Whenever my sixth graders enter my English classroom, I’m struck by both their boundless energy and their lack of self-consciousness. My students give me a high-five in the morning. One of them always insists that I raise my hand as high as I can so that she can show off just how high she can jump.
To protect her privacy, I’ll call her Jasmine. I was surprised that despite her unadulterated joy in school, her reading skills fell far short when she came to my class. She was multiple years behind and I was determined to help her rise to the challenge of reading by ensuring that she can see herself in her schoolwork.
Jasmine’s struggle wasn’t new to me. Even with lots of support, my most struggling readers were often not progressing. As I reflected on how I could fill my students’ literacy gaps, the important question was: How can my students develop the abilities necessary to master grade-level skills?
I am fortunate that my school leaders have afforded me and my co-teacher the space to answer these questions, as well as professional development training around co-teaching and culturally relevant teaching. Some of this training included how co-teachers can build and leverage positive relationships between one another and how to make content more interesting for students.
As a result, the class that I now co-teach with a special education teacher focuses on students like Jasmine.
Too much of commercial curricula are intentionally designed for a narrow population — students who read at grade-level, speak English as their first language and whose identities reflect the dominant culture. Instead of using the books and materials that our curriculum prescribes, we use more accessible texts, including news articles and other materials, to teach sixth-grade skills and standards while still helping our students master some of the more fundamental oral reading skills, such as fluency, expression and phrasing.
For example, our class recently read a news article about the negative consequences that social media can have on teens. The article engaged many students in a way that a prescribed novel from my curriculum wouldn’t because it centered on something to which they can easily connect. Jasmine asked, “What does body image mean?” when the article discussed how social media can contribute to a teen’s negative self-image.
Our class is by no means perfect, but it is yielding positive results. Jasmine’s Lexile score, which measures reading ability, increased by 390 points this year, meaning she improved her reading level by several years. Yet, she still has a lot of ground to make up.
Jasmine’s situation, unfortunately, is all too common in not only the community in which I teach, but also in many neighborhoods across the country, where students are taught in a one-size-fits-all approach. Similarly, not every teacher is as lucky as I am when it comes to the freedom to explore different curricula.
I am encouraged to see our state leaders focusing on investing in professional learning opportunities and meeting the needs of California’s diverse student body. With the $22 million Educator Workforce Investment Grant program in the recently adopted state budget, there is a significant opportunity for districts to use their grants from this program to focus on strategies to support social-emotional learning or practices to create a positive school climate.
I hope that the state can encourage districts to use these funds to create opportunities for the kind of teacher-led, collaborative professional learning experience that has been so productive for me and my team. I also hope that as Superintendent Tony Thurmond implements his Closing the Achievement Gap initiative, he focuses not only on bringing in more educators who reflect the demographics of the students we serve but also on providing all educators support in developing more culturally responsive curriculum. The signals from the state are promising but districts need support and guidance to enable teachers to better engage all our students.
The central fund of knowledge for what we teach should be our students and it’s up to us as educators to make note of what our students tell us each day of their abilities, passions, interests and needs.
Every teacher should be given the space to engage in a reflective process to ensure that they all have — and are able to use — curricula that is relevant to their students. District and school leaders need to promote collaboration among their teachers so that this work is done in community.
Let’s not teach in a vacuum. Students like Jasmine need to feel connected to what they’re learning. It’s the only way they can find success in reading and in school.
Daniel Helena teaches 6th grade English at Alliance Kory Hunter Middle School in Los Angeles’s Florence-Firestone neighborhood. He is a 2018-19 Policy Fellow with Teach Plus California, a nonprofit organization that trains teacher leaders to shape educational policy.
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