Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens
Bobbi Houtchens is an ELL educator with more than 40 years of experience teaching secondary ESL and English. Bobbi served as a teaching ambassador fellow at the U.S. Department of Education during 2009-2010. In this interview, she discusses ideas for engaging reluctant readers and writers, as well as other strategies for setting high expectations for adolescent ELLs.
The full transcript of Bobbi's interview and her biography are available below. In addition, we have featured a number of Bobbi's articles on Colorín Colorado.
Bobbi also wrote the following article for the National Writing Project:
Part I: Teaching ELLs
Last year, the Department of Education decided to select five classroom teachers from across the United States to come work full-time at the department and talk to policymakers about educational policy. Bringing our perspective as classroom teachers and what policy looks like when it finally gets through the state filters and the district filters and the principal's filters all the way down into the classroom.
And a lot of people at the department were surprised at how much policy changed by the time it got down to teachers. So that was our job was to engage in those conversations, not just in the department, but also across Washington with lots of different policymakers.
This last year's program, we were the pilot group. There were also twenty classroom teachers that were selected across the United States who stayed in their classrooms and then worked part-time on an average ten to fifteen hours a month, working on policy with different people at the department. Most of the Washington fellows were placed in program officers. But I think I was the luckiest one. I was placed in the Office of English Language Acquisition. And I was able to sit in on really high level meetings, evaluation studies of Title III, working with the people at the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and their new contract to see what directions it was taking and be able to comment on that, to write articles for their newspaper.
Just to really comment on the direction of the office and on the policies and guidance and other, other program areas that it's involved in. So I really got to dig in deep. And I think ... you know, what I found out is at first I felt like I wasn't making much difference. Because in the classroom, when you make a difference, it's like every day. And it's big, lifesaving differences sometimes in the lives of your students.
But at the department, everything moves so slowly. And it took me awhile to not be frustrated anymore. because after awhile I realized, in the classroom what I say on a day-to-day basis can make a big difference immediately. In the department, what I say or what I do or what I write can make a giant different.
Because even just changing the wording of a proposal or the wording of a draft of some legislation where it addresses English learners' needs can impact 8.5 million children. And you may not see it for another four years. But the impact is enormous beyond what I would probably really comprehend. So that's what I got to do in the department for this last year.
During my fellowship, I've really come to appreciate how important it is for teachers to become much more involved in policy development, whether the policy is just for your school — for example, what the bell schedule looks like as a policy decision that teachers can impact.
At your district on textbook selection, curriculum direction, in the state and especially at the national level. It's important because we know what happens in the classroom. We know how to make the magic that turns kids on and what happens to turn kids off and encourage them to drop out and not feel like they belong in school.
So unless policymakers are hearing from us, they can only conjecture about what needs to be changed, what needs to be improved, to make education good for all students. So what I think all the fellows came to the realization about is that we need to ... as fellows, one of our mission is to go back to our districts and to organize teacher leaders, teachers who are passionate about what they do, and show them easy ways and effective ways to have a say in what policy comes down to the classroom.
Fired up to teach ELLs
You know, I can't ever remember not being a teacher. My dad found one of those old blackboards that was on ... mounted on wheels that they used to have in the classrooms. He found it in some trash bin someplace. Because I know we never had enough money for him to buy it. And that lived in my backyard on the patio. And I taught neighborhood children from as long as I can remember. But my first real teaching experience happened in college. I was at Elbert Covell College at the University of Pacific in Stockton, California. And my sophomore year, I was sent to do like an internship, a teacher internship, at a junior high school in Stockton.
And Stockton's in the middle of the Central Valley in California, a big migrant community. Lots of Latino students, lots of immigrants. Even back in the '60s. And so I went to the school and told the principal I'm here to teach English as a second language. Because that was my major.
And he said, "Thank goodness. We have a lot of kids here who don't speak English." I said, "That's great. Can I talk to their teacher?" He said, "We don't have any teachers who know how to teach them. So they're all placed in the special education classes."
So I had to go to the special education classes and pull all my students out. Because of my class schedule, I could only go three days a week to teach these students, like a couple of hours each of those days. And I knew it wasn't enough. They needed help. And they didn't need to be in special education.
Because one of them told me that "I'm just dumb." And that's why they put me in this class with these students who are dumb. And so I started recruiting my other friends. By the end of the year, we had 450 students traveling by carpool to this middle school to tutor kids.
And the program went on a couple of years after I graduated from college. So again, seeing that same lack of sensitivity, same inhumane treatment, the same lack of belief and the potential for these students just fired me up even more to teach English language learners.
A mother's story
There's a story from my childhood that I think really shaped not just my desire to become a teacher, but also my philosophy about teaching. My mom and her sister immigrated from Mexico in 1935. My mom was five. And her sister was nine or ten. And they had come from a middle class family. They had servants who dressed them, who bathed them, who cooked for them. But not very, very wealthy. It was just common. And they came here with nothing. I remembered they lived in the back of a bar with only a partition that separated their living quarters from the front of the bar.
And the partition didn't even go all the way up to the ceiling. When my mom started first grade and my aunt was going into fourth grade, they were taken to the nurse's office at the school, at the local neighborhood school. And when they got to the nurse's office, they found some other brand new immigrant kids who were then undressed and scrubbed down by the nurse and then sprayed with an insecticide.
