Connected Learning Equity & Access Multilingual Learners

Community Connections for English Learners: Changing the World Starts with Just a Few Words

Like other successful teachers, Katie McKay understands the necessity of connecting students’ lives to what they are learning and the importance of generating “positive identity,” two bedrocks of successful learning as she sees it.

Examples of “positive identity” Wordles by students in Katie McKay’s class.

Those two simple guiding thoughts led to writing exercises that culminated in a community-building event which ended up significantly changing McKay’s school.

In fact, McKay’s work was profiled in Planning to Change the World: A Plan Book for Social Justice Teachers 2010-2011, a book designed to help teachers translate their vision of a just education into concrete classroom activities.

You might say it all began with just a few words. McKay began her 2008 school year by asking students to write down their responses to a question they put to their parents: “What are some positive words you think identify me or describe me?”

Students then added their own positive self-descriptions and those of their classmates to produce “Wordles.” A Wordle allows users to create a graphic “word cloud” from text. The cloud can take on different shapes. The more frequently a word appears in a given text, the larger the word appears.

For example, Jackie’s Wordle emphasized such traits as her creativity and responsibility. McKay understood right away that the Wordles could help build the self-confidence students would need to succeed socially and academically.

She also invited parents to come after school to the computer lab where their children taught them how to create Wordles, some of which were bilingual. A Wordle by a father named Guibaldo describes him as “generoso,” “amable,” “estricto,” and “dedicado,” among other things.

Throughout the process McKay kept front and center her role as a bilingual teacher.

“A few of the students read their pieces in Spanish, and as we gathered words for the Wordles, we looked at cognates, such as ‘contenta’ and ‘organizada,’ as well as false cognates, such as ’embarrassed’ and embarazada (pregnant).”

Connecting Real Life to the Classroom

The Wordle exercise grew into other innovative ways to use multimedia in the classroom. In 2008, against the background of the presidential election, McKay’s class conducted an in-depth study of discrimination in the post-slavery years and during the civil rights movement.

But she understood that these events were historically distant from the lives of her students, so “we also engaged in discussions of micro-aggressions, or more subtle forms of discrimination that we witness today.”

At the culmination of this unit students worked in small groups to produce two iMovies by narrating a slide show of cartoons that they had drawn.

One of these movies depicted scenarios reminiscent of those portrayed in picture books about the civil rights movement. The second movie described a possible scenario of discrimination among youth today, such as being left out of a game because of lack of language proficiency or being teased for wearing old clothes.

“In the second movie students were expected to include an agent of change who would stand up for the rights of himself or others. We invited our third- and fifth-graders to watch these movies and asked them to work with us to combat discrimination on our campus and in our neighborhood.”

“We did these movies with ELL students specifically in mind. They were able to draw their scripts and then add words which helped them scaffold their expression. One of the scripts was actually about how to fight discrimination against speakers of languages other than English.”

For the students’ work to have true power, though, they needed to have a real-world audience. McKay arranged with the Café Caffeine, a local coffee shop three blocks from her school, to feature her students reading their work and presenting their Wordles.

She worked to get all of Becker Elementary School involved in these readings—and tied the event to the National Day on Writing, October 20.

One performance at the café drew over 80 people, including several people without children in the school who had recently moved into the neighborhood.

Before the reading McKay passed out pieces of brightly colored paper and asked audience members to write notes to the authors. One person wrote, “Frank, I especially liked the part where you had an angel and a devil on your shoulders.”

“It was really exciting for the students to feel like their stories were heard and appreciated,” says McKay.

Other community events followed. There was, for instance, a performance by Becker students of Beatle songs at a local outdoor restaurant.

Connecting the Community with the School

With new families moving into the neighborhood, McKay and a few of her colleagues started a group they called the Becker Advocacy Committee to get community input about the school.

“We created a brochure that highlighted our school’s strengths and distributed it in the community and to interested parents, some of whom had attended events at the café. We advertised coffee shop meetings where teachers and parents could talk around the question, ‘What would you wish for your neighborhood school?'”

One idea that came out of those meetings was the desire for a two-way English-Spanish immersion program. The group successfully lobbied for this program, which will be introduced at Becker this fall.

These and other efforts by McKay to reach beyond the school walls have led her to accept a new position in the upcoming school year as the school’s parent support specialist. She will be a community/parent liaison with goals of directing parents in need to social services, working with the PTA, forming relationships with local businesses and mentors, organizing events to promote parental involvement, and increasing student attendance rates.

“I know that with the new population that we are attracting with the dual language program, we will need to be mindful of organizing events to bring old and new families of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds together,” she says.

She connects her efforts in this regard to nationwide trends. “I believe with gentrification going on in cities all over the United States, schools can provide for new neighbors a shared space where there is mutual respect and learning, where minority communities do not need to feel pushed out, and there can be opportunities to re-integrate many urban schools.”

In recent years, McKay’s efforts as a teacher and teacher-leader have been recognized. She’s received National Board Certification, been named an exemplary teacher by her Wake Forrest alma mater, and been a semifinalist for the elementary Teacher of the Year award in Austin.

McKay says that it isn’t a coincidence that these recognitions have come her way in the years since she went through the 2007 Heart of Texas Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute. “The faith and interest that my NWP colleagues have in my work have led me to set more goals and to push more boundaries as an educator of culturally and linguistically diverse students.”