Three Big Questions to Support Adolescent English Learners

Most high school teachers I’ve talked with lately are working hard to help their English learners achieve academic success. With so many aspects of students’ lives beyond our control, how can we make a difference for these young adults? My last post introduced three big questions that can set systemic conditions for large and small changes:

  • Who are we and what are we about?
  • What differences make the biggest difference to our work?
  • How do we do that work together?

Here, I’m describing one example of how a small group of high school teachers is using those three questions as they focus on how to teach writing, especially to English learners.

I have been privileged to work with these teachers since 2007, when we were funded by National Writing Project’s Local Sites Research Initiative, to investigate how to best support adolescent English learners’ academic writing achievement. After a five-day summer institute sponsored by North Star of Texas Writing Project in 2008, the teachers went back to their classrooms to see how they could adapt and modify what they learned in response to their students. They met throughout the year to reflect on the year and to synthesize what they had learned.

Our Findings

To be honest, after that first year, we had more questions than answers. With additional funding, we have continued our exploration, inviting new teachers into the network. Over the years, our network has included about 30 people—teachers in middle and high schools and university educators. The list of articles below chronicles some of our findings.  If you want to get to know our work better, follow us on the Literacy in Learning Exchange—North Star Culturally Mediated Writing Instruction and on Facebook.

We have learned that powerful support for English learners can’t be reduced to five steps or to a list of instructional strategies.

  • It is about setting conditions that invite students to ask important questions about writing and about the world.
  • It’s about building on everything that students bring to the classroom—their cultures, their interests, their use of multiple technologies.
  • It’s about knowing when to step in to guide students when an explicit lesson is needed, and it’s about stepping back and giving students space to explore when they need that.
  • It’s about learning how to have significant conversations about writing and learning.
  • Most of all, it’s about inviting students to join us in an inquiry stance about the world, to search for answers, and to tell the stories of our inquiries.  We use Adaptive Action (Eoyang and Holladay, 2013) as a framework for this inquiry with our students and our colleagues.

Each year since then we have continued this inquiry, and we have come to understand something of the complexity of this kind of powerful instruction. We have begun to call the patterns we want to see in our classrooms “generative teaching and learning.”  “Generative” suggests creativity, adaptation, and transformation. It describes what most teachers and researchers and school reformers see as “best practice.”  It is consistent with project-based learning, with writing workshop, and with other interactive, learner-centered approaches to instruction. But it is difficult to describe or explain in a formula or program that might be implemented across a campus or district.  In fact, once it becomes a formula, it is no longer “generative.”

Here is our most important finding:  A knowledgeable, thoughtful, responsive, and adaptive teacher is essential to generative learning.

Our Plans for a Book

Our focus now is to write about what we have learned. We met one Sunday evening not long ago to talk about how we might put what we have learned into a practical book for teachers. As we talked about our hopes for this book, we realized that the “three big questions” (which we had used now and then throughout our time together) might capture our vision for the book. In this conversation, we realized that our goal is to capture the complexity of teachers’ decision-making in particular contexts, in response to particular students at a particular time. .

This graphic represents our “radical inquiry”—how the three big questions set conditions for our work. (See the explanation of Radical Inquiry at the Human Systems Dynamics Institute website.)

As we have worked with more and more students over the years, our answers to these questions have evolved.  The arrows suggest that our answers to these three questions come together in a complex dynamic that influences how learning self-organizes into a generative pattern. These questions point to “simple rules” that can create the patterns we want to see. Here is how we are currently answering these questions:

Who are we and what is our Work?

  • We are teachers and learners.
  • We are readers and writers.
  • We are change agents.
What makes the most difference to our Work?
  • Empathy and responsiveness
  • Inquiry
  • Authenticity
  • Social and cultural capital
  • Knowledge (about language, literacy, and the world)
  • System coherence (similarities across the whole, part, and greater whole)
How do we work together?
  • Adaptive Action
  • Dialogue (writing and speaking)
  • Mediation and modeling
  • Multiple modes, media, and genre.

We suggest that teachers begin with inquiry and encourage students to investigate problems, generate questions, and then read and writing to explore those questions. Structures like project-based learning and writing workshops can provide essential support for our approach. We also recommend particular practices—writer’s notebooks, mentor texts, quick writes, class discussions, anchor charts, graphic organizers, and more.

When people ask us how to teach students to write, we have to answer, “It depends.”  It depends on the context, the purpose, the students, the resources, and the teacher. We have found, however, that it also depends on our deep beliefs and principles. We are more clear about those beliefs and principles because we have asked one another these three big questions again and again. With each iteration, we have been able to consider more data and more stories from our classrooms to help us answer the questions, questions which help us articulate our beliefs and principles. As we try to enact the answers to these questions, our decisions create particular patterns across time—patterns that have a better chance of making a powerful difference for students.

Teaching writing to anyone (especially adolescent English learners) is a complex business. We can’t control or predict how one student will respond to a particular lesson. But we can use these three questions to set conditions that make powerful literacy learning more likely.

Further Reading

Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Patterson, L, Wickstrom, C., and Araujo, J. (2011). Culturally mediated writing instruction for adolescent English language learners. Research Report of the National Writing Project.

Wickstrom, C., Patterson, L., and Isgitt, J. (2012). One teacher’s implementation of Culturally Medited Writing Instruction. 61st Yearbook of the Literacy Research Association. Oak Creek, WI: Literacy Research Association, Inc.

Wickstrom, C., Araujo, J., Patterson, L., (with Hoki, C., & Roberts, J.). (2011). I can see you, therefore I can teach. In Dunston, P., Gambrell, K. H., Stecker, P., Fullerton, S., Gillis, V., & Bates, C. C. (Eds.), 60th Literacy Research Association Yearbook, (pp. 144-157), Oak Creek, WI: Literacy Research Association.

Patterson, L., Wickstrom, C., Roberts, J., Araujo, J., & Hoki, C. (2010). Deciding when to step in and when to back off. The Tapestry Journal, 2, 1, 1-18.


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