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Marathon EL Instruction Blog 11-19-21

During a recent visit to the Marathon Elementary School, accompanied by principal Lauren Dubeau, I popped into an English learner “EL” classroom. In a small and cozy space, designed for pull-out English-for-Speakers-of-Other Languages or “ESOL” instruction, an English learner educator sat with four Marathon first-grade students. These four children all speak different languages. There are 127 ELs enrolled in kindergarten and grade one at Marathon. 

People perhaps wonder why it is that very young children who are learning phonics need English learner instruction when they are getting incredible literacy instruction in their regular classroom. Consider this: Phonics asks children to turn letters into sounds and then make meaning of the words constructed from those sounds. Native speakers of English typically know the words they’re “sounding out”: BAT, MAT, CHAT... But, consider what happens when children are not native speakers and we ask them to sound out words. They are pronouncing words without meaning. (When Urdu, for example, is your primary language, what the heck is a “bat” or a “mat” or a “chat,” right?) Teaching students to read words they don’t know only reinforces the idea that reading is simply pronouncing sounds, as opposed to turning sounds into words and then words into meaning.

What I encountered last week might help people understand what English learner educators do. This particular teacher had the children cutting strips of colored paper and gluing those strips onto a paper plate. These backgrounds made a blank-face monster-like character, on which the children would create a face. The faces they were making needed to express some emotion. The emotion could be anything: happy or grumpy or excited or...you name it. 

Certainly, a lot of skills were being built in this classroom. First, teaching children about their emotions helps them to grow emotionally strong. Children need to be able to identify, understand, and describe their emotions so that they can confidently articulate their feelings when they need to do so, and let’s acknowledge that all people need to do that throughout their lives. Consider how many times young children are afraid or unable to share what they’re feeling. That’s not OK. Consider how many adults don’t articulate their feelings well.  Hmmm. That’s another blog entirely. ;-)

Second, these kids were using scissors and glue sticks. The use of these tools helps support the development of fine motor skills. One little girl had to ask her peer to help her take the cover off the glue stick, thus using language that supports the building of social skills. Then, kids had to wait to use the glue stick, as they were required to share, thereby practicing turn-taking. 

Most importantly, however, in this safe space specifically devoted to English learners, these children could practice using social and academic language, and expressive and interpretive language in a small group, where in a regular, larger classroom they might not have the same opportunity or the same safe space to “try on” language. They were learning to name and describe emotions as well as colors: red, orange, green, blue; to ask for the scissors or to ask for help; to engage in polite discourse--”please” and “thank you.” This kind of small-setting instruction accelerates English language development by helping English learners make the connection between what they know in their first language--colors, emotions, polite language--and what they need to know as first-grade students at the Marathon Elementary School.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education anticipates that students will stay in English learner education (ELE) programs no longer than six years. Most Hopkinton students average two to four years in our ELE program. Why? Because our curriculum, instruction, and commitment to Hopkinton’s ELs is second to none. Marathon’s commitment to English language instruction is the foundation for our students that allows them to test out of our ELE program and thereby access the curriculum in English without support as they advance through our schools.

Prior to our leaving the English learner classroom at Marathon last week, Mrs. Dubeau wrestled with a glue stick while I asked a little guy, “Why did you choose a happy face?” He told me, “This is a silly face.” OK then. Pardon me. Thanking the teacher and the kids for their hard work, I put on my sheepish face, gave Mrs. Dubeau the “Are-we-ready-to-go?” look, and left the very capable and wonderfully engaged children and their teacher to their work.

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  • Literacy

Hopkinton High School is beginning to explore infusing more disciplinary literacy instruction for our grade 9 students. What this means is that our content area instruction will emphasize the specialized knowledge and abilities possessed by those who create, communicate, and use knowledge within each of the disciplines--science, social studies, and English language arts. Essentially, kids are taught to think like a scientist, read like a historian, write essays that analyze works of fiction, and lots more. Why is this important? The language we find when we’re reading literature or reading about literature itself is vastly different from the language one would encounter if reading a Scientific American article, a plea for funding for an environmental project, or a laboratory report. Kids must be explicitly taught the language and communication styles of each discipline.

 

I’m bringing this up now not because I think that high school parents are going to be overly excited about disciplinary literacy (although I am pretty jazzed about it myself…), but because I was very excited when a Hopkinton High School science teacher showed the document that she uses to teach accountable talk phrases. Accountable talk phrases are the way we teach kids to communicate with each other respectfully in any classroom. We teach them the language to use when they want to disagree, when they want to build on someone else’s point, when they need clarification, and more. It’s kind of polite discourse and instruction, and it lends to the incorporation of more voices in a classroom. Our young adults gain confidence as they learn how to communicate with each other in a learning environment, to be actively involved in understanding the perspectives of others, and to exhibit patience and kindness as they become independent learners.

