Wisdom is based around an essential question that unites the fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and media used. This purposeful organization around important topics and themes helps students see the value in each day’s lesson, both in terms of connections to the bigger picture and to their own lives. With my 7th graders, I got to have a conversation about whether or not they, like the book characters, feel pressure to assimilate to US culture.

During the storytelling unit in 8th grade, students also watch and read Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” This powerful speech reminds us that “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” This message helps students understand the importance of not only reading a variety of texts, but also telling their own stories to continue to diversify the options.

We will not give up on you.

The entire Wit & Wisdom curriculum is based on rich, complex texts. These can provide challenges for native-speaking, grade-level students. They can provide extreme challenges for English Language Learners. However, the curriculum also provides numerous features and scaffolds to assist and engage these students, rather than relegate them to more basic work.

  • Thematic units build content knowledge and vocabulary more effectively than skill-based units.
  • Speaking and listening standards are integrated so that students are constantly cycling through thinking, talking, reading, and writing about the topic.
  • Writing exemplars and consistent models help students understand how texts are expected to be structured.
  • Sentence Frames are suggested to help students participate effectively in academic discussion and writing.
  • Each lesson includes a “deep dive” into academic vocabulary and grammar.

You can do it.

At the end of the 8th grade storytelling module, students choose a part of their own story to tell through poetry. They compose a narrative arc of three poems, as well as a cover letter to establish context and connections to the module resources. Every single student accomplishes this task through a series of preparatory activities, and then they perform them for the class. All students feel pride after accomplishing this large and personal project, but the confidence boost for ELLs is absolutely priceless.

One of my students was terrified of this performance. Khan moved from Vietnam two years ago and is still in the beginning levels of English proficiency. Fortunately, the module also included attention to performance skills and rehearsal time. Khan performed his poems about moving to the US for the class and soaked up the applause. While his writing may have been describing his nerves and confusion, this experience was showing him that he can do it.

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About the Author: Sarah Webb taught third and fourth grade for 10 years and now does ELL and Curriculum Support for Mad River Local Schools in Riverside, Ohio. She has a Masters in Literacy from the University of Dayton where she also teaches adjunct courses and is pursuing her TESOL endorsement.