And in 1935, you know it had to be like something deadly like DDT. Then when they put their clothes back on, they were taken to their classroom. In my mother's classroom, all the new immigrant kids sat on one side of the room, separated with an aisle down the center from the kids who had been in the United States for awhile. Of course, the class was all in English.
After they were seated, the nurse came and sprayed DDT down the center aisle of the classroom. Well, what these people in the school didn't know was that my grandmother was probably the most obsessive, compulsively clean person you've ever met in your life. So I know these kids, these two little girls, probably had their skin scrubbed raw before their first day of school.
And then to have to go to school and suffer that humiliation and the humiliation my grandparents felt when their children were treated like they were filthy and full of vermin when they got to school just outraged my grandmother. And she jerked them out of that school and put them in another where they were treated much more humanely. That story just appalled me. Because I loved first grade. I loved school. And to be treated in such a cruel manner, I ... I wanted to teach. So that other kids didn't suffer that same humiliation. And especially after IO grew up, I realized how brilliant my mother was. Just ... and how much she didn't believe in her own brilliance. I had to blame that early experience on that. So I didn't want that to ever happen again.
Migrant students' wealth of knowledge
I know a particular problem that many experienced teachers as well as brand new teachers have. When they discover that a lot of their students are following the migrant's dream and might drop into their classrooms for three months and then all of a sudden disappear.
And finding ways to meet their needs and make sure their time spent in the teacher's classroom is not wasted is a critical question. And one that I know must weight heavy on their minds. There are a lot of things they can do.
One is first to recognize that these students come with a wealth of knowledge, knowledge about the seasons, knowledge about crops, geographic knowledge because they travel so much. And to build upon that knowledge.
So first, getting to the know those students and finding out where they've been, what they've studied and what they're interested in. And then in their classroom, build in chunks of instruction. Rather than having a curriculum that relies on the student ... for a student to be successful, it would rely on a student being there from September through June.
That maybe they would have six weeks or twelve week chunks of knowledge that they could take the students through. Plus, having on-hand resources or materials for students who have gaps in their education. I know as an English teacher, what I would do is make sure I have plenty of novels and non-fiction texts in a lot of different areas, a lot of different reading levels, that I could afford to let go.
So even if that student didn't come to school for a few days or left on the stream, they could take something with them that would continue their education from my class.
Part II: Engaging Reluctant Readers
Strengthening the reading muscle
For about the past twenty-three years, give or take a year, I've been teaching high school English in San Bernardino, California. The two high schools where I've taught are in very, very poor communities. My freshmen, juniors and seniors when they've come to me have seldom read a book, an entire novel on their own. Many of their reading levels if they reach sixth grade reading level, it's a surprise. So ... and my job is to make sure they're reading at the ninth, tenth and eleventh grade level before they leave me.
Many times people have the misperception that the students need to start over and learn phonics and learn to chunk out words. But my students have those skills. What they don't have is fluency. And I know fluency isn't the only thing that leads to comprehension. But I know my students are still stuck on the word on the page. And they're not able just to lose themselves in the word, in all those words strung together, in order to form images in their mind that lead to comprehension and forget about the reading part and just read. So they have to forget about the process of reading and just get into reading.
And learning to read is like doing exercise. And I use this analogy all the time with my students. Because your brain's just like a muscle. It's, learning to read is like learning to shoot hoops or learning to throw passes. Or learning to skateboard. When you first start, you're not very good. And it's kind of painful and it's embarrassing. The same with reading. When you first start, if you don't practice, it stays painful and it stays embarrassing. So they have to exercise their reading muscle like they would exercise those muscles and their brain to shoot hoops.
So just polling them, how do you get better at throwing free throws? Well, you shoot free throws, you know. Until your mother makes you come in, you're out there shooting free throws in the driveway. The same thing with reading. You just have to read and read and read. Things that you enjoy and things that you understand.
So that's what I try to do is, well, I don't try to do it. I'm kind of brutal about it. They have to read. They have to read ten pages a night every night of the year, whether they're sick, they go to a funeral. There's no excuses. And it includes holidays or no days off. Just like Michael Jordan took no days off when he wanted to make the basketball team in high school. They have to be like him and just persist and not stop until they build that muscle up. So it's not painful and it's not embarrassing anymore.
Banquet of books
We start off every year with like a smorgasbord, a banquet, of books. If I can't do it in the library, then I'll do it in my classroom. And I put my students at tables and with a chart they fill out where their job is to sample books. I'll give them four or five minutes a book. And they fill out the chart with the title, the author and what they thought of the book if they would like to read it. And in the center of each table, I will grab a stack of books off the shelves in the library. Or I will bring those books down to my classroom and just dump them on the tables, non-fiction, fiction. I'm not even picky about what books I pick.
Because, one, I have a wonderful librarian who makes sure we have books that kids need and kids love. And so, they are to sample books that look interesting from that stack. And when they've got ten books, about eight or ten books from that stack, they have to switch to a different table. And we spend an hour and a half doing that.
What happens is that they find books that interest them that they didn't know existed. And they have a list of books that they want to go back to, that they want to check out that very moment. And they can't. Because I have to use those same books for six different classes. So it's such a great feeling for kids who walk in ... for me as a teacher ... to have kids who walk into the library going, "Oh God. We're going to spend an hour and a half reading." And they have plenty of profanity to use about what they're anticipating. They're reluctant to sit down. They try to avoid doing it. But I'm a tyrant. They have to do it.