 

It’s kind of a funny thing. I think in education we used to believe that speaking and listening, because they are the primary discourses, didn't have to be explicitly taught. When kids come to school they are typically good speakers and listeners. What we used to think was that we had to teach explicitly reading and writing, those being the secondary discourses. That thinking has changed. Teaching students speaking and listening teaches them to become active and interdependent thinkers who are part of a community of learners who are not afraid to take risks or to push their own boundaries.

 

So if you’re still with me--and I acknowledge there has been a lot of reading so far!--I can share with you a cool thing about our science teacher’s accountable talk phrase document. It intersects beautifully with what our Social Emotional Learning Director has been hired to do, which is to integrate SEL into academics and the learning environment. What our Social Emotional Learning Director, Carla Burley, will say is that kids need to feel part of a classroom community; these accountable talk phrases are not only good for literacy (or speaking) instruction, but they are also exceptional in the way of social emotional learning.

 

The Social Emotional Learning Director also extols something called “optimistic closure.” In an effort to ensure “optimistic closure,” all educators district wide have participated in professional development centered on Three SEL Signature Practices that support the learning environment. At the end of the class, students get to think about what they’ve learned and what kinds of things they’re going to do to sort of “seal the deal” on their own learning. This “optimism” helps them to believe they can tackle challenging learning standards.When kids have the tools of accountable talk phrases alongside an opportunity for “optimistic closure,” every student’s voice can be heard with authority, creating a greater community in the classroom--all while promoting increased learning in the disciplines.

 

These are really exciting times. We’re not only building on our high school students’ literacy skills within the disciplines alongside their content knowledge, but also their social emotional learning. Perhaps never in the history of public education have these goals been more lofty. Our kids have received irregular schooling for a long time. Our kids have lost a lot of social learning. And so I am celebrating the work that is happening at Hopkinton High School that underscores the importance of this trinity: content, literacy skills, and social emotional skills. Many thanks to the incredible faculty and staff at HHS. 

  • Superintendent
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Over the past several years, the school district has committed to priorities around inclusion. Broadly speaking, inclusion can be defined as the extent to which students, faculty, and staff feel a sense of belonging and value within our schools.  Inclusive practices, over the past five years in particular, have become increasingly manifest in our corridors, classrooms, and curricula in so many ways. Of course we’re still studying reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic--we’re just weaving inclusivity into our curricula and instruction along the way.

 

A couple of weeks ago on a sparkling fall morning, liberated from meetings, I found my way to Hopkins School. As I entered, I met a student doing laps in the hallway, flanked by an adult. This particular kiddo wasn’t having the best morning, but was holding it together because he had a trusted grown-up walking alongside him, building his confidence, steadying his temperament, and bolstering his stamina for the day. Pausing momentarily, I marveled at how our schools so aptly meet the needs of individual students. Helping a child self-regulate means getting him access to curriculum--essentially including him in the classroom setting. 

 

Classrooms buzzed with learning, and I was drawn into a place where a teacher held her students rapt with what we call an “interactive read aloud”.  Picture about 15 kids sitting on the rug, eyes on the teacher, hands raised to answer questions, faces animated for moments of “turn and talk.” The text, a beautifully illustrated book entitled The Name Jar, chronicles a little girl’s move from her home in Korea to the United States. At first, she is reluctant to share her name, a Korean name--“Unhei”--with her new classmates, because it is an uncommon name, which for some American children proves difficult--initially--to pronounce. In response, the class puts a jar on Unhei’s desk and fills it with all kinds of American names, as suggestions for the girl to adopt as her own. 

 

The reader comes to learn that Unhei’s name translates to “Grace,” and that her mother and her grandmother, when they were in Korea, went to visit a name master to choose the little girl’s name. Unhei has a wooden stamp of the characters that make up her name. What makes this text so spectacular, I think, is that it is a story around the power of names and the ways names identify children. Many of the students in the Hopkinton Public Schools do not have traditional American names, and while they see themselves in this text and perhaps identify closely with Unhei, certainly students with American names can find themselves in the text as well. Essentially, names have meaning to the human beings they identify. The importance of respecting and valuing ALL names--and people!--is central to the text. Here we see inclusivity incorporated into an English Language Arts lesson.

