Oregon students will soon face tougher-than-ever standardized tests, on their way to a lofty goal: that every student will complete high school, starting with the Class of 2025. The new tests ask students to think critically and write out explanations. Those skills require a foundation for young students, beginning with language.
“They can’t write what they’re thinking, if they can’t speak what they’re thinking,” Karen McDonald explained.
In part 1 of this two-part look at language, we reported on Karen McDonald’s classroom at Earl Boyles Elementary School, to see how her lessons help kids who don’t speak English at home. Rob Manning next looks at the connections between language and long-term academic success for all students.
Rob Manning’s “Class of 2025” reports are part of American Graduate — Let’s Make It Happen! — a public broadcasting initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Meet Jackie Kuang. He has a white board set up in his grandmother’s living room. He’s doing serious multiplication, while his sisters chatter behind him. He’s in first grade, but quickly answers the problem “36 times 12” with the result “432.”
Jackie got it right.
Jackie has been learning math from his Dad, Jung Chao Kuang. He spoke through a Cantonese interpreter.
“Yeah, this is Jackie’s double-digit multiplication. It’s pretty basic stuff for students in China, but of course not the same for American students,” Kuang explained through the interpreter.
Instruction is changing in Oregon. Backers of the national Common Core standards say they’re meant to help Americans compete internationally. The standards aim to go deeper, with a focus on analysis, context, and applying skills, like multiplication.
Shannon McCaw trains teachers on the Common Core standards. At a recent conference, she quizzed elementary teachers with sample questions about budgets and restaurant menus.
McCaw explained, “You read, write and do math not separately but oftentimes together and it’s very rare that in life, you’ll ever be handed a worksheet and say ‘crank out all these math problems.’ It’s ‘Solve this math problem in an applied setting,’ where you have to read and gather information, and write about - and create some kind of proposal, something like that.”
A recent paper out of Stanford University makes the case that in the Common Core “language permeates all the standards, in many ways, even in those cases where the word ‘language’ is not explicitly mentioned.”
Language has long been a focus for teaching students who don’t use English at home. But language specialist Maria Popii says there’s also an issue for the 75 percent of students at Earl Boyles Elementary who live in poverty.
“By age three, middle-class children had working vocabularies roughly twice the size of poor children’s. By age 3,” Popii reads out loud.
She says those students are already behind by Kindergarten.
“So those students come in behind, already behind in kindergarten … It’s pretty sad. It breaks my heart to even think that.”
Language and reading are connected, and with third grade reading a critical milestone, schools often intervene with struggling readers.
First grader Dude Rabideau goes to “reading club” with specialist Katrina Chevita. She uses rapid-fire drills on letter sounds and short words. They keep him on his toes.
Chevita: “Top to bottom, bottom to top, Dude, get ready”
Chevita: “Get ready.”
Chevita “Get ready.”
Chevita “Get ready.”
Chevita “Get ready.”
Chevita: “Way to work it, Dude.”
Kids: “Way to work it Dude!”
The reading interventions help struggling readers learn words.
Taking those words and putting them together in complete sentences is a school-wide priority at Earl Boyles, for principal Ericka Guynes. She says with the recent changes in language instruction, students are using more “academic” language. How does Guynes measure that? By talking to students.
She says, “I say ‘Oh, good morning’ you know, ‘Good morning so-and-so, how are you today?’ I get a complete sentence back. I don’t get a grunt.”
Anais Herrera-Martinez is a first grader at Earl Boyles. Her family speaks English, and lives close to school. She recently showed me around her yard, pointing out a broken bicycle, and a beehive.
She explains, “Bees stings people, and they hurt really bad, and they make poison. But they get honey from flowers, and we have flowers in our gard … in our garden.”
Anais Herrera-Martinez talks about the bees that live near her home, and why they’re important.
Anais is in the language class for students in greatest need.
On this day, she and her classmates get cards with pictures on them, and they have to describe what’s happening. Anais is looking at popcorn.
Anais: “He will pour the little seeds in the popcorn machine.”
Anais: “Then, the popcorn pops. Then, last, she and her Dad eat together.”
The cards help students use complete sentences. But that “first-then-last” construction is also an early lesson in how to organize thoughts.
Some aspects of the new Common Core curriculum and language approach have some teachers - and parents - nervous. Anais’ mom, Josette Herrera is among them.
“What they’re learning now, I think they’re learning way too much and too soon,” Herrera said.
Teachers suggest the young students are ready for it.
Her daughter’s language teacher, Karen McDonald acknowledges that it’s sometimes a struggle for young students. For instance, explaining answers isn’t automatic.
“At first, they were saying ‘It’s just in my brain, I just got the answer in my brain,’ but now they’re starting to explain how they got the answer, and what picture helped them get the answer,” she said.
Herrera says she didn’t complain about the demands of first grade, because she thinks kids are capable of a lot.
“I mean, I understand kids are sponges, they pick up a lot of stuff, but I think they could’ve waited.,” Herrera laughed.
McDonald says there’s no need to wait. “I think they are capable of it. I really do,” she said.
Back at Jackie Kuang’s whiteboard, the seven year-old is a little unsure how to explain how he solved his multiplication problem. He’d rather run upstairs to play.
Jung Chao Kuang says putting math into context, as the Common Core will require, is a little beyond his son, right now. But he says not for Jackie’s older sister.
Speaking through a translator he says, “He hasn’t got to that point, yet. But Lisa has, obviously.”
Kuang adds, “Well, for example, when they go grocery shopping, Dad will ask ‘hey, how much are we buying, how much are we giving, and then what’s the change?’. She knows how to do that - he hasn’t been taught that yet.”
Jackie’s sister, Lisa is 10-years-old. So she’ll be taking the Common Core tests when they start, a year from now. Jackie Kuang — and the rest of the Class of 2025 — will take them a year later, when they’re third graders.