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Engaging Students to Take Risks Linguistically and Culturally While Studying the Past from Multiple Perspectives

James Diskant


     As I continue to plan my own courses and teach graduate students about different education theories, I have come to reflect on what strategies work well to teach ninth and tenth graders to read difficult material and to challenge them to read beyond their comfort zone. When doing so, I have been struck by the challenges faced by those students whose first language is not English (whether it is Chinese, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Portuguese, or Spanish, Vietnamese, or another language), which is a large minority of all of my students in a given year. These students are frequently among the most diligent students (and did well in their math class), and yet they just don't always get it. Three articles lend insight into this question: Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, "Put Understanding First: The High School Curriculum Should Start with the long-term Goals of Schooling: Meaning Making and Transfer of Learning;" Claude Goldenberg, "Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does – and Does Not – Say;" and Robert B. Bain "'They Thought the World Was Flat?' Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History."1 These three articles provided parts of the answers to the questions that I have had about literacy, student-centered education, instruction and assessment. I began to think even more about the ways in which we teach students whose first language is not English and what assumptions we may make that make that stand in our way as teachers and do not provide enough support for these students. I ultimately sought to address the challenges of engaging students to read better by learning from them how to study history from another linguistic and cultural perspective. While we need to help our students comprehend English better, their collective presence in the classroom is also a superb opportunity for us to actualize multi-cultural education. That quest led me to some commonsensical solutions to common problems in teaching world history.

     Those solutions came to me in the collective light of two teaching experiences. In 1979 I taught English to middle school kids in a bi-national school in Freiburg, where students' first language was either German or French. While I was supposed to only teach in English, those blank faces were scary, so I would lapse into German or French; this made the world of difference and convinced me of the value of multi-linguistic education and how it can be taught if we put students' needs first. In addition, between 1995 and 2000 I worked with blind and visually impaired kids to assist them to be well prepared to acclimate into regular classrooms. A major goal was self-advocacy skills so that these students would make it clear to their regular teachers and/or me what the problems were so that they could do better in school.

     When I returned to full-time classroom teaching in Boston after these experiences, I was struck by how hard we make it for many of our kids to learn. We encourage immigrants (or children of immigrants) to learn with native-born Americans who have been reading and writing in English most of their lives, and yet we downplay or even deny that they have linguistic issues, perhaps because these kids do well in certain subjects, and even, in the case with which I am familiar, test well in what is perceived to be the "hard" subjects: math and science. Could we do more -- as teachers – to address these students' needs, and simultaneously create a multi-cultural and multi-linguistic safe and challenging classroom environment within the context of our classrooms and our instructional and assessment styles?

     The three readings that I have referenced above gave me some ideas on how to answer those questions, but each is only part of much larger paradigm. While Bain is correct in the value of problem solving and teaching students to support, extend, or contest known knowledge with additional evidence, it is undoubtedly tricky if they have not been taught how to read and to interpret what they are reading.2 I also concur with him when he discusses the value of supporting learners to acquire this ability to read and to think about what they are reading and undoubtedly providing reading procedures is useful.3 Wiggins and McTighe share the value of re-thinking assessment and instructional strategies by putting the purpose of transferring and making meaning to one's learning before students get bogged down with the acquisition of new material.4 They provide valuable ideas of how to do that in planning lessons.5 Despite the use of these approaches, I kept on coming back to the feeling that, despite these approaches, too many students just didn't get it. Goldenberg provides some reasons and some strategies to assist these struggling students. First, some reminders that the more that are fluent in their native languages, the easier it is to make the necessary transfer to English.6 Second, the more structured the knowledge is – phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing – the easier the transfer.7 Third, modification strategies assist students make this transfer. They include 1.) provide students with familiar texts, 2.) help students build new vocabulary, 3.) review the content of new material in the students' primary language, 4.) provide consistent strategies in English to build skills, 5.) assess students' knowledge and language separately, 6.) acknowledge that different cultural backgrounds may contribute to different language styles and will help others' learn better, 7.) promote interaction among all students, and 8.) provide learners with more time.8 Goldenberg concludes that unless teachers help students with these skills, students at all levels will flounder. He also asserts that mandated instructional processes that limit the use of student's native languages, as is done in some states, is counter-productive to the best practices.9

     If, as Bain, Wiggins, and McTighe argue student-centered approaches are central to good learning and yet, as Goldenberg reminds us, some students need help with some basic skills, how do we accomplish both goals? I have realized that we need to teach reading in the context of broader student-constructed goals. Fortunately one of my school-wide rubrics is one on reading which is a way to help all students, not only those whose first language is not English, read better. In this context Goldenberg helps us with great modifications; I regularly use them to work towards the goal of improving reading with successful results. While reading is frequently a solitary activity, it is most pleasurably a collective one: by discussion and analysis. When we prepare books or when we did well in college or graduate school, we took notes. Yes, I used highlighters, but did they actually help? No, I don't think so. Rather they made the books yellow or pink. But note taking and explaining the material in my own words worked.

