As I’ve mentioned before, our school has been working very closely with Jayne Marlink from the California Writing Project over the past two years. She has been working with all of our English teachers to help us become better teachers of writing.

This week, Jayne, along with other teachers from our school, has been leading a training for all of our English teachers, and it’s been going quite well. Since over half of our student body are English Language Learners, we’ve been spending a lot of the time discussing working with ELL’s.

Yesterday, we reviewed a recent report titled Reparable Harm: Fulfilling The Unkept Promise Of Educational Opportunity For California’s Long Term English Learners. This is a major issue across the country, in California, and in our school. By “long-term” ELL’s, the report means students who have been in U.S. schools for more than six years without reaching English proficiency. In California, 59% of secondary ELL’s are in this category.

It’s an interesting report, well-worth reading. There are a lot of instructional “take-aways” in it, but out of our discussion I had one major realization that got me kicking myself big-time.

I spend a lot of emphasis on students setting goals (see My Best Posts On Students Setting Goals). In that context, we talk a little about career goals, but primarily the focus is on more immediate ones during the course of the school year. In that context, I’m kicking myself for not sitting down with the long-term ELL’s in both my Intermediate English and mainstream classes and having individual frank discussions with them about their hopes and dreams for the future, how those might be negatively impacted by being labeled a long-term ELL (including, but not limited to, restricting the kinds of classes they can take, which in turn will limit their college options, which in turn will limit their career options), and then helping them develop a clear plan on what they can do about it individually and what we can do about it together.

I know if I had done that, the vast majority of them — if not all of them — would have responded very positively. I think many of my colleagues came to similar realizations, and I’m confident things are going to be different in the future.

Today, we talked a lot about teaching writing to ELL’s. A great source of material — not only for ELL’s but for mainstream students, as well — are free Writing Assessment Handbooks that can be downloaded at The California Writing Project website. It’s a great resource for all sorts of writing resources. I particularly like them for their examples of student writing.

I’m going to add that link to The Best Websites For K-12 Writing Instruction/Reinforcement.

We also discussed Robert B. Kaplan’s “Cultural Thought Patterns In Intercultural Education” (go to second page) and how they can be applied to teaching writing to ELL’s. Many readers of this blog might be familiar with his research, but I’m embarrassed to say that very few of us at the training were. Based on his teaching and his research, he identified several “rhetorical and syntactic features that occur” in different cultures. By knowing them (and he developed some fairly well-known simple diagrams that you can see in that link), it can provide us another kind of lens through which to see ELL writing.

I know there are lot of critiques of Kaplan’s categories. I figure it’s just another “diagnostic” tool we can use as we review our student writing. For me, because of what I learned today, I’ll have more patience as it helps me more clearly see that some of my student’s writing isn’t “bad” or “wrong.” Instead, it might just be reflective of their cultural orientation. I can acknowledge it and respect it, and I can also tell them that often within the academic culture and style of the United States, it may not get them to where they want to go, and then help them see what they need to do differently.

In many ways, it reminds me of the on-going discussion in community organizing groups about the use of language in meetings and negotiations. Yes, we want to respect and value native languages, and provide some translation. But the bottom line is that in the U.S. English is the language of power, and if people want to get their fair share of power — in the context of practical U.S. political life — they will need to learn English.

Once they get that power, then they can be less concerned about what language they want to speak. The same goes for ELL writing — for now, rightly or wrongly, students  need to write more in the expected U.S. academic style (though, just as we provide some translation in organizing, we can provide a little space for writing flexibility). But afterwards, they can join writers like Sandra Cisneros and others in writing in whatever style they want.

I’d love to hear other people’s perspectives on all this. Feel free to leave a comment.

I’ll probably write another post later in the week to recap the next few days. We’ll be spending a lot of time on the WRITE Institute next.

This kind of quality professional development is so important.  Teachers said they wanted it, helped plan it, the agenda is flexible according to our needs, and we’re getting paid to attend it.   It’s unfortunate that, based on what I hear, many teachers can’t say the same about the PD activities offered in their districts and schools.