 

In another space--a corridor, actually--I was able to witness a lesson in the program known as Understanding Our Differences, a curriculum dedicated to fostering respectful and inclusive schools and communities for people of all abilities. The lesson was focused on the gifts and talents that students with some kind of learning disability bring into our schools and into friendships. Students first discussed the students in the scenarios they had studied; then, they made connections to self. So many of the kids could describe someone they know who has a learning disability of some kind and also an ABILITY that makes them stand out in some other unique way.

 

Finally, I went into a classroom during a social studies lesson. With the lights dimmed, the classroom housed students engaged in a lesson on early American colonization. Many of you will hearken back to the days when social studies was taught largely through a Eurocentric lens, meaning the story would have been told through the vantage point of the white European settlers. During this lesson, students were asked to do some pre-reading about Massasoit, a Wampanoag Indian Chief who, throughout his life, maintained a reciprocal, peaceful, and respectful relationship with the English settlers in Plymouth Colony. After Massasoit’s death, however, the relationship deteriorated, leading to King Philip’s War and led particularly by Massasoit’s son. 

 

In this classroom the learning was focused on betrayal. Massasoit had fostered relationships with the Pilgrims, and some years later Massasoit’s descendents were left with broken promises. Students were asked to engage in perspective-taking, to evaluate whose behaviors were justified. 

 

The kids were using technology to write a short response on their chrome book, which the teacher could then project onto the whiteboard at the front of the room. The students’ responses appeared one at a time, without the kids’ names attached. The teacher could ask her students to discuss different responses projected on the board. One student wrote the following:

 

“Massasoit’s sons feel this way because the English were revoking resources and land rights in other areas and feared this could cause a domino effect, spreading to Massachusetts. I think they were right and had a perfect reason to feel this way, but Massasoit was not in the wrong either for his kindness.”

 

 As you look at this particular student's response, you will see the balanced approach this student took, essentially being able to understand the position of Massasoit as well as the position of his sons, who lived on after him. Essentially, these social studies learning tasks are foundational to kids growing their disciplinary literacy. This kind of perspective-taking, while applied to a fifth grade social studies lesson, will benefit our children throughout their lives. 

 

Whether we are talking about meeting kids’ individual needs,  respecting and celebrating our identities, understanding students with learning challenges, or perspective-taking in a social studies classroom, the Hopkins School has responded beautifully to the district’s initiatives around inclusion, all while adhering to grade level curriculum standards.

 

We have a lot to celebrate in Hopkinton. In addition to content, your children are learning a lot about respect, care, and their humanity.  As always I am proud to lead a district in which we are growing children whose minds and hearts are open and whose teachers, support staff, and administrators foster the inclusion of all.

  • Curriculum
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  • Growth

Just one week ago, about 18,000 runners launched the 125th running of the Boston Marathon. As many know, in the herd was none other than our own Hopkinton Middle School Principal, Alan Keller. Our administrative team kept cheering him on: “Good luck, Alan!” “You got this!” “Keep going!” When we all came back to work on Tuesday, we wanted to know how it went. Mr. Keller told us two things were true: “The last miles were tough,” and “I’m officially retiring from Marathon running.”

 

It struck me that running the Marathon—not that I’ve ever done it—serves as a metaphor, in a vague way, for enduring the pandemic. In March of 2020  (the pandemic “start line”), school administrators were so naïve that we went to the High School cafeteria and worked alongside the custodians to disinfect the tables and chairs, hopeful that school would reopen on Monday. True story.

 

Then we began the shutdown, which, at least in the beginning, kids reported seemed “kind of fun.” 

 

Then the era of “hybrid or remote?” “Green or orange?” “Wait, there’s going to be a full-time return to school in April 2021?” (The Heartbreak Hill of pandemic schooling.) That’s when we thought the race was going to end and we’d come back to school in August 2021…normally. Not so. 

 

If you run the Marathon, you know that from the summit of Heartbreak Hill, the Prudential building comes into view, but several miles lie between the runner and the finish line. That’s where we are now. Standing just past that summit. Spent. Muscles aching. The end in sight, but still far enough off.

 

This final stretch pains us. We’ve grown short-tempered. We are frustrated when the Elmwood cafeteria menu says there’ll be cheese pizza, until there isn’t any cheese, beyond annoyed when road construction slows buses until students regularly miss the Pledge of Allegiance. The kids’ tardiness won’t make them miss a math worksheet because of the nationwide shortage of toner for the copy machines—no toner…not in Hopkinton or anywhere else. Some close contact kids are required to  arrive early to school so that they can ”Test and Stay,” a program that took nearly a month longer than expected to get up and running.  This is the blistering that cuts us, as if with shards of glass, in these final miles.