     So I would advocate that we need to do three things in class: 1) model good reading habits through note taking, 2) assess students' ability to internalize these good habits, and 3) present both of those skill building devices in the context of higher learning and interesting set of key or essential questions. In those ways we bring together the different points of the above mentioned authors, as well as present effective learning, that builds upon a multicultural classroom. Of course, given my constituency that I teach I am lucky in that I have an obvious one, but don't we all have variants of multicultural classrooms?

     First, I model; in class we read difficult texts aloud frequently and stop to make sense of the reading. I show students the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to read so that they come to appreciate note taking as part of good learning. But this approach would be boring and tedious if it was not tied to good essential questions about the reading and about the issues that we are addressing. In so doing when students come to read in small groups, they have begun to internalize this more active approach to reading than they had used previously. While I frequently provide the essential questions for study, students do as well. Goldenberg's suggestions about providing consistent and predictable strategies have proven are useful in this context; as students have been working on consistently improving fluency in reading harder texts in English.

     Second, I assess; as Addendum A indicates, for homework students were to prepare a difficult reading for homework. The next day in class they were given a quiz (Addenda B & C) by using the material that they had prepared at home. Since the quiz was timed, those students (the overwhelming majority) who had prepared the material did quite well. In consequence students are ready to use their skills of – reading through note taking – to comprehend and analyze the material in broader contexts. Those broader contexts would tap into not only the multiple perspectives from the period in question (for the quiz the formation and adoption of Spanish government in their newly-acquired island of "Hispaniola" and neighboring ones), but also, and as importantly, different perspectives of students whose cultural and linguistic backgrounds may bring them to read and understand the same material differently. In the assessment, they share not only their understanding of the material, but they bring to it diverse background knowledge.

     Finally, I question. What is the point of what we are reading? Given that all of our perspectives (including mine) are complicated and all of us bring something to the reading that may or may not be similar, what does that tell us about what it meant when it was written? What does it mean today? What else can we learn from these texts that helps us better understand the past and/or the present? What is the purpose of reading material from a particular period?

     Ultimately, if we – as educators – can share with our students the joy of reading, we are being successful. After all, we have taken linguistic risks which we need to model so that our students can acknowledge that they may need to read very carefully. Unless we work more directly with students on reading, we will not help students – whose first language is not English or who have not have had the privileges that we had had – to achieve the goals that they have for themselves: to become fluent in English. Those rewards may in fact provide intangible rewards of more complicated conversations that has something to do with who we are and what we bring to class, as well as what our students may bring to situations outside of class.

Addendum A

World and U.S. History I
Dr. Diskant

Homework Assignment Sheet #7

For Tuesday, October 16:

Read the "Laws of Burgos" carefully by writing in the margins and summarizing each paragraph in your own words, as you read the document

Wednesday, October 17:

Prewriting activities, notes and/or web, and rough draft of a 5 paragraph essay, available for peer review, answering the following question:

Why did the Spanish and Chinese rulers of the 15th century make different decisions about overseas expansion and what was the consequence in the world of these different decisions?

For Friday, October 19:

Come prepared to take Test #2: see reverse side for Study Guide

For Monday, October 15:

Final draft of 5 paragraph essay (includes edited rough draft and prewriting activities, notes and/or web):

Why did the Spanish and Chinese rulers of the 15th century make different decisions about overseas expansion and what was the consequence in the world of these different decisions?


Addendum B:

World and U.S. History I
Dr. Diskant

Quiz: A Look at the "Law of Burgos":
12 Points

     By the early 16th century, the Spanish empire had expanded to include the new colony of Hispaniola (today: Haiti and the Dominican Republic). This had been an unexpected development; now that their explorer Cristobal Colon (to use the name he used in Spain) had lied to the king and queen about the extent of gold on the island, government bureaucrats had to decide what to do with this new territory that he gave to the crown. The Laws of Burgos were the first of a series of laws that were instituted to deal with this new situation.