And when they leave, they're saying "Please let me check this book out." And I'll tell them, "No, I'm sorry, you can't. You're going to have to come back to the library on your own." And it feels to have those very same kids begging me to read a book, and once they found a book that interests them, then they can read beyond their independent reading level oftentimes. But it's a book that they're not going to want to put down. And that's what I want for them.
Jesse and Esperanza Rising
Students are always surprising me. And even though I think my expectations are high, and my expectations keep going up every year I've taught, students are always teaching me that my expectations aren't high enough. The last year I was in the classroom before this year, I had a student who I really had trouble connecting with. He was rather defiant, Jessie. Not very personable with too many kids. Always on the defensive and just totally resistant to doing anything academically.
I found out through his journals that he is a musician and a really accomplished drummer. And in conferences with his mom found out that's all he wanted to do was go to the garage and practice with his band. And they were pretty good. So I kept thinking, "Well, what would I do with a kid like this? I'll try to connect him with like biography of Jimi Hendrix or Morrison or somebody, another musician." And he resisted that. And as part of this banquet of books and kids talking about books that they really enjoyed, I had a copy of Pam Muñoz Ryan's, isn't she the one, Esmeralda Rising, and, Esperanza Rising.
And I told him one day when I just had had it to here with him resisting, I said read this book. And you are not leaving my classroom today until you've gotten through at least twenty or thirty pages of this book. "But I've got to go to algebra." "No, I don't care." I called all his teachers and said "He's staying in my room the rest of the day until he reads."
And he started reading this book and fell in love with it. It's a wonderful book. But to me, it was always a girl's book. You know, it's just sweet. It's so sweet. And this kid loved this book so much that when he finished it then kept it so that he could read it again, I couldn't believe it. Now my wall in my office here, and I packed up this special picture and on my phone I carry it around with me. I have a picture of this kid with the goofy ... Jessie with the goofiest smile on his face with the first book that he ever read, Esperanza Rising.
Books about gang life
I have another story about one of my favorite books to teach is called Always Running: My Days in the Gang Life by Louis Rodriguez. He was a gangster in East LA, brutal gang. His mother was so frustrated with him, she kicked him out of the house and made him live in the garage. Because of the things he was involved in. He was out of control. He ended up having so many kids die, so many of his friends die, from gang violence that he went to Chicago.
He tried to quit the gang. The gang put out a contract on him. So he fled to Chicago with some other family. And it's a novel of hope. Because he got out of the gang. And he's a famous author. And he has ... owns a book store in Los Angeles. So, of course, I was giving this book to some of my little gangsters. And they loved it. And then this one kid, very, very straight, good kid, picked up the book and read it. And his journal said, "I know this book is about gangsters. And I'm a Christian. I go to church all the time. And I try to do what God instructs me to do. I found this book particularly interesting because of the life he lived by his own choice didn't follow any of the rules that I've learned as a Christian. And it's convinced me even more that I need to follow the ways that my church teaches me. So that I don't fall into these same traps."
I think there are some gang books out there that value the gang life. The books I choose like "Always Running" or "Two Badges: The Lives of Mona Ruíz" are novels or biographies of hope. Where somebody makes, especially adolescents, makes some very, very disastrous choices, but they don't give up. And they find a way out of the life they chose as an adolescent to a productive life that helps other kids and keeps other kids from making the same bad choices that they made. So I think yes, some books about gangs, about prisoners, about prostitution, about living a life that perhaps isn't on a productive path can reinforce stereotypes if they're glorifying those stereotypes. But if it's a novel about hope, about where there is a way out, then I think it's very appropriate for a lot of kids who feel hopeless.
Connecting reading to academic content
Once I have students reading in the classroom, reading every night, things they enjoy reading, I have to find a way to pull in all the academic content and all the academic English that they need to have in order to be able to succeed in subsequent English classes as well as in their other content classes.
And that's what I'm being held accountable for. So the reading is just a tool for me to be able to get them into those different ways of looking at literature and acquiring the academic content they need.
What I teach in my classroom are mostly shorter pieces. Unless we're, in addition to their independent reading, we're reading a novel together as a class, one that they might not be able to handle on their own.
And that's where I teach themes. I teach concepts about symbolism. I teach about inferences and metaphorical meanings in literature. I teach all of the literary concepts that I'm required to teach as a ninth, tenth and eleventh grade teacher.
And when my students are doing their independent reading, they also have to journal. So one purpose of the journal is accountability that they're doing the reading and thinking about it. But part of their journaling is to take whatever literary concept we're studying through our classroom literature and apply it to the independent reading.
So I asked him to look for themes, look for metaphorical meanings. What are the life's messages that are coming to you from this independent gangster book or this independent adolescent, piece of adolescent literature or this beach trash novel that you've picked up for a little interlude between heavier readings?
All good literature carries ... uses the same techniques. And I want them to discover those for themselves in something that they enjoy reading. So that they can begin to examine the experiences of the characters and connect those experiences to themselves, connect those experiences to their life and how those experiences, not just in the classroom literature, but also in their independent reading, can inform them and make them bigger, better, more thoughtful, more reflective people.
Literature that reflects student experiences
I think it's important that students have ready access to literature. Stephen Krashen at USC said that adolescents will read if books are within arm's reach. If they have to go beyond their arm's reach, then it's too much work. And they probably won't pick up the reading material. So I have lots of books representing lots of diverse cultures in my classroom. And I make sure my students travel to the library and are within arm's reach as we travel down the shelves. It's important for students to have access to lots of different kinds of literature for many, many reasons.
