Sparking a Scholarly Fire: Five Keys to Accelerating Academic Language
Posted by AVID Center on 3/30/2018 10:35:00 AM
By Barbara Bamford, Ph.D., AVID District Coordinator, Salem-Keizer Public Schools
In 2016–17, 147 English language learners became part of the first AVID Excel cohort in Salem-Keizer School District. To see how they performed, we looked at attendance, discipline, and achievement on national exams in reading, writing, and math. Across the board, our Excel scholars didn’t just outperform their peers in each of these areas; they crushed it. Even where we least expected it.
Across all data points, Excel students outperformed their non-Excel ELL peers. Every bar on every graph reached higher for Excel students. As we dug into the data, we found one group—the Excel students who had passed the language proficiency exam that year (T0) and in their first year without additional ELL support—who outperformed their peers in some fairly significant ways. Their average growth in every academic area was nearly (and sometimes more than) double that of their T0 peers not in Excel. Every academic area? Yes, every area. Even math? Yes, especially math. These Excel scholars made five times the growth of their peers on the math achievement test. How is it that this additional class focused squarely on accelerating language development also “Excelerated” their math scores so profoundly?
The seemingly magical work that happens in our Excel classes each day is very much like putting accelerant on a fire. These five foundational keys provide the fuel for our students to burn brighter, hotter, and faster than they would without them. Ready to learn how to start a fire? Here’s how.
Key 1: Establish a Safe Environment: When you light a fire and add accelerant, it’s important to take every safety precaution. The same is true with our students. We ask them to take big risks, to work hard, and to be scholarly. A safe environment is essential to students who accept those challenges, and without it, they can be burned. Safety means that both the physical environment and the beliefs of the people working in it are supportive, it means scholarly behavior is the norm, and it means taking risks and making mistakes is celebrated. In these classrooms, the speed at which our students can develop language proficiency is accelerated because of the trust found within those walls.
Key 2: Communicate Clear Learning Outcomes: When we know where we’re going, we get there faster, right? The same is true for students. Sharing learning objectives with students helps them understand not only what they will learn, but also how it’s connected to the big picture. This allows students the insight needed to achieve those goals faster. Just as a fire burns faster with accelerant, clear learning outcomes can provide the spark to speed up learning.
Key 3: Draw on Diagnostic Teaching: Diagnostic teaching can sound intimidating and scientific. But if we think of it in terms of looking for information to guide us, we realize it’s a natural part of teaching, done with intentionality and focus. The key is using that data to inform next steps. Let’s use the fire example. When starting a fire, you watch it carefully. Is it taking off? Does it need more fuel? More air? Do the logs need to be shifted? The same is true when working to accelerate our students: We must watch them carefully. We must have specific benchmarks we’re looking for, measure those, and adjust accordingly. With such careful adjustments, the fire will take off.
Key 4: Leverage Strategically Planned Lessons: Without knowing the what, how, and why of instruction, we won’t get anywhere. Those three questions are key to instruction that will move students with the urgency needed to accelerate learning. Those same three questions are critical when building a fire.
- What? What is the content or material that needs to be arranged strategically?
- How? What methods or strategies will I intentionally use with these materials to accomplish what these learners need?
- Why? What’s the purpose? Is it a fire intended to clear brush, to cook, to heat? Is it a lesson designed to develop written language, generate diverse perspectives, or identify points of confusion?
When the what, how, and why of our lessons is thoughtful, intentional, and communicated, we see flames of excitement and understanding that weren’t there before.
Key 5: Build Powerful Relationships: There is no stronger accelerant than knowing someone truly cares about you. Relationships are critical to student growth. Accelerants cause a fire to burn hotter because they bond with the substance being burned. Likewise, when our teachers, tutors, Excel students, and staff members intentionally work to create bonds with each other, they burn brighter. Excel teachers know their students as individuals. They can tell you about them as both scholars and typical teenagers. Excel students know each other. They develop camaraderie as they share their vulnerabilities and their dreams. When being known and cared for is at the heart of our instructional practice and intentionally planned for, learning takes off in ways we never imagined.
To a well-trained examiner investigating the cause of a fire, use of an accelerant is easy to spot because it leaves traces behind. Similarly, when listening to the experiences of our Excel scholars, the proof of these foundational practices is clear: There are traces that evidence the safety of their Excel classroom, of the relationships that made it a place where learning was ignited. There are traces that show students know what they’re learning and why. There are traces that make clear the strategic planning behind the fire—why the students are there, where they’re headed, and the steps their teachers took to help them get there. Faster. Even in math.