This post is about wondering and ways to support emergent multilinguals (aka English learners) in their writing development.
If you’re reading this, it’s safe to say that you know what wondering is. I’m sure you’ve even spent some time doing it. Somehow, along the way, you learned its deep nuances. You know that there’s a little bit of questioning, but not challenge. It’s kind of like pondering but with less drawn-out-thought. When you Google something you wonder about, you’re satisfied with the Wikipedia answer. No further research needed. In the act of wondering our eyes tilt upward, maybe a finger touches the face just below the corner of the mouth. Adults use “wonder” when they are trying to be non-confrontational, leading someone down a path of inquiry. And sometimes it has an ethereal quality. That child-like sprinkle of excitement.
When I received the assignment “An Invitation to Wonder” from Kate Messner I was thrilled. First off, it was an easy thing to start with. All we had to do was write a list of things we wondered about. Maybe, one day, they would even turn into seed ideas for a longer piece. Secondly, it brought me back to something I had long forgotten about. The time I galumphed my way through this exercise with students, many of whom were emergent multilinguals.
Forays into Writer’s Workshop
It was my first foray into teaching writer’s workshop. I was all about idea generation. Listing what we wondered about seemed like a perfect beginning. It was open-ended and student-centered. There was no wrong answer. And there was the enthralling chance that we might end up using our wonderings as research topics. What more could a teacher want?!
And then I felt the disquieting stares. Pencils didn’t move. Bodies were still. Notebooks remained vacant. No writing happened.
Now this wasn’t because my students didn’t know how to wonder. Perhaps they were learning English in addition to having a home language, but it’s not like they didn’t have the trappings of a childhood mind. You know, the curiosity that flits about even during school hours. That wasn’t the issue at all. My students could, and did, wonder. The problem was that they really had no idea what I was asking of them, or how to accomplish it
I had made the assumption that if I told them to write what they wondered, they would do just that. They’re kids, I thought, this will be easy. So I didn’t bother to build in the language scaffolds and supports that my emergent multilingual students needed. Because of that the lesson did not produce much writing. Looking back, there is a lot I would have done differently. Here are three ways I would have changed my lesson:
1. A lesson without examples is no lesson at all
You’re probably face-palming right now because this is so obvious. How many times have you been told that all students, and especially those learning an additional language, need examples? But at the time I was taking a writer’s-workshop-stab-in-the-dark. I didn’t know a lot, and I didn’t know who to turn to. So I tried using old methods to teach new things. If I say it, they will do it.
What I realized is that young writers need strong, student-centered, linguistic examples. I should have modeled how I wondered about winning video-games, about how to get a new skateboard, about if I could have an over-night with my friend. I could have wondered about bigger things too. The problem was, I hadn’t planned for wonder-modeling. I didn’t demonstrate the language we use when we wonder. So while my students did wonder, they didn’t have the language scaffolds needed to record their wonderings in writing, in English. If I had a do-over I would include linguistically simple as well as linguistically complex examples, and highlight the language of wondering.
2. Lost in translation
Students with emerging English skills often bring rich language resources to their new learning. Translation can unlock some of these resources. However, we need to be intentional in finding translation that conveys meaning. For instance, Google translates “wonder” from English to “preguntarse” (ask yourself) in Spanish. “Yet if you type in “maravilla” in Spanish you get “wonder” in English. Even better would be “maravillarse” which is a verb that translates as “to marvel” or “to wonder”. You can see how the deep meaning changes.
When I clunked my way through that lesson I didn’t plan for unlocking the meaning of “wonder” through translation. Doing so would have quickly and fluidly pulled the curtain back on the nuances that “wonder” conveys. This would have allowed my students to focus on the task of idea generation instead of trying to figure out what I was asking of them. I could have quickly started with Google translate and then double-checked other resources. The search I did for this post took about five minutes. Those few minutes could have made a big difference to my students.
3. All language is meaning-filled
As I mentioned, many students who are learning English bring rich, existing language to their school-experience. Leveraging these competencies is critical. One way to do this is by letting students know their home-language is a resource, just as English is. When crafting our list of wonderings, I should have created an environment where students knew they could write in whatever language they felt most comfortable with.
Doing this is key for a couple of reasons. First, it would have allowed my students to focus on the lesson’s goal: idea generation. By lowering the cognitive load of learning English, we could have gotten to the core of what we needed to do as writers. Second, highlighting home language as a resource honors students as people and as writers. It conveys the idea that all voices are important, and need to be heard. Now, keep in mind that I would not have forced students to write in a home language. I just would have created the atmosphere where students knew they could. Doing so would have provided the safety and scaffolding that some may have needed to begin writing.
My Wondering List
In the interest of modeling, here is a wondering list I wrote for Teachers Write! And, by the way, it’s this wondering list that led me to write this post.
- How do I start and keep a writing practice going?
- Why do people want to write?
- How can I spend time writing and keep my commitments to my profession, my self, my family, and my friends all alive and well?
- Does loving to write make me an introvert?
- Is that a bad thing?
- What does it mean to be a teacher-writer?
- How do I share with my students my own worries about writing so that they feel comfortable sharing theirs?
- How do other languages say “wonder”?
- How do we make writing instruction work for all students?
- What paradigms need a complete shake up?
- What am I missing as a caucasian, female educator?
- What capacities do students bring to their writing?
- How do I help them unleash those capacities