Do Scaffolds Counter or Reinforce Inequities?

I’ve been reflecting again — like you, no doubt — about choices I have made as a teacher and which ones are worth keeping and which need to be discarded. Spring cleaning for my pedagogy.

I am always seeking ways to be more conscious and intentional in the scaffolds and supports I use with the goal of not simply wanting my ENL students to succeed in a culture that values English-dominant norms, but to ultimately replace those values in the classroom – by co-creating new norms that center student identity, choice, multilingualism, and self-determination. I will elaborate more on this below through the discussion of scaffolds.

Sometimes, as teachers of emergent bilinguals, we may find ourselves looking for the scaffolds that will allow them greatest access to the curriculum or to express themselves. I remember when I first started teaching and sentence frames were a requirement for every lesson. We also studied and implemented Dr. Lily Wong Fillmore’s work around linguistic sentence structures and how teachers can identify and teach complex sentence structures from texts, essentially using sentence frames that came from a meaningful context (as opposed to only using simple Subject Verb object style sentences or giving watered-down versions of the curriculum). At the time, this felt to me like an important advance toward the kind of instruction English learners needed because I saw what happened when students were denied access to texts that were “more complex” or “above their reading level”. (This was just before the CCSS were published.)

Fast forward a few years — I then taught at a high school where teacher-designed supports (read: scaffolds or any kind of teacher-created material) were not permitted. At ALL. And, no, it’s not because we were given a curriculum. We were designing what were basically unit maps that consisted of just the CCSS or content standards and giving them, unaltered, to students. The idea was to give students direct access, unhindered by teacher influence.

Scaffolds were seen as robbing students of their agency, requiring dependency on the teacher, as well as centering the content over students’ own processes. This hyper self-reliance was ultimately reinforcing academic deficits by saying, “here is what the state says you need to be able to do – now figure out how to get there”, resulting in students who had had more prior experience or knowledge with things like researching on the internet, were able to move forward quickly while others grew frustrated and felt abandoned by teachers.

However, this experience challenged me in many ways to start from the student first. But this “student-led” way of teaching conflicted with what I had learned in my prior experience where I learned what was needed for ENL students to succeed in the academic world. I was constantly wrestling with conflicting values: student-led learning vs the teacher as a necessary tool and support. So I left the school, wondering: can these seemingly-conflicting values work together? Are scaffolds inherently evil or the tools of toxic teachers? (You laugh, but that was the viewpoint!)

to skip the narrative, jump here:

Shifting to a new school that was solely for emergent bilinguals has allowed me to reflect on these two vastly different experiences and chart a new path and approach and what I want to raise in this post: some scaffolds train students to believe that their voices are irrelevant to their learning, and, yes, limit their agency. If we give value (ie., grades or praise) to saying something a specific (pre-determined) way, we are telling students there is a correct way to speak and write. This is often problematic.

And I’m not even talking about all of the other rules we give students (like you can’t start a sentence with “And”, as I just did). I’m also not suggesting we don’t teach or don’t expose students to the grammatical structures of spoken or written English. But if you think there is one correct way to speak English, you would be mistaken. Yes, students need to speak and write in ways that make them understandable to others and, yes, they need an understanding of the kind of English used in “professional” and “academic” settings, but if our scaffolds reinforce the idea that those types of English are the only “correct” form and the only valuable form, then we are doing a disservice to our students and we are allowing a deficit culture to stay intact — even when that isn’t our intention.

What do I mean by this? Consider this: imagine someone speaking in a “professional” or “academic” setting. Listen to that imaginary voice for a moment. Do they use double negatives? Do they use conjunctions? What accent do you hear? Yes, there are registers and career-specific terminology that, if you don’t understand, have access to, or know how to use them, you would be deemed an outsider or uneducated. But it’s important to ask yourself about that voice in your head: whose voice do they reflect? Whose culture? Whose culture is not reflected? Code-switching may be a “skill” we want emergent bilinguals to use and value, but it also means we are saying that “English only” or “this” way of speaking English is more valued. Even my Sicilian-American mom views her Jersey City accent as either a source of cultural pride or a tool for ridicule and shame, depending on who she is speaking to and in what context. So, the concept should not feel foreign, even if the urgency and impact are greater.

