Education Week - September 23, 2015 - (Page 19)
Can a Former Journalist Teach
English-Language Learners to Write?
By Mary Ann Zehr
hen I started a new career
as a high school English-asa-second-language teacher in
2011, I figured I was better
equipped than many teachers
to help students learn to write.
I had been a journalist for 14
years for Education Week, and
for most of that time I had specialized in writing about English-language learners. Four years later, I'm still in a trialand-error stage in finding the most effective ways to teach
adolescent ELLs to write. But I have had some success.
Most of my students have made good progress in English
on the standardized test, ACCEss for ELLs, developed by
WIDA, a consortium in Madison, Wis., and used by about
half the states plus the District of Columbia to measure
ELLs' annual progress in English.
The students' results are the outcome of instruction from
all their teachers, not just me. But I believe my focus on
teaching writing in an English-language-development
class for students with a Level 4 out of 6 on the WIDA scale
helped many of my students polish their skills so they could
test out of the ESL program.
I'm particularly satisfied that a handful of ELLs who
were born in the United States and never went to school
elsewhere finally scored high enough to leave ESL classes
after they took my writing class.
My approach to writing has both evolved from experimentation and drawn on ideas I learned in conducting a review
in 2014 of research on the teaching of writing to ELLs in
U.S. high schools.
* English-learners need models of writing and instruction in specific genres.
ELLs can go astray in myriad ways during writing and
need to be taught the differences between genres, such as
an argumentative essay, a personal narrative, and a research paper. Ken Hyland, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Hong Kong, argues for the use of
"genre pedagogy" for second-language learners, in which
students learn about text forms, rather than use of a process approach, in which students learn steps of writing.
Hyland wrote in a 2007 article in the Journal of Second
Language Writing that in genre pedagogy, supporting the
learning of students "takes many forms but typically includes modeling and discussion of texts, explicit instruction,
and teacher input."
Teenagers are more likely to complete
writing assignments and write well if
they see themselves as writers."
His approach resonates with me. When I give a substantial writing assignment, I provide models. We talk about the
genre. For example, when teaching how to write an argumentative essay, I stress the need for students to back up
their claims with facts or examples and to address counterarguments. I provide a template with phrases to start for
* Students benefit from meeting authors.
Serving the District of Columbia and Baltimore city public
schools is a wonderful program run by the Washington-based
PEN/Faulkner Foundation, which buys books for students
to read and keep and arranges for authors of those books to
visit classrooms. My students have become more interested
in reading and writing after meeting authors.
Last school year, my classes received visits from six authors, who were diverse and passionate about their writing.
Why Do Students Hate History?
Some Thoughts on the 'Boring' Social Studies
By Greg Milo
open up my World History textbook
It starts with the origins of civilization, and it wraps up with a rushed
snapshot of today. That's 5,000 years
"So," I asked myself early in my
career, "we're supposed to teach everything that's ever happened everywhere on
"Right (inject sarcasm)."
It wasn't until my fifth year that I began selecting units to merely touch upon and other
units to dive deep into, but in a class based on
chronology, that can be difficult for students.
I was never much into the European Middle
Ages, but I couldn't breeze over it and expect
my students to understand why the European
About my seventh year, I began to wonder,
"What's this all about? Who cares about DaVinci? Who cares about the Roaring Twenties?
Who cares about Sun Tzu? Who cares about
any of this history? What's the point?"
I mean, I care, because I nerd out over it. I'm
guessing most historians do. But I'm also guessing many kids don't.
I run into people all the time who say, "I hated
history as a kid, but I like it now." They also
can't tell me anything about their history class,
except for how boring the teacher was, but they
can tell me about whatever history interests
If we want our students to
make reasoned decisions,
then they'll have to be
able to understand the
complicated mix of people,
places, and things that
lead to an outcome."
For example, my students read the short story "The Summer
of Ice Cream," about a couple of boys helping their Nigerian
father run an ice cream business in Salt Lake City. Then
they met Tope Folarin, the author of that story, who talked
with them about how he based the story on his own experiences of trying to figure out what it means to be American.
When I assigned English-learners to write their own stories,
Folarin's work provided a model.
* ELLs need to talk first and write later.
While initially my inclination as a teacher was to have
students read a model for an assignment and then launch
into their own writing, I've found it's more effective to have
students talk about a topic before they write about it. This
PAGE 21 >
MARY ANN ZEHR teaches English to English-language learners in
the District of Columbia school system. She is a former staff writer
and assistant editor for Education Week.
them today. Why does that happen?
Why do students hate history?
I'm pretty sure it's a diverse list of reasons,
but usually students who dislike my class say
it is boring.
"Why is it boring?" I ask.
Students often answer with something along
the lines of, "How is learning about the Treaty
of Versailles going to help me in life?"
It makes me question whether the content
should be the focus.
What is it about the social studies that's most
important to my students?
My answer: strengthening their thinking
I want my students to think. I want them
to make reasoned decisions that consider the
many variables of an event. I want them to
understand a decision's consequences, for the
long term as well as the short. I want them to
understand how others will be affected by the
decision. And I want them to act accordingly.
If my goal is, as the Ohio Department of Education puts it, to "prepare students to be participating citizens," then it seems that I want to
challenge students' decisionmaking, and to provide them with the opportunity to take action.
And it makes sense that students can practice those decisionmaking skills with any subject-not a boring one.
Why does history have to be taught through
a chronology of topics?
Why do my students have to learn about the
fall of Rome or the East India Trading Co.?
Maybe one of them would like to focus on elections in Burundi.
Textbooks are often written with brief and incomplete details, blowing through the specifics,
kind of like how a teacher who isn't comfortable
with the subject matter would teach a topic.
This method misses out on the many variables
that matter in understanding cause and effect.
Textbooks also tend to dismiss the humanity
of the subject-akin to telling a story with no
If we want our students to make reasoned
decisions, then they'll have to be able to understand the complicated mix of people, places, and
things that lead to an outcome.
My students ask questions that show how
perceptive they are. They realize that there
are gaps in a lesson, or that I've breezed over
something. I could run with that awareness, answering the students' questions, fulfilling the
so-called "teachable moment," but why not let
PAGE 21 >
GREG MILO is the social studies department chair at
Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, Ohio, where he
is beginning his 13th year. He can be reached at milog@
hoban.org and on Twitter at @Mr_Greg_Milo.
EDUCATION WEEK | September 23, 2015 | www.edweek.org/go/commentary | 19
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - September 23, 2015
Education Week - September 23, 2015
Research Agency Faces Deep Cuts In Budget Bills
Schools Seek Split From Confederacy
English-Learner Tests Moving to Digital Realm
Despite Research on Teens’ Sleep, Change to School Start Times Difficult
News in Brief
To Combat Inequity, Ferguson Panel Urges K-12 Changes
Study: KIPP Confers an Edge in Academics But Not in Attitudes
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: Online Credit Recovery in Need of Overhaul, Study Says
Blogs of the Week
From Pre-K to Higher Ed., Duncan Tour Touts Priorities
GOP Presidential Debaters Give Glancing Mention to Education
In Wide-Ranging Discussion, Duncan Mulls Issues, Agenda
ANN MYERS & JILL BERKOWICZ: STEM Doesn’t Narrow the Curriculum
MARY ANN ZEHR: Can a Former Journalist Teach English-Language Learners to Write?
GREG MILO: Why Do Students Hate History? Some Thoughts on the ‘Boring’ Social Studies
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
CAROL DWECK: Growth Mindset, Revisited
Education Week - September 23, 2015