One is because it helps breakdown stereotypes. And it helps them realize that there's a universal human inside each of us that we have so much more in common than we have that's different and to appreciate people who are different from us and who we might be afraid of on some level. Or who we might hate on some level. So it kind of builds some bridges.
I think it's critical that students have literature that reflects their own experiences, their own cultures in their lives. My students are urban, poor. Our community is very, very violent. So it's important for my students to see that they're not alone. For my immigrant students, it's important of them to see that other students have immigrated and become successful. That they can see other students have had suffered the same traumas that they've suffered and have been able to survive and to prosper afterwards. And what to do in order to reach that point.
For my students who are born in the United States from Mexican parents perhaps or immigrants or even parents who were born here, but they have Mexican heritage, it's important for them to see the amazing history, the amazing richness of their culture and have it validated when so often it's speaking Spanglish or code-switching. Using a mixture of Spanish and English together when you're speaking to your peers or you're speaking to your family is a really endearing things that oftentimes bilingual people don't ... don't see value, that's put down so much.
When my students read a novel where that code-switching happens and it's intelligible to them, it's in print by a recognized author like Rudolph Anaya in Bless Me Ultima, then it validates that what they're doing is valuable and that it matters. And they shouldn't lose that ability to do that.
When I was growing up, I never read a book by a Chicano author. And it wasn't until my graduate work and I took a Chicano studies, Chicano literature, class, that I saw all this literature laid out that reflected me and my life. And it kind of validated that, "Yes, I belong in graduate school." And "Yes, I should have gone onto college despite what my counselor told me in high school." He said I wasn't college material. And, "Yes, I should continue in this battle to make sure that all students are exposed to lots of different types of literature." But especially my Latino students and my English learners and my immigrants are exposed to powerful, powerful literature that reflects their experiences so they know they're not alone in the world. And they're not the only person who's had to overcome the same obstacles.
Bridging cultures with books
My students are really interested in books about other cultures. I seem to be able to get them to hook into something that connects to their culture, whether it's a music culture or a sports culture or their ethnicity or their language, I can hook them that way. But once they find out that they enjoy reading, that they get something out of reading, it's easy to pull in another book from another culture with a similar theme or a similar topic that lets them explore that culture in a non-threatening way and give them understanding about that culture.
And then in my classroom, we discussed our independent reading in book groups. And so if I mix up the groups with kids from different cultures and different backgrounds in one group and they start sharing books that reflect their own cultures, it sparks interest, more so from each other than if it were coming ... a recommendation coming from me.
So when Tamika shares her book with Maria and they swap books, it gives Maria some insights into Tamika's culture and vice versa. So it really helps make understanding happen and community happen that I'm hoping has an impact on the entire community, not just on the classroom. So that kids stop fighting each other for imagined differences.
Part III: Writing for High School ELLs
The importance of writing
My big goal for my class, for my students, are to become leaders. But I know that if somebody wants to have any power in the world, they have to be able to express themselves well in writing. And I'm a firm believer that without filling the vessel so to speak with words and language, rich, rich language, through reading, that that rich language can't come back out of a person through their writing.
So another goal of my students reading so much during the school years is to give them language they can work with. Leftbagoski, I think, said that nothing that we say is original with ourselves. That it's just an amalgam of what other people have said to us with our own thoughts layered in. So it truly becomes our thoughts, our words.
So my students use the reading that we do in class as well as the independent reading as models for their writing. I know that great artists when you go to art school, you're taught to copy the classic artists and great artists. If you go to the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C. there are easels setup in the galleries. And there are art students there copying the great works that are on the walls. So I use the literature as those great works and have my students copy the structures, the use of language that we've read, that they've loved, in order to develop their own styles and their own techniques.
Reading as part of writing
One of the techniques that I've found to be very, very effective with my students, students who have no confidence in their writing, who hate writing, who avoid it at all costs, is to use excerpts from short stories in writing autobiographical memoir. For example, we look at a lot of examples of autobiographical memoirs. Because I think the students have to see lots and lots of models, rather than just one model that many teachers show them. Eleven, twelve models of autobiographical memoir. And we analyze and dissect them together. And then in order for them to practice something like an introduction, I'll choose the introduction to several memoirs and have them practice the language and the style that that author uses.
One that I particularly like using is Rita Dove's "For the Love of Books". It's a short story that's anthologized and it happens to be in our anthology. And it's ... she's reflecting back about why she loves books and why she became a writer. And I have one student, one of my reluctant gangsters, who copied her style so much and this is what he wrote. It's the first essay he's ever really written. And he used it for his college entrance essay and go into a four-year college. So it must have been effective.
He says, "When people ask me why do you get into fights, I reply 'Respect.' First, second and third, I hate being disrespected. From when I was a little kid, I looked up to my older brother as a role model. I liked it when people said we looked alike. I liked his lifestyle and how he taught me to never back out of a fight. Winning a fight is my thrill. I even like glancing at the person that I've been fighting to see if I've left any bruises on his face. Like contemplating my brother's footsteps."
If that isn't publishable, I don't know what is. And the rest of his essay didn't follow Rita Dove's essay. But he pulled experts from the other memoirs that we read and recrafted them into his own. The final essay didn't end up just like this. Because by the time he put all those different pieces together, it required some revisions to his ... to this introduction. But it gave him such a powerful start that he was excited about continuing to write.
