Include ELLs by Including “Mainstream” Students

The Child-by-Child Meeting

Okay. You’ve got 4 ELLs in your class this year. You’ve never taught ELLs. Or maybe you have. But, you have never had the resources to differentiate your teaching for them. The school offered you no PD, no additional resources, planning time, or guidance. As it frequently happens in classrooms worldwide, the minority group is silently accommodated with just extra desks and chairs. 

Without a doubt, you are not a callous teacher who doesn’t care about ELLs. But, our best intentions cannot compete with systems that are blind to the needs of minority groups of students. When resources are tight, planning for the majority seems to make sense. 

Only until it doesn’t. 

The Writing Workshop showed me that I was not truly inclusive of “mainstream” students either. It opened my eyes to how the most homogenous bunch of students – same home language, race, class, income group – are not homogenous at all. For the first time, I was forced to think about every child as a writer, student, and person. 

This discovery overwhelmed me until it liberated me. I slowly learned to utilize the flexibility of the writing workshop – conferences, minilessons, mentor texts, and the fact that all learners need not be doing the same thing simultaneously – to learn about each of my students. Once I began looking at 25 “mainstream” learners as 25 unique human beings, it wasn’t a giant leap to start looking at all 30 different learners in my classroom, 5 of whom happened to be ELLs. 

The practice then kept enabling me to expand my bank of minilessons, mentor texts, and the tools I use in conferences to include more and more kinds of students. As my bank got richer, week by week, and trimester by trimester, my classroom got more and more inclusive by virtue of the fact that ELLs were part of my child-by-child planning in the first place. 

It might sound like I’m oversimplifying the needs of ELLs. Knowing how to support ELLs in your writing workshop classroom is complex, yes. But, in essence, it is to include and/modify lessons to be inclusive. This requires the teacher to have the ability to work out what each learner knows, what they are able to do, what their next step in their learning journey can be, and prepare to teach the next step. Sometimes, the teacher must learn the next step themselves before attempting to teach it. Isn’t this exactly what the writing workshop suggests we do for all learners – mainstream or otherwise? 

The daily practice of planning, conferences, and reflection has been the bedrock of my journey to making my classroom more inclusive to ELLs. But, I’ve often found that they are not enough. The perpetual rush and multitasking of teacher life get in the way of thinking through my encounters in conferences and mulling over options. I also found that when I’m left on my own, I tend to think about students and student writing that I am drawn to. I kept missing certain students in the process. Invariably, many of these students were ELLs who were already practically invisible. 

To force myself to think about each student in my class, I started a meeting with myself every week called the child-by-child meeting. Here’s how it works: 

  1. I have an excel sheet with student names called the child-by-child sheet. 
  2. Every week I schedule 15 minutes for this meeting in my calendar. (I’ve tried longer slots, and as you might have guessed, I couldn’t keep up.) 
  3. I cycle through students’ names in every meeting, read my conference notes about them, read through their writing, look for patterns, or sometimes just stare out the window, thinking about them – giving all my attention, energy and focus to them. Sometimes, it feels like prayer. 
  4. I write all my insights, thoughts, questions, and suggestions in my conference notes. This is also when I remember that I had to find them a book or get prints of reference material or practice sheets. I discover that I must learn about an issue a student may be facing – ranging from attention issues to a gap in the understanding of dependent clauses. I seek out help from a colleague or find books or resources online. I schedule a time to study about the issue unless I am already spiraling down a deeply enriching rabbit hole, which is usually the case. 
  5. I make a note of the day’s date in the child-by-child sheet against the student’s name. I’ll be thinking about this student again after I cycle through everyone else once. There are times when I get through over ten students, and there are times I can barely get through one. It helps that there’s always next week. What I learn about one student most often transcends the student and helps me teach many others better. 

This very journey singlehandedly has enabled me to learn about not just ELLs but also students with learning difficulties/disabilities and mental health issues. The knowledge and skills I learned over time have helped both my ELLs and non-ELLs to overcome barriers created by my lack of knowledge – about the subject or the students.   

The paradoxical truth about teaching is that you can be an excellent teacher to all students only by being an excellent teacher to one student at a time. 

How do you include ELLs in your curriculum, pedagogy, and reflection? 

You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

– Aishwarya

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