Imagine a fourth grade student listening to his teacher reading lines from Walt Whitman's poem "I, Too Hear America Singing":
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong, The carpenter singing as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,. . .
(Levin, 1997, p. 9).
Then the teacher asks, "What do you think the poet means when he uses the words varied carols?" Suddenly the student feels nervous and frightened when he realizes that he is unable to answer the question because he doesn't understand the meaning of the poem or even the meanings of most of the words in the poem.
This is a scene that could face English language learners not just in the New Haven Public Schools, but in schools across the country. Linguistically and culturally diverse students are the fastest growing student population in New Haven like other cities and suburban areas in the United States. English language learners (ELL) face the unique challenge of having to learn the same core curriculum concepts as their native speaking classmates while at the same time master the task of acquiring sufficient language proficiency to succeed academically in school.
The case of
Lau v Nichols
(414, U.S., 563-572, 1974) ensured that like all mainstream English speaking students, English language learners have the same legal rights to appropriate educational opportunities that meet their academic needs so that they will succeed in school. In this case the Supreme Court (1974) concluded that "because students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education," all states are now mandated to provide educational programs that meet academic needs of English language learners.
New Haven Public Schools is committed to providing all students the opportunity to achieve academically. This fact, coupled with federal legislation of "No Child Left Behind" that demands that all children will succeed and meet content standards, has made an urgent need for educators to continually seek and refine innovative strategies to help English language learners meet academic success.
Teaching about diversity is important at all levels and to all students, but even more so to students who arrive in this country with a limited knowledge of the characteristics of our multicultural society. All Americans are not the same, and educators must promote this understanding for all their students. Educators must also send the message to their students that they not only accept diversity, but they personally value and embrace it. With this understanding, students can honor their own ethnic heritage as they become valued members of our ever increasing pluralistic society. Along with providing opportunities for students to engage in stimulating and motivational learning activities, teachers must have high expectations for the academic achievement of all learners.
Therefore, I have developed this unit for my fourth grade students to listen to the voices of various American writers that represent this cultural diversity in the United States. Prior to beginning this unit I would recommend that the teacher first have a clear understanding of voice in writing. To facilitate this understanding, I would recommend Elbow's (1996) book,
Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing
I found his
essay on voice extremely helpful in promoting my personal understanding of the various facets of voice. He clarifies the distinctions of voice as: "the human voice, the dramatic voice, the recognizable voice, the voice of authority, and the resonant voice" (p. xx). In particular, what I found most helpful was his explanation of "resonant voice" or "presence" in writing, that is, when an author of a work shares his conscious and unconscious beliefs through his words (pp. xxiv- xxxix).
It is my objective that this unit of study will not only broaden my own students' understanding of the differences that exist in Americans in our society, but enhance their understanding of the differences and similarities among different people and groups. At the same time, I wish to develop my students' second language acquisition skills in the context of this literature study. Although I wrote this unit to use with English language learners who are bilingual students in my fourth grade bilingual class, the content of this unit may be adapted to teach English language learners at other grade levels as well as for use with mainstream students. Therefore, this unit will contribute not only to student knowledge, but to teacher knowledge as well.
The teaching strategies employed in this unit are based on research in second language acquisition and effective methodology for teaching content to English language learners. Sheltered content teaching has proven a successful teaching methodology to address the instructional needs of these students. The term "Sheltered English" refers to a teaching methodology that utilizes strategies to make the English language comprehensible to English language learners while these students are simultaneously learning core content area skills. Sheltered instruction is based on a second language acquisition theory of "comprehensible input" and the work of Stephen Krashen, who maintains the necessity to introduce new language in a context that is meaningful to students and one where second language learners will be able to practice their developing language skills in authentic situations.
Echevarria and Short (2003) furthered this theoretical understanding with the development of a model of the Sheltered English methodology called Sheltered English Operation Protocol (SIOP). This model of Sheltered English utilizes specific strategies such as: lesson preparation that includes both language and content objectives; provides an opportunity to develop the necessary background knowledge; scaffolds instruction (provides enough support to students to ensure their mastery of the content objective); uses teacher modeling; adapts content skills to students' language proficiency level; emphasizes key vocabulary (essential vocabulary that must be learned in order to master the content skills); and utilizes speech patterns that are appropriate for the language proficiency levels of students (the use of simple grammatical structures and vocabulary that students are able comprehend), and uses supplementary materials such as visuals, maps and graphic organizers (Echevarria & Short, 2003).