The writing process
In my classroom, I'm a big believer in student- centered learning. And that's why I use literature groups, reading circles, as in Harvey Daniels reading circles and literature groups. But also in using the writing process. So I'm not the ultimate audience for my students. It's their peers and the world is the audience. So the writing process is one that that is reinforced through the Writing Project at UCLA. And the Writing Project in the Bay Area, both of which I attended.
And when ... it has definite steps that are very student centered. The first step, of course, in everything you do in education is to setup the expectations right up front. So students know what you're expecting. It's not a big mystery. They have to find out for themselves as they go through the class. But they know. So I explain the standards, the parts of each standard in California, the English language arts standards, that are goals. As well as rubrics and the product they're going to use to show me that they've mastered those standards. So the standards are definitely our focus.
And the second step in our writing process is reading. So I want them to read multiple models. For example, in the autobiographical memoir that we write and we're responsible for writing in the junior, the first quarter of the junior year, I ask my students to find autobiographies or biographies, but especially autobiographies that people are interested in. And read those for their independent reading. And then in class, we read multiple essays. So that they have all of that structure, all of those techniques that are valuable and make autobiographies so rich, inside them and inside their brains.
Then the next step in the process is to take the literature that we bring and jump back into it. One of the things I really like to do is move my students from telling a story, their story in this case, chronologically to flip around the time. Which is it's a powerful technique where you might start in the middle of a story where it's really exciting. Or you might start by telling the ending and then do a flashback and tell how the story began.
So I pull out pieces of literature that do that effectively. And we go through and analyze one together. Following that same protocol for instruction where I taught them the concept. And then show them the model and walk them through the model. Put them in a group and ask the group to analyze a different piece of literature that we've already read for that same technique and how it differed from the one we did as a class. And then I might put them in pairs or individually to examine another piece of literature and then share their analysis with each other before we share it as a class. So that they really have under their belts a really firm understanding of how to switch the order in which they tell a story.
So they can create excitement at the beginning and then keep the reader guessing, well, why did this happen? And I tell them that their goal as a writer is to keep the reader asking the questions. So that the reader is being tricked into continuing the story to find answers to their questions. Which is what happened to them when they were reading. And I found that to be a really exciting way to teaching literary technique.
Magnifying a moment
Before my students start writing, I want them to move from, to a much more sophisticated style than the style they've been using since fourth grade. And that's from the time I get out of bed telling my day until the time I go to bed. Just that very minute little detailed kind of storytelling. And in order to do that, I tell them that we're going to magnify a moment. And before we can magnify a moment, we have to have lots of moments to choose from. So I have them create a timeline of their life. Going back to their very first memory and then charting on this timeline. It's not very long. It's sixteen years, right? Charting on the timeline some significant time markers.
Then when it comes time ... and they share their time markers with the class, with the group. So we have a lot of time markers. I create this class time markers with kids time markers on this giant sixteen year chart that stretches across a couple of white boards. And as we're talking and sharing, I can see kids going back to their timeline and adding something that was significant. And it doesn't have to be a big thing. It might be the first time you ever had a snow cone and what it's done for the rest of your life.
And we look at the time markers that the authors regret have used as inspirations for where to get our time markers from. And then I ask them to choose one. And then we're just going to blow it up. And that's going to be our 1,500-2,000 word essay is just that one moment. And so that's how we brainstorm lots of topic. And if they get stuck on a topic, it's really cool. Because they keep this timeline in their ... in their writing portfolio. And I tell them leave it. Don't do that one now. It's just not working at this moment. Don't throw it out. Because you may want to come back to it next year or for your college entrance essay, one of those college application essays.
Pick another one and start that. So they may start three or four different autobiographical memoirs and only finish one. But they never have to say to me, "I don't know what to write about."
The revision process
I think one of the most critical steps in the writing process is the revision process. A lot of my students come to me with the erroneous assumption that once they put something down on paper, it's done and ready to turn in. And we might tend to work on the same essay for an entire semester or for an entire year, because revision is where students learn how to write. It's when we start analyzing essay score, the use of dialogue. And we look at where dialogue might work in the draft of an essay. And there is ... because in class, part of our class is still examining literary techniques. We may have focused on how does this author use dialogue? And why does she use dialogue in this place at this time? Then I want them to go back to their draft and examine their essay for where dialogue might add the extra punch that pulls the reader even deeper into living their experience with them.
So in revisions on that day or the following day, they will look at each other's essays and say you might think about adding some dialogue. Or add some notes to themselves. Not even actually do it at the moment. But get instances in their draft where if they revised it and wrote it again by adding dialogue ... and on the computer, it's so easy, right? Cut and paste and you're done. You don't have to write the whole thing over again.
They can go back and make revisions. If it's ... if my academic literacy instruction on that day has been on the use of metaphor and we look at authors using metaphor, I'll do the same thing. "Go back to your essay. Pull out your essay. And I want you to look at where the use of metaphor would be much stronger than directly telling what something ... how something happened."
And so, by doing that and writing on something that they have a vested interest in, they've spent a lot of time on, they may rewrite that essay twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen times. So the revision process is just critical in crafting a good piece of writing. And it's what real authors do. So the lesson I want them to come away with there is a piece of writing is never done. Ever. So you may use this piece of writing to enter an essay contest. You may use it for ... this piece of writing for your college application essay, your personal statement. You may use it for a job application. You never know where this essay might take you. You may translate it to French or to Spanish and use it to enter a competition in that language. You don't know what this essay will do or how many more times in a lifetime you might want to rewrite it.