Part One: 8 Points

Use the notes that you took for homework on the document to summarize some of the 16 paragraphs in one sentence.

Choose 3 of the first 6 paragraphs and 5 of the second 10 paragraphs. Be sure to indicate the paragraph you choose by numbering it.

Part Two: 4 Points

1.) If the law was followed and enforced, in what 2 ways will this law make the situation for the natives better?

2.)   If the law was followed and enforced, in what 2 ways will this law make the situation for the natives worse?

In order to assess this quiz, I will also use the Skillful Readers Rubric on the reverse side; Part One correlates to the first three categories: Decodes Words, Reads Fluently, and Recognizes Textual Elements and Part Two correlates to the last two categories: Reads with Comprehension and Evaluates and Interprets Texts.


Addendum C:

Students at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science will be skillful:

I. Readers

Skillful Readers apply strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw upon prior knowledge, interactions with other readers and writers, knowledge of word meaning, word identification strategies and understanding of textual features in order to process new information.10

A Skillful Reader …





Learns Words in Context

-Examines form, structure, and context of word

-Substitutes related words

-Applies knowledge of root words

Consistently self corrects for meaning; uses a variety of methods for making self-corrections

Usually self corrects for meaning; uses more than one method for making self-corrections

Sometimes self corrects for meaning; uses methods for making self-corrections before seeking assistance

Limited ability to self correct for meaning; seldom uses methods for making self-corrections before seeking assistance

Reads Aloud Fluently

Demonstrates fluent reading of above grade- level texts

Demonstrates fluent reading of grade-level texts

Demonstrates some fluency reading grade-level texts; has some difficulty applying strategies and makes occasional pauses when reading unfamiliar words/phrases

Demonstrates limited fluency in reading grade-level texts; limited ability to apply word recognition strategies; reads word-by-word; may finger-point


Textual Elements:

- Facts, context, point of view, structure, style, literary devices

Draws inferences with elegance; solves problems independently

Draws appropriate inferences; solves problems with minor assistance

Draws some appropriate inferences; solves problems with some assistance

Draws limited inferences; solves problems with substantial assistance

Reads With Comprehension

Makes sophisticated connections between the text and prior knowledge; demonstrates deep understanding of the text; clarifies ideas by referring to the text

Makes appropriate connections between the text and prior knowledge; demonstrates substantial understanding of the text; verifies ideas by referring to the text

Makes some connections between the text and prior knowledge; demonstrates partial understanding of the text; inconsistently supports ideas by referring to the text

Makes limited connections between the text and prior knowledge; demonstrates minimal comprehension or serious misunderstanding of text; textual references do not support ideas

Evaluates and Interprets Texts

Offers sophisticated insight when appraising text; is always able to construct meaning and critique important ideas

Offers appropriate insight when appraising text; is able to construct meaning appropriately and critique important ideas

Offers some insight when appraising text; is sometimes able to construct meaning and critique important ideas

Offers limited insight when appraising text; is often unable to construct meaning and critique ideas

James A. Diskant, Ph.D., teaches at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury (Boston), Massachusetts; and currently (spring 2008) also teaches graduate students at Boston College's School of Education. He was also a Program Associate at the former World History Center at Northeastern University in Boston, from 1999 until it closed in 2003 and keeps the Center's ideas alive through teaching, writing curricula, facilitating workshops, and participation in a Book Group. He can be reached at



1 Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, "Put Understanding First: The High School Curriculum Should Start with the long-term Goals of Schooling: Meaning Making and Transfer of Learning;" in Educational Leadership, 65: 8 (May 2008), 36-41 (with thanks to Jeremy Greene for bringing this article to my attention); Claude Goldenberg, "Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does – and Does Not – Say;" in American Educator, 32:2 (Summer 2008), pp. 8-23); and Robert B. Bain," 'They Thought the World Was Flat?' Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History," in M. Suzanne Donovan and John Branford (eds.), How Students Learn History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2005), 179-213. This work may be viewed free on-line at (with thanks to Bill Strickland for bringing this book chapter to my attention).

2 Bain, 199.

3 Bain, 202-203.

4 Wiggins and McTighe, 38.

5 Wiggins and McTighe, 40-41.

6 Goldenberg, 14-15.

7 Goldenberg, 17.

8 Goldenberg, 19.

9 Goldenberg, 42.

10 "Standards for the English Language Arts." National Council Teachers of English.1998-2005. November 18, 2005.



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