Sometimes when I walk into a classroom, students have such a sense of focus and purpose, that they don’t even look up or notice me. I recently had the opportunity to observe a second grade science class that epitomized that kind of classroom. Located in a small, rural school district in a Title One school with over 80% English Language Learners, this room buzzed with excitement and interest. Students were working at round tables asking each other questions, sharing information, or writing and reading independently. At first, I didn’t even notice the teacher in the room. When I found her, she was kneeling next to a student discussing his research and asking probing questions about his next steps.
The students were working independently on research projects about natural disasters. While students had chosen different topics to research and write about, they often enthusiastically shared a new fact or interesting photo with another student at the table. They were curious about the other’s work on different topics and made connections between hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. They had multiple resources to work with and plenty of supports to enable them to work collaboratively and independently.
In order for English Language Learners to work at this level of independence in English in a content area classroom, the teacher had to clearly plan language supports and integrate content and language learning. When I spoke with her after the lesson, I learned that students had already had many experiences in science labs with natural disasters including creating tornadoes in a bottle. By building students’ background knowledge and exposing students to academic vocabulary in context, this teacher provided an important scaffold to the independent work I witnessed.
Take a moment to really look at the snapshot. What do you notice about how the student is engaged in content and language learning? The leveled text, website on the iPad with visuals, graphic organizer, and notebook all provide layers of support. This one snapshot reveals a lot about thoughtful planning and deep understanding of students’ language needs. With more classroom experiences like the one in the snapshot, this English Language Learner will certainly make significant growth in his language skills and content understanding.