So that's, that's how they learn to write. And why revision, although it's painful, the satisfaction the kids get from having done ten revisions and they look at the final product compared to the original draft has catapulted their writing to a level of sophistication that they didn't even know they could reach in just a short time.
The importance of editing
Another piece of writing that I think students think is revision, but it's not really revision, is editing. And I tell them it's like planting apple seeds in the ground. First, we eat the apple. That's all the reading we've been doing. Because it's so satisfying. But then we take the seeds that come from that apple and plant them. And that's our writing.
So we've grown ... through going through the writing process, we've grown this tree, our essay. And this tree now has apples on it. And those are our drafts. So we're going to take a draft that we really want to polish up and that's what editing is, is just polishing that apple. So it's ready for consumption.
And editing is purely working on not the structure, not the literary techniques, but on grammar and spelling and punctuation. And I teach those concepts through the literature as well. "So how do you punctuate dialogue? Flip back to this essay by Sandra Cisneros. How did she punctuate it?"
How do you formulate when you've been doing code switching or you're using colloquial language like my kids speak in dialogue? How do you punctuate that? "Well, let's go back to the essays that we read where those techniques we're used and see how they've punctuated it. Let's look at how the author has punctuated introductory clauses. Or whether you put a comma before the 'and' in this case."
And so all those lessons about punctuate and grammar come from the literature again by recognized authors that they love and they respect. By this point, they're probably reciting their essays by memory. But I want them also to copy their ways of punctuating. And knowing that there are many ways, differences, in punctuation rules, in grammar rules, depending on the circumstances of this piece, particular piece, of writing.
Sharing the writing
When I'm finally finished with these essays, with these polished apples that we have, I think it's a sin, a crime, for the brilliance of my students not to be recognized by the entire world. So I have teams of students who look for writing competitions for us to enter. And we enter them like crazy. We publish our own magazines with our original writing in it for them to keep and have signed, autographed, by the authors, in our classes. We take our writings to elementary schools and the middle school, our feeder middle school, and share our writing and why writing is important with the younger students.
We post them on the wall, on the school bulletin boards. And I encourage them to, especially with their poetry, when we do ... write poetry. We have coffee houses and invite the community and parents in to hear the students. In the evening, we serve cappuccino and have candles on the tables. And the students get up to the microphones and share their writing or the writing that they admire by one of their classmates with the public. So I think it's important that we create broad audiences for our students. And what it does for them when they're published or they receive this public acclaim, it shows them that they really do have skills. And they really do have something important to say.
How writing makes your life better
You know, times have really changed from when I was in school. And the only way to ... well, the best and cheapest way to communicate with people, especially over distance, was through letter writing or through an essay that might be shared in a magazine or a newspaper. So writing was really critical. It seems to be less critical today. So a lot of my students don't see the need to learn how to read and write very well. If texting is good enough and email is good enough, then they can communicate.
A famous author, and I forget who it's ... who it was, said, "How do I know who I am unless I can see what I say?" And the only way we can see what we say is through writing. I think that aside from just being able to make money, have a career, find employment by writing, that those are obvious. We talk about, in class, about all those ways that writing can help make your life better. But I also think that writing helps make tangible a lot of who you are. So we all exist a lot in our heads, thinking about, especially adolescents, "Who am I? What do I know? Where am I going? What are my dreams?" But until we're able to put them down on paper, it's not really real. And it's not as easily revised and reflected upon later.
So I think writing has a way to ... and what I tell my students is to make your lives richer and deeper and more fulfilling. And also to carry on, to pass onto the people who come after you, your legacy. Those family stories, those life stories that otherwise would be lost.
Part IV: Adolescent English Language Learners
Poetry for teenagers
When we're talking about books that my students relate to, I like to recommend some poetry books. Adolescents love to write poetry. But usually, they write love that's really pretty sappy. Because they don't have the experience. They don't have the maturity to know what love is. And really what they're mostly writing about is lust. And so, I want to move them beyond that to expand their vision of what love is. And so, often times I'll recommend to them or after school I show a lot of movies that I think are just amazing movies. And one is Il Postino, (The Postman), that talks about the fictional life of Pablo Neruda when he was exiled from Chile and lived on an island in Italy.
And it's about a postman who just falls, a country bumpkin who falls in love with the most beautiful woman on the island, goes to Pablo Neruda to learn how to write poetry to her to win her heart. The poetry, and the movie's in Italian. So my students have to read the subtitles again. We're reading a movie. My students fall in love with that poetry. So I have lots of books of poetry by Pablo Neruda and Ama Nerudu, a Mexican poet that they don't know about. And we read and imitate a lot of his poetry. The love poetry as well as his odes to like ordinary things. Like to salt, or to lizards or to bicycles. Then they have to write their odes before we get into Shakespeare.
Another book that I love that really connects to my immigrant students and my English learners, because it's bilingual, is Cool Salsa by Laurie Carlson. Her poetry just sings to them. As does poetry by Pat Mora. And by Sandra Cisneros. Lots of people read House on Mango Street and think they know Sandra Cisneros. But at a convention I was at a few a years ago, she got up and said, "I don't know about the rest of you. But I moved from Mango Street about twenty years ago." And her writing since then really shows how she's grown as a writer. Her poetry is just amazing. And my students gobble her up too as though were at a banquet.
