I remember being asked a question in my Year 9 English class where I had to ‘infer’, draw from my own life experiences and make connections to what the author was trying to say in the text. In my class, sitting close to each other, were three other newly-arrived students who felt as lost as I was. We arrived a week apart from each other, with me being the first one to arrive. I also soon discovered that two thirds of the class was made up of students from a language background other than English, with the remaining from an Anglo-Saxon background.
The question was somewhere along the lines of: “If you were this character, how would you have responded to….?” A seemingly easy question to respond to especially after having read the whole novel. The only problem is, I couldn’t relate to the cultural references being made in the book, nor could I make sense of what some of the words meant. In fact, I didn’t quite get the relevance or purpose of this particular book. And I wasn’t alone in this. Needless to say, I was part of the ‘majority’ rather than the ‘minority’.
Let’s re-visit the question: “If you were this character, how would you have responded to….?” I struggled to answer it correctly. My teacher made a few attempts to help me to no avail. At least I could see she tried and wanted to help. I took it upon myself to ask my peers and read up a bit more on the ‘themes’ being presented. What if I was my English teacher back then? What would I have done differently? How do I ensure all is ‘included’ and has access to the full scope of the curriculum? How would a literacy expert address these challenges? A literacy expert would provide meaningful language learning experiences for all learners. They would use rich, authentic texts to engage their students to develop a love for language and literature. The goal is to make meaning, and to spark their students’ curiosity.
My vision is for all students, regardless of their backgrounds, to be included fully in their classroom lessons so that they are able to access the Australian Curriculum. It may be a challenge, but it is achievable. A student, regardless of their race, socio-economic background, physical or intellectual ability should be able to be part of any classroom and receive the quality education that they deserve and are entitled to. A question I ask is: "How do I ensure that each student feels that they belong and are included in my classroom?" 'Belonging' and 'inclusivity' could mean different things to different people. Some would say that it means that each student is 'heard' or 'seen', that their thoughts and views are valued. Others would say that each student feels that they 'fit' in, or that they 'get along' with everyone in the classroom. Whatever it is, there's a general consensus that to feel 'included' means that your contributions are valued, you are allowed to have and express your own opinions, you are treated with kindness and respect, and last but not least, you are seen as a 'worthy conversational partner' by your peers.
For me, there is also another 'layer' to being 'included' and 'belonging' in the classroom. That is, that each individual is seen as part of a 'community of practice'. In a classroom where a ‘community of practice’ is evident, both teacher and student scaffold the academic language in order for everyone to be able to 'join in' and participate in meaningful and purposeful classroom talk. We often push students who are learning English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D), towards being able to justify, describe and explain their thinking because as we know, "Academic language is not something that a student does or does not have, but a practice that a student does." (Palmer & Martinez, 2016). We have to clarify our students' thinking by asking questions to 'extend' the talk in an attempt to engage them in substantive conversations, "which could include attention to language at the vocabulary, syntax, and discourse levels." (Pritchard & O’Hara, 2016). In a ‘community of practice’, the students will also ‘extend’ the talk of their peers because the teacher has modelled the language.
EAL/D learners need to access all curriculum areas, access quality (age-appropriate) reading materials and access academic language demands of every subject, e.g. words with different shades of meaning, subject-specific vocabulary/language, scientific language, etc. We also need to ensure that students are thinking, talking and writing like scientists, historians, geographers, authors, artists and/or mathematicians. There are language and cultural implications for each subject that need to be considered, including the language demands for each subject, ie language structures, grammatical features and vocabulary development which need to be targeted and explicitly taught.
Success for all learners, especially EAL/D learners, means they need to be able to make connections to what they are learning about. They need to see their own culture and values in the unit of work, so that they bring their cultural capital to the curriculum. To be relevant for EAL/D students, the goal is substantive engagement, not 'compliance' and completion of 'busy work'. Both the Learning Intention and Success Criteria need to be made visible to EAL/D learners so that they succeed in completing 'open-ended' rich tasks throughout the unit of work.
How do I ensure that everyone is included in EVERY lesson that I teach? I follow the command to “Know thy students”! Giving EAL/D learners timely feedback on both content and language learning, lets them know how they're going with acquiring the English language in their speaking, listening, reading/responding and writing. Making their learning goals visible; creating learning experiences/resources relevant for all EAL/D learners including newly-arrived students will support learning. Above all a literacy expert will set high expectations for all learners. A literacy expert will give students the “gift of confidence”, they will focus on what learners are able to do, not on what they can't do. They will avoid the “deficit” model of thinking and celebrate what our EAL/D learners are bringing to our classrooms.
I am an EAL/D educator passionate about inclusivity, connectedness, authenticity and substantive engagement. I am a specialist teacher who uses the Arts to engage newly-arrived learners, including those from refugee backgrounds, in acquiring English as an additional language. I consider myself a 'linchpin' between academics, network of schools, galleries, museums, and organisations when designing authentic learning for both students and teachers to support them in their learning journeys. My role is to explicitly teach language, ask questions and facilitate learning in the classroom. If our EAL/D learners are struggling with acquiring content knowledge and language demands, literacy experts, as Paul Dufficy would say, “sometimes need to do the ‘heavy lifting’ for them.”