 

It’s easy to let these closing miles plunge us into despair, bitterness. However, I’m asking our community to choose hope, choose kindness. Choose the vision of the finish line. As we as individual “runners”  trudge through this last leg of the race, please know that as individuals we are all trudging, slogging, plodding, laboring, struggling.  

 

Reach out and support a fellow runner. Overlook the missing cheese. Thank the bus driver, who, as you can imagine, is equally frustrated by the traffic tie-ups and delays. Appreciate the nurses and the teachers and the paras and the custodians and the building administrators and administrative assistants who are conducting “test and stay,” modifying lessons due to rations on toner, staying a bit later each day to monitor protracted dismissal in the elementary buildings, putting in extra hours sanitizing buildings, and pitching in to fill all the unfilled positions in the buildings due to a national labor shortage.  In that same spirit, let us take a moment to thank you, the families. 

 

Maybe in a few months we can all “retire” from running the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Let’s fuel the last few miles with hope and kindness. We got this.

 

  • Learning

Despite the era of my birth, my parents were not hippies. In fact, minus the pearls and high heels, my mom was about the closest thing to a June Cleaver-television-housewife as it got.  My mom worked inside the home, and I mean worked. A white glove test would not have produced a single mote of dust. Pot roast simmered on her stove. She stopped the washing machine for a fabric softener rinse. She oversaw the lives of her three children. My dad worked outside the home. With one income, our lifestyle was modest; at times money was a concern, but we were rich with love.

Last week, while attending the virtually-held winter meeting of school superintendents across Massachusetts, I heard the keynote speaker remind us: “Love is a verb.” It got me to thinking about my own simplistic and fortunate childhood...and then this: a little love wouldn’t hurt right now--locally and nationally.  And I mean “verb love.” Fabric softener love.

What’s “verb love,” you ask? Verb love involves action--not just saying we care for others. But rather “verb love” constitutes the subtle ways we show we care for one another. 

In my years as an English teacher, I so relished teaching “Those Winter Sundays,” a short poem by Robert Hayden. In the poem, the speaker’s dad gets up early--even on Sundays, and “puts his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather [he restarts the fire to warm the house.] No one ever thanked him.” That’s “verb love.” The stuff we do, sometimes over and over again, expecting no thanks, out of love for one another. The sacrifices we make. The things that aren’t as easy as a Hallmark card. 

“Verb love” means action. Showing, not telling.

The Hopkinton community has endured varying degrees of “shutdown” since March 10, 2020. We’re creeping up on a year of mask-wearing and hand-washing. Standing 6 feet apart--no matter where you go. We have been rewired, resocialized. Working from home is normal. Staying home all weekend--except to go to Price Chopper--has become the routine. Taking walks...standard. House parties. Um, what’s a house party? House parties existed in a previous age. In addition to being resocialized and largely isolated, we’re psychologically altered. Someone sneezes in a Zoom session; we ask, “Have you been tested?” Fear lingers. For many, evolving science does not dismantle fear of contracting the virus. People are weary and tired of being pent up. Emotions are high. Fuses are short. 

A vaccination is here. Or is it? Phase I folks have been inoculated, but news outlets report delays in Phase II supplies. It feels like a punch in the gut. We’re not talking about unfulfilled promises of ice cream but rather a dose of a vaccine that purports to save lives and restore life to closer to what it once was.

Hopkinton, not unlike many other American cities and towns right now, might be in need of two inoculations: one to build immunity to the Coronavirus and another to fortify our human compassion.

What would happen if we all started to think about love as a verb, not just at home but in the community. When we think that way, we’re bordering on an inquiry into our familial,  civil, and moral obligations. What can we do to exemplify our love, to exhibit our basic human kindness for one another? It sort of means that we go out of our way to do something thoughtful. Maybe it means we do something simply because we know it will bring another person joy or peace. That other person doesn’t have to be your spouse whose coffee you brew every morning. It might be your neighbor, whose driveway you snow blow all winter long. Or a complete stranger, who you let cut in front of you because she has only four items, and your cart is full. You don’t have to do these things. But you can do them--that is, if you wish.

Take the time to stop the washing machine to throw in the fabric softener. Get up early to put coal on the fire. While these are gigglable, last-century examples, I use them to spawn our collective thinking about the stuff we can do out of love for one another, the sacrifices we can make, the times when, out of kindness, we can put others ahead of ourselves. 

Now you might not believe this, but it's true. Driving home last night, while turning this blog content over in my mind, I stopped to pick up Chinese take-out. After dinner, I cracked open a fortune cookie. I dusted the crumbs off the tiny strip of paper, which read: “At the end of each day, think, ‘What has this day brought me?’ and ‘What have I given it?’” 

Verb love.