I’m not the first to say this, but this might be the first time you’ve come across these ideas and if you are a teacher of ENL students, it’s important to reflect on these questions, analyze the choices you make when scaffolding and discuss these with colleagues. (If your interest has been piqued by these last paragraphs, go here to continue exploring the idea of academic language instruction and the concept of appropriateness).

Let’s Dig Into The Scaffolds

This post’s title oversimplifies the issue to try and hone in on the discussion we need. All our actions as teachers send messages and even our tools are rarely if ever neutral. Two things matter most in my mind: To be transparent with students about what we are doing and why, and using scaffolds that can essentially become techniques the students can wield themselves or with each other. If you are using a tool in class that only you can use, what is the ultimate effect on the student? What is it teaching? These aren’t intended to be rhetorical questions, but reflective ones.

So, what do scaffolds look like right now in our Reading & Writing classes (all of my students are recent immigrants or ENL learners, and, school wide, approximately 40% are students with limited or interrupted schooling, as well)?

  • For the Curriculum: All students choose the genre and topic. (Students also write argument essays in their History classes and informational reports in their Math and Science classes). Choice itself is a scaffold because it enables a broader exposure to a variety of genres, allows students to focus on their voice and identity to build purposes for writing, and then develop a power and authority over genres that suit those interests. Students pick genres they are familiar with, which works as an entry point to understanding genres as a whole.
  • Unit-by-Unit: I don’t create by curriculum in units but units of time. So, I model a timeline, but it is very flexible: I estimate it should take approximately 12 class periods (basically 12 hours) to go from brainstorming, drafting, through revision, sharing for feedback and publishing. So: 2-4 class periods to brainstorm topics and try genres. (Some students take 1 period but change later!); 4-6 class periods to draft, get feedback, draft/revise; 2 periods spent giving or receiving peer feedback.
  • Day by day: I rely on conferring and peer collaboration (although the latter has been faaaaaaaaar less organic in the Zoom world) I have about 25 students in my classes, and try to conference with at least 2-4 in depth and check-ins with even more. With my new conferring method, I can give meaningful, actionable feedback to 10-12 students per class. If a student is struggling with a particular language-related issue, such as sentence structure, or word choice, I try to direct them to outside sources, but I also will model for them if a peer is not immediately available. I also use texts written by other students or their peers as models (including showing how mistakes can still allow for comprehension, and not be a block to understanding).
  • If I don’t share a common language with the student, or if they don’t have a peer who also speaks their language, I do use the yes-limited Google translate to begin conferring with a student who is brand new. Our students, who speak French, Spanish, Arabic, Bangla and several different indigenous African languages and Garifuna, are well-practiced in finding ways to communicate together because everything is collaborative (also we mix our 10th and 9th graders for this purpose). But if you teach at a school where classes are mixed, I suggest modeling any strategies you’d use for communicating.
  • Specifically For reading: We model with short texts and for either group or independent reading, they also pick short texts, books with visuals, or they pick songs they like and are familiar with. Yes, students spend time translating and reading these out loud with others. This is not a watered-down version of the curriculum since all students get to pick what they wish to read. We frequently model how we try to make meaning in different types of sentences, and how to notice words that repeat or seem to be important. We show how we save those words and dig a little deeper into them (like translating and looking up synonyms to show how that word may have a “cousin” we know, to build connections to and memories of these words). We do not pick or pre-teach words in reading class. Group reading, where student leaders pick a text and other students sign up for it (a strategy we learned at our last school), allows for grouping by interest, purpose or language, if students wish to read in another language. Another scaffold can be how you help students find a text.
  • Specifically For writing: If a newcomer knows how to write in their language (some of our students do not speak a written language and have interrupted schooling), they write in it, even if the teacher doesn’t speak or read it. Then, similar to reading class, they can identify words that repeat or are essential to understanding the text and translate those words. Or use text features like pictures to support their reader’s understanding. In this way, the skills they bring to class is honored and they see how they are essentially creating scaffolds for us, those of us do do not speak their language. This is especially helpful with students who do not know how to spell typically in their language, rendering Google translate less effective. Lastly, we confer a lot. Either teacher-student or peer-to-peer, and as we discover what a student wants to say, then I do create or develop sentence starters or structures for them specifically. (Note to administrators: doing this in a class of 25+ students is much much harder and conferences should NOT be only teacher-student)

