Monthly Archives: March 2013

P/W/F-ing our way through supporting ELL writers

tree pose

In my study, I have a framed quotation by Robert Frost that says, “The best way out is always through.” (Un)fortunately, from my own writing, thinking, loving, living, I’ve learned that the poet is right. Frost’s implied advice holds true for teaching, too.

Something that I’m learning about right now alongside my CSU students is how to support the needs of ELL writers, especially with the imminent approach of the SOS Project–that digital storytelling workshop that the CSU Writing Project is offering (and Antero Garcia and I are co-facilitating) this summer for 4th-grade ELLs. This need for support is immediate and urgent in Colorado, where the population of ELLs has grown by 260% vs. 16% for the total student population. (For some more numbers on ELLs in Colorado, see the pdf of a Keynote presentation here: ELs in CO by the numbers.) To help us pose/wobble/flow (P/W/F) our way through meeting this need (think yoga here), we’ve started reading Danling Fu’s terrific book Writing between Languages: How ELLs Make the Transition to Fluency.

I love this book for lots of reasons. First, Fu begins with her own experiences as a native Chinese speaker who has become so proficient in English she has written this text. Secondly, she offers a beautiful blend of theory and research–much of it drawn from her own work with ELL students and their teachers–to provide a useful conceptual framework for teaching ELLs. And, finally, she offers some concrete methods for supporting their writing development. Having taught the book a couple of times, though, I know that my CSU students sometimes struggle to see that third part–the concrete methods–because Fu weaves them in so beautifully with the first and second parts. We’re going to have to parse them explicitly if we want to apply them.

So I want to try something myself with them that’s also related to our emphasis all semester long of becoming culturally responsive teachers of writing who recognize our own positionality and privilege, this time as native speakers of English. We’re going to start where we are, in other words, and intentionally take on various poses (P). We’ll undoubtedly wobble (W) in the process, but we’re going to do our dead-level best to work our way toward flow (F). This thinking will be informed by our current readings.

In the first chapter of the book, Fu actually P/W/Fs herself to some extent, as follows:

Her POSE: She explains that as a native Chinese speaker, she wanted to become a proficient writer of academic English.

Her WOBBLE: Although she was a fluent reader and speaker of English, she confesses that she faced every writing assignment feeling that she had “rocks in [her] head and [her] stomach” (p. 1).  Words didn’t come out right. Her thinking felt stunted. She wanted to give up. This, from a Fulbright scholar in American Literature!

How she learned to FLOW: She struggled, she practiced, and she clearly made her way through as a writer, just as she had earlier as a reader. She explains that it was writing, ironically, that enabled his process–allowing her to think more deeply and logically. Writing allowed her to “join the conversation of the literacy circle of my peers” and supported her academic growth (p. 2).

I draw encouragement from Fu’s example to inform my own state of P/W/F at this moment. Here it is:

P: After reading the words of immigrant students struggling to learn English in the National Commission on Writing report called Words Have No Borders, I know I want to learn how to support the writing of ELLs from a position of empathy.

W: I have so many questions when it comes to how to actually do that, though. Fu insists that teachers must “let them [ELLs] write.” But exactly how do I help them do this WHILE they’re learning the language?

F: I’m nowhere near answering this question definitively, but some methods I might emulate from Fu’s experiences are to observe ELLs while they’re writing, to examine and look for patterns in the writing they produce, and to listen to their experiences in the process.

I want to expand on that “F” for a bit, just to explore some possible concrete methods that I don’t want to forget as we move into the SOS Project with ELLs this summer. What would happen if we tried these strategies?:

  1. giving the SOS kids frequent and authentic opportunities to produce extended pieces of writing (not fill-in-the-blank worksheets)
  2. reading their writing as “data” that will give us clues about their needs so that we can scaffold their writing development
  3. asking them to reflect on their writing processes. We could do this periodically in writing conferences (what about recording these as podcasts?); in brief, written reflections (maybe on a sticky note?) when they compose short pieces of writing; and/or in longer reflections when they write more involved pieces.

So there’s my first attempt at P/W/F-ing through our first 2 chapters of Fu. I’m going to ask my students to follow this same thinking/writing process today in class, and I’m changing our response methods for the next few weeks to follow this pattern as well. The plan at the moment is to do this on our class forum. If they agree, you’ll be able to follow their thinking there and my periodic reflections on our joint process here on this blog.

Will the best way out be PWF-in our way through? Stay tuned and we’ll see!

(URL FOR TREE POSE IMAGE)

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