Reading and parents of adolescents
I know that parents understand that reading to their children is critical when their children are very young. And sometimes parents feel at a loss when it comes to an adolescent, especially in high school. Students should be reading on their own. And what role can a parent play when they're not even familiar with the literature that the children are reading. Or they don't even speak the same language that the literature is written in.
And what I counsel parents and encourage them to do is to engage in conversation. That when they see their child reading a book, as them, ask their child to tell them a story, to help them understand this book. And then when there's something that clicks with the parent's experience, whether it's a skill the parent has, an experience the parent has had, or a legitimate question about the book, to pose that question or to relate that experience.
So that it expands the student's repertoire and appreciation for what their parents have to offer them. Oftentimes when my students are journaling, I'll have parents write a response to the journal entry. That the parents do it once a week or twice a week. Because my parents work a lot of hours and don't often have time to engage with everyone of their kids every single day.
But if they did it once or twice a week and responded, complimenting their student on what they've written or asking questions or saying, "This reminds me of the story of your Tío José and what he did." Or, "This reminds me of when we immigrated to the United States." Or, "This reminds me of, um, when your uncle was arrested or was falsely accused of something." So that it opens up conversations that are not the typical parent/adolescent conversation that are often confrontational. But it gives them other topics, other ways to communicate with each other and share. And help the parents connect in a positive way.
Parents of adolescents
I think that working with adolescents, especially some of the type of adolescents I work with, oftentimes the parents have given up on them. And they're just frustrated because they don't know what else to do. So I have a lot of techniques I use to involve parents. One, every teacher in my school prints out a grade report for every single student. And they do it in English or in Spanish. Those are the two capabilities we have. And send it home every other week. So parents know every other Monday, they can expect a complete printout from every teacher with every assignment and every grade for each class that their child has. So they can kind of keep track of where they are.
And for my classes, my students have to bring it back signed by their patent. Their parent has to write their phone number underneath their signature. Because if I think the parent really isn't getting it, I'll make a phone call home. At the beginning of the year, I make a phone call to every single parent. And I teach six classes a day or six classes. And each class has about forty students in it. So it's a lot of phone calls. I make sure I get through it the first quarter, to introduce myself and then to share with the parent something positive about that student. And what my expectations are. But more what potential I see in their son or their daughter.
And I've gotten some strange responses. I remember one time a parent said, "This is Andrew Smith's mother." After I told her he's so articulate. He's always contributing in class. I could tell he was going to be a problem. But I didn't want to say that to the parent. Because he wanted to take control. But I told her he was so articulate. He always has so much to contribute. And I'm really looking forward to working with him. She goes, now, "This is Andrew, Andrew Smith's house. Are you sure you have the right number?" And I said, "Well, yes. Mrs. Jones." She had a different last name.
And she said, and "You're talking about Andrew? It's not Alex, his brother? It's Andrew?" And I said, "Yes. It's Andrew." And we talked a little bit. And she said, "I've never gotten a phone call that was complementary about Andrew before. You're the very first." Well, fortunately when I had to call her later, because I'll stop instruction and make a phone call or stop instruction and type a quick email to a parent. When I called her back, she was so happy to hear from me, and she had no problem handling the issue I had with Andrew. Because she knew I saw something positive in her son. And I wasn't just out to get him.
So I think communicating with parents that way. I'll have class meetings where I'll invite the parents in for readings by the students. Handing them certificates, I find anytime you want to honor a child or have them share off something wonderful that they've done, parents will come. Especially if I tell them that it's a potluck and ask them to bring something. So they have a responsibility to the group. And I get to eat some amazing food. And we get to hear some amazing writing by their amazing children that I can get parents to school. And I provide transportation when I have to.
Showing students their potential
Sometimes it's really hard to convince my students that they have the potential to go onto college. There are many things I do. One is I'm adjunct professor at the ... at the state university. And so I give classes. Because there's a lack of space at the university, I offer my classroom for me to teach my classes in at night. And oftentimes, I have students serving detentions for not doing their independent reading. Five hours of detention, in my classroom, sitting in the back of the room while I teach my university students in the middle in the front of my room. So that they can eavesdrop on what a college level class is like.
I have them read college texts and the literature that's read in college. It's the same literature you read in high school oftentimes. I also take them to the university. I know for my immigrant students, we take several trips to local universities. When other students are taking final exams, our final exam is a trip to the university. And they get to sit in on classes. But the universities are, even though they're in San Bernardino, my students seldom venture out of their small little neighborhoods.
I remember one year I took thirty students, ESL1 students, to Cal State San Bernardino. And we got off the bus. It's nestled in the foothills, beautiful, beautiful campus. There was snow on the mountains above us. And we stepped off the bus. And one student said, "Miss, where are we?" I said, "We're in San Bernardino." And he said, "No me digas. Wow. I can't believe this." And so we walked around campus. And I told them, you know, when your parents pay their rent, they're really paying property taxes. And it's property taxes that pay for this university. So this university belongs to you. It's a government university. And they just walk around big eyed with their jaws open. And one of them made we laugh. When we got to the student union and I told them we're going to go in and have lunch. And they have soft serve ice cream, as much as you can eat. So they were really excited about having that for free. And we walk up to the doors and they automatically open for us.
And the student said, "Hasta las puerta automáticas." All the way down to automatic doors. What a life of luxury. I will live if I come to this university. So to have them be ... to be able to envision themselves walking across campus as a college freshman is something that didn't even exist in their repertoire, something they couldn't even have dreamt about before these trips.
