• by Juanita C. García, MA • IDRA Newsletter • April 1997
Recently I taught some reading lessons to a group of Hispanic and African American students at an elementary school located in an impoverished neighborhood in Dallas. This opportunity reinforced my love for teaching.
Through IDRA’s Project FLAIR (Focusing on Language and Academic Instructional Renewal), I was able to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for children’s literature with a task force of teachers, their students and the school librarian in hopes that they would share my excitement for books that capture children’s hearts. As educators we are so concerned with teaching the skills of reading that we sometimes forget to help children discover the simple joy of reading (Hack, Helper and Hickman, 1987).
Project FLAIR’s goal is to increase cognitive growth and academic achievement for all students, including language minority students, through an intensive language across the curriculum program. Frequent story time during the day provides students with opportunities to hear the rich and varied language of literature and to respond to these stories from their world, their surroundings and what they know. The best bilingual children’s literature is the springboard for creative reading and writing. Inspired by trade books with visually captivating illustrations and thought provoking engaging stories, the students unleash their creativity and walk in the shoes of book characters (Green and García, 1997a).
At IDRA, we believe that students learn to read by reading and learn to write by writing. Research shows that children need extensive practice with authentic reading and writing tasks if they are to become fluent, confident users of both their first and second languages. Therefore, motivating students to read and write is critical to their success.
I worked with a participating campus, an inner city elementary school, to analyze and evaluate its instructional program and to determine how well it reflects the best practices recommended for culturally and linguistically diverse students. The task force of committed teachers and an enthusiastic librarian developed annual goals and objectives designed to improve language minority student achievement. They then selected a set of instructional strategies for monthly training on that campus. The strategies the teachers are being trained to implement are based on the latest research in the fields of bilingual/English as a second language (ESL) education and language arts education.
Armed with a collection of developmentally appropriate trade books in Spanish and English, I demonstrated cooperative structures for language arts lessons that foster positive interdependence, ensure individual accountability, promote equal participation and increase simultaneous interaction. The activities are designed to prepare students for a text (the into phase), guide them through it (the through phase), and extend it into creative writing, the visual and dramatic arts and all the content areas including math, science and social studies (the beyond phase) (Green and García, 1997b).
The teachers choose from a variety of high-quality trade books enthusiastically acquired by the librarian for the school’s collection, and they replicate the strategies and techniques demonstrated in the classroom.
To me the most pleasurable part of the project is working with the children and sharing the magic and joy a story can bring. The following is a description of two lessons, one in a primary classroom and the other in an intermediate classroom, that illustrate how language minority students can be engaged in reading.
“What would you do if you woke up and found a bear using your toothbrush?” I asked a spirited group of first graders as I prepared them for a story about two greedy bear cubs that were so greedy they would try to outdo each other in everything including how much water each could drink, until a fox outsmarted them with a piece of cheese and taught them both a lesson.
“I’d go back to bed!” exclaimed one student.
“I’d break his teeth!” declared another.
“What toy would you share with your friend, the bear?” I asked as I held a stuffed bear cub.
“My Barbie,” announced a green-eyed Margarita.
“My fast car!” claimed one of the many precocious boys.
The children were having fun mixing around the room to music and finding a partner to discuss their answers with. They did an outstanding job in following directions and participating. I could see their bright, happy faces eager to continue.
The lesson then moved to another into text strategy: anticipation and reaction. This is an excellent way to activate students’ thoughts and opinions about a subject that will be studied or a story that will be read. The strategy attempts to enhance students’ comprehension by having them react to a series of carefully held beliefs. This is a motivational technique to get students involved. The curiosity that is aroused can only be resolved by reading the text. The reaction part of the guide is revisited after reading to validate their pre-reading stance (Williams and Whisler, 1990).
“A fox is smarter than a bear,” I said. Half the students reacted with a thumbs up for agreement and the other half with a thumbs down for not agreeing. Each is given an opportunity to participate and share their beliefs.
“Drinking a lot of water causes your tummy to ache,” I said. Almost all the class went thumbs down on this one.
“No! How can water cause your stomach to hurt?” was the comment I heard the most. Puppets, creative dramatics and role play were used to get the written and oral message of the statement across to the children.
“Bears like to eat cheese,” was another anticipation and reaction statement. All thumbs went down.
“Bears like to eat honey!” declared a pair of witty boys. By this time I knew I had captured their emotions and they were ready to listen to the story.
With the older children, we moved into a monster theme to prepare them for the story Monster Mama by Liz Rosenburg. This is a story about a fearless little boy and his devoted monster mother who live in a cave at the back of a house. The story develops when bullies pick on the audacious Patrick Edward and make fun of his mother, and he explodes. The story ends with everyone realizing that “monster mama” is not a real monster but an affectionate, caring mother.
Students responded to pre-reading questions that helped them make connections with their personal experiences and feelings to similar experiences and feelings of characters in the book, and they were given an opportunity to write a short answer to one of the questions.
“Have you ever done something nice for someone you love?” After discussing their answers in pairs, students shared their answers with the rest of the group.
“I cooked dinner for my parents’ anniversary,” a student uttered proudly.
“I gave my girlfriend a ring,” another announced boldly.
“Have you ever gotten angry because someone hurt the one you love?” I asked. This pre-reading question revealed some terrifying experiences. One student was angry because someone beat up his mother. Another somber looking male student shared he had just lost his grandmother to a drive-by shooting.
“Last month my grandmother died. She got shot with a gun. I was sad and called 911. I’d hope she’d make it. She didn’t and we had a funeral.”
To me this served as a reminder of the violence these children live with everyday.
“I get picked on by my brother – who is two – all the time! Okay? That’s bad, ain’t it!” responded one girl to the question, “Have you ever been picked on by bullies?” Each one of those fifth grade students listened intently to the story and used their prior knowledge to focus on the theme of the story.
Through Project FLAIR, the task force teachers had the opportunity to observe me motivating their students to read in new and exciting ways. Afterward, we met to reflect and analyze why the lessons were so successful.
During the next school year, more campuses will be using Project FLAIR to improve the literacy and reading skills of their students. For more information on how IDRA’ Project FLAIR can help teachers capture the hearts of their students with good books and motivating strategies, contact Dr. Rogelio López at 210-444-1710.
Green, C. and J. García. “La Gran Caja de Cuentos: Accelerate Biliteracy Through Literature and the Arts.” NABE Proposal (Washington, D.C., 1997).
Green, C. and J. García. Project FLAIR. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).
Hack, C., S. Helper and J. Hickman. Literature in the Elementary School. (New York: Holt, Rinehart Winston, 1987).
Williams, J. and N. Whisler. Literature and Cooperative Learning. Literature Co-op. 1990. California.
Juanita García, MA, is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]