By Rob Schroeder
“We want to take away the common discourse of a teacher standing in front of the classroom with the student required to listen.”
A student sits at her desk in silence. Class after class after class, hour after hour after hour, she never speaks. Not a word to her teacher, not a word to her classmates.
Joanna Maravilla-Cano, PhD Literacy, Language and Culture student, encountered this situation in a classroom she observed conducting research for the College’s Project ELMSA (English Learning Through Math, Science and Action Research). The cause of the girl’s silence was unknown, perhaps stemming from an issue in the home. Regardless, Maravilla-Cano worked with the girl’s teachers to design an action research project bringing in funds of knowledge relevant to the girl’s life into the classroom.
At first, the student’s interactions with the content too place silently, writing responses on paper when prompted by her teachers. Gradually, her teachers encouraged her to take on a leadership role working with these funds of knowledge. Today, as an 8th grader, her silence is no more.
“How much of that has to do with ELMSA we are analyzing right now, but the fact that we got her to a point where shew as engaging a little bit more, where she felt confident, it’s a huge transformation,” Maravilla-Cano said. “We’re encouraging her to take ownership of the content being taught but also to reflect on her own experiences and bring that inside the classroom.”
The core tenet of Project ELMSA, importing student knowledge and experiences into the classroom, is yielding results perhaps not as dramatic but just as substantial in schools across Chicagoland. Researchers at the College are making the case that access to academic language and formal English language skills should not be a barrier to access for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and careers.
The project builds teacher skills in importing students’ funds of knowledge into the classroom knowledge aligned with national mathematics, science, and literacy standards that develop language proficiency in these content areas. With support from the U.S. Department of Education, Project ELMSA is preparing Chicago-area teachers in high poverty schools to apply cutting-edge principles of learning and development to collaboratively design and implement curricular activities based on students’ funds of knowledge aligned with national mathematics, science, and literacy standards that develop language proficiency in these content areas.
“When I enter a classroom, I enter in full identity, as a multi-faceted person,” says Dayo Harris (photo, below), MEd Literacy, Language and Culture student and assistant principal at Village Leadership Academy (VLA). “As teachers, we forget that students are multi-faceted people who come in with their own multiple identities.”
VLA is an independent school with a predominantly low income Black student population at two campuses in Chicago’s near west side. The schools are steeped in culture and cultural empowerment, concepts that play out literally on word walls in each classroom. Words such as racism, oppression and gentrification represent terms teachers want students to use in authentic ways, not just as jargon.
As a teacher and now an assistant principal at VLA, Harris utilizes ELMSA curriculum to take a standard practice such as a word wall and ground that practice in greater theory of history, culture and knowledge production. For example, Harris used the lens of video games, a common technology facet of her students’ lives, to break down issues of social justice. Her class engaged in a qualitative analysis of games, quantifying characters by gender, qualifying the power held by characters and identifying racial stereotypes. Students developed their own social justice rubric to evaluate video games in this light.
“I’m not familiar with this topic, but students have the knowledge around it, meaning it’s a perfect topic to set up to feel discomfort in the classroom,” Harris said. “They are interrogating how they are being influenced, how media influences their thoughts.”
This type of lesson is just one step in developing a framework for teachers to develop as ethnographers and researchers. ELMSA works with 72 K-8 in-service teachers in 26 Chicago schools who are pursuing a master’s degree at the College and an ESL/Bilingual Endorsement. Teachers engage with foundational coursework before pursuing independent study in the form of an action research project over the course of a full school year. During their action research, teachers work with research assistants who are undergraduate and graduate students at the College to develop three units spanning four to five weeks for implementation in teachers’ classrooms.
Research assistants aid teachers in gathering data on the effects and student outcomes from each unit. Norma Noriega, BA Urban Education: Elementary Education student and an undergraduate research assistant with ELMSA, gathers video, transcripts and student work and codes each submission to mark research-based lessons, funds of knowledge used and organic conversations generated.
Noriega says by examining raw footage and classroom materials over a time continuum, she observes how teachers are improving their practice. Over the course of implementing the units, she says teachers become more detailed in their preparation, add greater interaction in the classroom and grow more analytical and critical in their reflections.
Other data collection includes field notes taken by research assistants and analysis of how well teachers are able to incorporate their reflections back into practice.
“At the beginning of the process, teachers often become very frustrated and overwhelmed because there is this tug-and-pull, they say give me answers, tell me exactly what to do,” Maravilla-Cano said. “We want to take away the common discourse of a teacher standing in front of the classroom with the student required to listen.”
Maravilla-Cano worries modern educational systems inhibit teachers from using knowledge gained from self-analysis in their teaching. She identifies a disconnect between reflective practice and standards-based education but stresses the ELMSA curriculum has been designed to account for both needs.