And so I think actually giving them a taste of ... what they say in South Texas, giving them a taste of what's waiting for them is really critical as teachers. And we don't even spend much money to get them up there. They pay for their own all day bus pass. And the city bus takes them there. So they can see how to get there from our community. And the university feeds us lunch as part of their outreach program. So I think any teacher if they look hard enough for ways to get their students on campuses, could probably find a way to do it and inspire them.
Parents and college
Because I live in a very poor community, many of the parents don't know the process that's involved to help their children go to college. And my immigrant parents certainly don't know. Because they haven't gone through the system here. And it's sometimes very different from any system they may have encountered in their home country. So we do parent academies at my school. We use a group called PIQE, that's Parent Involvement for Quality Education, I believe. And it's a national group. They come and not only teach my parents how to navigate the public school system, but also take them a pretty thorough examination of the entire college-going process. Starting from when their children are in middle school and mapping out for them what is required.
In addition, a lot of the parent communication that goes home from my school, which is done in any language that the parents happen to speak, is focused on helping parents understand. What happens the senior year, though, when my students have been accepted to go away to college, even if they might have full scholarships and can afford it, is their parents don't want them to go. Especially the girls.
"Why do you need to go so far away to school?" And that's where I think teachers are critical. Because working with the counselors and the parents, teachers, once parents trust the teacher, teachers really can have a big impact on helping parents understand that it's important for their students to go on. And it's important if they have the opportunity to experience something other than the community where ... where they grew up or where they attended high school just to gain more experience. And then to come back and continue to help the family.
The importance of community colleges
I think community colleges are a critical piece of the puzzle to helping our students achieve. The state universities can be expensive for most students, especially students who might not have documentation to be in the United States. And I find those that choose to go to the state university end up going for a quarter and then taking a quarter off so that they can work and make money. Those that choose to go to the community college are able to afford the community college because they work part-time. The expenses are not high.
Lots of ... they can afford it. Their families can afford it. It's not out of reach. It's in the community. So they don't have to go very far. And the level of education is very high. Those first two years with general education classes are pretty much the same as what you would get at a four-year university. So for them to be able to have a chance to do those two years locally, show their parents that they really can do it and work at the same time, makes it a reality. And many times my students are able to arrange papers. Because many of them have ... are in the process, but it takes ten years sometimes to become documented once you start the process. So it gives them extra time in order to get the documentation they need to apply for scholarships and be able to go on and finish at a four year university.
Many, many years ago, I've been teaching probably thirty-eight years ago now. But a long time ago, I had ... in one of my ESL1 classes, I had a student named Hector who came to me and they placed him in tenth grade. Because he said he was sixteen. I found out later that he was probably nineteen. But he lied because he wanted to go to high school in the United States. And he didn't speak a lick of English. He started with another student was in ninth grade named Jose. And they were friends. What I always have my students do those first few weeks of ESL1 is practice making introductions and introduce each other.
And I have a video of him standing up in front of the class. Both have hair that is perfectly parted with the comb marks still through their hair. They're in tight blue jeans, no sagging, because they've just immigrated. Hand-tooled Mexican belts with big belt buckles. And they're up in front of the class together introducing each other. And Hector says, "This my friend Jose. He have fourteen years. He's from is Mexico. He like to play soccer football." And that was his introduction. Jose did a similar introduction of Hector. Not much variance except for the names and the ages.
And today, Hector, well, when they graduated, they had been a special group of kids. We were trying to raise the level of expectations of our district. And so we took those who didn't speak any English and taught them Algebra their freshman year. Their sophomore year ... oh, that summer following their freshman year, we taught them a year of geometry. Following that, we taught them Algebra II/Trigonometry. And their senior year, they took AP Calculus just like in Stand and Deliver. And all these kids, like twenty-five of them, passed AP Calculus. Having been in the United States three to four years.
Hector got accepted to the engineering program at Cal Poly Pomona, very prestigious. And the others got accepted to Cal State San Bernardino to study math. And he told me, "I'm not going to Poly." I said, "Why?" He said, "Well, I need to go to Cal State San Bernardino. Because these other guys aren't going to make it unless I'm there to make sure they stay. And I can tutor them in math. Because they're not as good in math as I am."
And so that's what they did. Today, Hector is a teacher at my school. Jose is a teacher, a math teacher, at the rival high school. And when I left for the fellowship, Hector is one of the teacher leaders at my school who took over one of the jobs that I did when I was at the high school. To see these students who started off with not much vision, with a burning desire to learn, and to watch them become not just teachers, but to become teacher leaders and leaders in the community is what inspires me to keep teaching.
Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens has 40 years of experience teaching secondary ESL and English. In her retirement, Bobbi is still working in classrooms mentoring and coaching teachers who work with English learners and urban students. Bobbi has taken an active role in shaping education policy at the local and national levels. Her passion is inspiring reforms that benefit ELLs and culturally diverse students in particular and all students who have traditionally been marginalized by current systems and practices. Bobbi served as a teaching ambassador fellow at the U.S. Department of Education during 2009-2010, providing a classroom teacher's perspective to developing national policy and practices regarding culturally diverse English learners, Latino and urban students, gang intervention, and teacher preparation, evaluation, and development. She is also an active member of NEA's English Learner Advocacy Cadre. In addition to her mentoring, policy, and advocacy work, she creates and delivers professional development in California and across the nation.