Also for administrators: Splitting the reading & writing courses is itself a scaffold since it allows us to prioritize one over the other during that period, which allows for the student-centered pacing and more time for conferring.

Of course, any scaffold can reinforce the value of English-only or English-is-best. So, it’s less about the specific scaffold and more about our approach. I can’t help but hear Ani DiFranco singing, “Every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right” (or wrong, haha).

Part of my goal in reflecting on the types of scaffolds we use, is for students to be able to advocate for themselves when confronted by a boss or future college professor who won’t take the time to understand them, or who devalues their voice or writing simply because of their English usage. Rather than feeling shame in their use of English, which is an all too common occurrence.

This is a topic I am continuing to research and explore. There are things we can be clear and firm about, and there is nuance and complexity we can’t ignore, as well. So, if you have thoughts, questions, resources or pushback, I welcome the dialogue; you can find me on Twitter here.

Want to keep going?

I wrote a little more about teaching and student self-determination here, and how the planning differs here, with additional examples and research you can dig into here, and about our Reading class approach here, about why we split our “ELA” classes into Reading and Writing here, and Marie wrote here about how she approaches this with our 9th and 10th grade students who are made up of recent arrivals (“ie beginner, emergent or entering” students — terms we don’t actually use to group students).

P.S. reflecting on identity

I didn’t enter teaching through the typical means. For about a decade, before I became a teacher, I was in a different profession but, more importantly, I was also heavily involved in activist work — abortion rights, anti-police brutality and murder and the criminalization of a generation of BIPOC youth, and anti-war and globalization (yup, I aged myself with that one). So, I always saw myself as an ally first and teacher second but the reality is, being a teacher in a NYC public schools means I sometimes I have failed my students. Not simply by being white, but because I have grown up in the complex, nuanced culture of de facto, if not de jure, racism and, therefore, not immune to reinforcing it. None of us are. Becoming not only conscious but vigilant and critically reflective, we can grow in better soil. Our racial identity may place us on a trajectory, but we have power over where we end up. Identity is not destiny, in this context.

If you’re a white woman reading this and you’re uncomfortable, that’s part of the sticky shit. It helps to think about the men in your life and how you know, no matter how good they are, there are some things they are going to f*** up when it comes to women. And it doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be misogynists, it means they need to be more intentionally conscious and open to learning. They aren’t doomed just like women aren’t immune to being anti-women ourselves. We all gotta do the work.

Maybe, like me, you never identified myself as “white”. Growing up, my friends and I identified as “Irish”, “Italian”, “Indian”, “Jewish”, etc. Not that I was unaware of what it means to be white in this country. I learned that young when I witnessed or experienced discrimination for those cultural identities. I learned “white” as WASP. I now have a more nuanced understanding of White, of course, just as I do with “American”, something I also never identified myself as until I went to Japan as a teenager. It’s another opportunity to see yourself and reflect on the impact you want to have on your classroom and, by extension, the world.

In 1998 I went to the Million Youth March in Harlem wearing a shirt that read, “I used to be a White American but I gave it up in the interest of humanity” and an older Black man called me over and said, “You know, that’s not really possible.” And, of course, he was right. It made me realize that, no matter what my intentions or soul may say, my skin will always be what it is and, as a result, create distinct experiences from his. This is why — no matter how conscious you may be about racism as an institution, that shit will stick to you no matter what you do if you aren’t hyper aware.