Across the United States, Latinos represent only 10 percent of Americans employed in STEM careers. There are a host of explanations—exposure to career opportunities, access to study in both school and in the community and the devaluing of local community funds of knowledge come to mind—but in the classroom, subtle changes in teacher approaches can pay big dividends in promoting STEM study at a young age.
In Analleli Munoz’s second grade classroom at Belmont Cragin Elementary on Chicago’s northwest side, video of lessons and transcripts of classroom discourse are revealing stark differences in language use by the predominantly Latino students.
“When there is no teacher around, students were using very high levels of academic language,” Munoz (photo, below) said. “As soon as the camera comes back in and formal lessons begin, they were feeling like they could not own academic language yet.”
Even the youngest students would agree language manifests itself in different ways—in the language of the home, on the playground, in the classroom, in the community. The most experienced educators might be hard-pressed to explain why the capacity for academic language, so evident in informal settings with non-native English speakers, disappears in formal classroom settings
Munoz wants students to understand that a lifelong passion for science or math does not mean one must devote their life passion to becoming an astronaut or an expert in any other superstar field. She believes students need to see from a young age they are capable of succeeding in science and math to build interest in pursuing STEM studies in high school and college.
Creating capability for success starts with flipping traditional teacher-student roles. Munoz says she is shying away from a mindset that students are to listen and absorb but rather concentrating on what elements of students’ lives can be brought to life in the classroom. Teachers pay close attention to the questions they are asking students to best honor their contributions in the classroom, rather than creating reward structures based on completions of teacher-dictated activities. In assessments, Munoz works to create alternative options to reward students for unplanned contributions.
These changes have reduced the length of units; instead of spending three lessons introducing a topic, relying on students’ funds of knowledge opens more time for new learning and new understandings that increase self-esteem as students feel like active participants in their own education. The approach has also highlighted common threads of issues that are significant issues for the local Latino community. For example, food and its role in Latino culture is a constantly recurring theme that pops up in student contributions. That student emphasis has led to organic units on the role of food in health and nutrition and diseases, all science topics worthy of coverage in traditionally -designed curriculum but arrived at in a vastly different manner.
“I feel like I’ve always been a reflective educator, but now the focus is more on student learning versus my teaching,” Munoz said.
At John A. Walsh Math and Science Academy in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, 8th-grade mathematics teacher Brenda Fonseca has her predominantly Latino and Black students examining a political cartoon:
The provocative cartoon opens up a heady discussion: one girl argues the cartoon indicated the small percentage of people and corporations possessing global wealth also possessed power and control from that wealth; another boy pushes back and argues the small group of wealthy people and corporations controlled resources. Other students attempts to list the eight corporations—Microsoft and Apple are unanimous first guesses.
To an outsider, the chatter is chaotic and unorthodox: students are talking over one another, separate conversations spring up spontaneously and some students are even standing and talking to classmates across the room to stress their point.
For Fonseca, the chaos is more of a symphony. She played the role of orchestra conductor, molding the swells and dips in conversation. She guided students towards analyzing their own purchases of Microsoft and Apple products (the class concluded no one would want to live without them). That led to discussion on students’ roles as consumers in building up these piles of wealth, which generated conversation on connections to consumer activity in home communities.
From a simple political cartoon only tangentially connected at best to traditional math curriculum, Fonseca’s students created an organic discussion based on their lived experiences that formed a foundation for future math lessons on examining quantities. The relevance and reference points of the discussion attach meaning to more formal math lessons moving forward.
Impressed by such worldly student discussion? They weren’t quite as wordy when Fonseca first started teaching ELMSA lessons.
“They were hesitating, waiting and looking; she’s going to give us the answer, it’s coming,” Fonseca (photo, below) said. “But they realized I will sit here and listen; I’ll emphasize what they are saying but give them no choice but to think and get their ideas across.”
Fonseca says the ELMSA lessons simply connect with students’ lived experiences better than traditional curriculum. Doling out 30 problems to complete does not fit with the way students’ worlds work today: they experience, they analyze, they converse. She points to the wealth accumulation conversation as evidence: students have the knowledge basis and information; teachers just need to create the pathways for students to feel encouraged to apply their knowledge in class.
She refers to this concept as a “third space,” a place that is more than providing time and opportunities for knowledge to come from the student but for students to use each other’s ideas and create new information. In wealth accumulation discussion, students arrived at the same relevant point using a variety of different areas of knowledge basis: knowledge of corporations, of macroeconomic trends, of personal and local spending practices.
Fonseca argues parents are crucial to successfully implementing the ELMSA concept. Home visits “create a world for you [as a teacher]” to see a child’s lived experiences and to build relationships with parents to help identify areas of knowledge that can be capitalized on in the classroom.
“If I can provide space for students to analytically think about numbers and understand math, that is where true learning happens,” Fonseca said. “It is scary, I wouldn’t say that it is not, but I know that it works.”