Structures for Safety, Structures for Learning (Part II)

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As I noted in Part I of this post, Debbie Zacarian recently challenged us to support “ELs Living With Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress by implementing routine structures and an empathetic approach.  Protocols and structures like the ones I described previously can be used to help English Learners feel like their classroom environments are safe and support their learning.  And below you’ll see two more structures you can use to meet Debbie’s challenge.

Four Corners/Physical Likert Scales

What It Is:

Four Corners/Physical Likert Scales are a way to get students discussing complicated or abstract topics.

  1. The teacher asks a question and then gives four possible responses (Four Corners), or asks students how much they agree with a statement (Scale).
  2. Students move to the appropriate corner of the classroom, or to the appropriate part of the scale, designated by a line on the floor.
  3. In groups or pairs at their locations, students discuss their responses.
  4. The teacher asks one member of each group/pair to share, then the whole group discusses.

How This Structure Promotes Safety:

These structures are very similar to think-pair-shares because they ensure think time, take the pressure off students who may or may not be ready to share with a whole group, and are very repeatable and predictable.

How This Structure Supports Language Learning for ELLs:

This structure can also give everyone in the class a chance to speak and therefore a chance to appropriate academic language while practicing oral communication and listening skills.

Using a Gradual Release Model to Introduce and Continue the Structure:

I use similar methods as the ones I’ve mentioned before to introduce this structure, namely: ice-breakers, modeling, and sentence starters.  I also ensure accountability for listening- and safety- by asking participants to share something someone else said.  This is also another opportunity to both model and include ELs in a rich discussion, so it can be helpful to highlight how others discuss the topic, the academic language they use, etc.  As students become more familiar with the procedure and the topic, you may encourage extended discussions.


What It Is:

Jigsaw is a way to support students’ learning while ensuring collaborative interdependence.

  1. Students start in a small home group, say 3 or 4 students.  Each student is responsible for different content or a different text.
  2. Students read the text or learn the content they’re responsible for in some way.
  3. Then they meet in expert groups, with other students who are responsible for the same content.  In expert groups, students discuss their learning and determine responses to questions together
  4. Students return to their home groups to share what they’ve learned.
  5. Students do an activity that requires them to apply their new knowledge (from each person in the group) in some way.

How It Promotes Safety:

This structure can be scary for EL students, at least initially, so that’s important to consider.  But, if implemented over time, it helps students become interdependent and supports the development of collaboration skills, largely because students have the chance to become experts who are needed and appreciated by their group members.

How This Structure Supports Language Learning for ELLs:

The jigsaw structure allows ELs to have multiple exposures to a topic, gives them a chance to hear from others in an expert group, and then requires them to articulate their learning to others, supporting their acquisition of listening, communication, and academic language skills.

Using a Gradual Release Model to Introduce and Continue the Structure:

Jigsaws are a tricky structure.  I tried them a couple times as a new teacher and then gave up, frustrated because they “didn’t work.”  It wasn’t until I gave students multiple chances to practice and implemented some of the accountability checks and measures I describe below that I really saw the power of this routine in action.

I like to have students practice by doing a week of “jigsaw bootcamp,” with a jigsaw every day (it’s really nice as a way to review, e.g. at the end of a project, or as a way to get students collaborating at the beginning of the year).  I keep the first jigsaw really short- students may learn a simple concept or read a very short text.  Repeated practice and fine-tuning allows students to become familiar with the procedure.

I also found that it was important to ensure accountability for listening and participating by having notes or a graphic organizer that everyone completes, both in their expert group and the home group.  (See example here.) In the expert group, it can be helpful to have students run their response by you before completing the graphic organizer, and then have one student act as “quality control,” ensuring that each student completed the graphic organizer correctly.

Students sometimes want to simply pass around their graphic organizers in their expert groups- I talk about the power of discussing and articulating their knowledge with them and encourage them to talk first, then let their group members look at any supporting materials. These accountability measures help each student become an expert who is needed and valued by their group.  As students become better at collaborating and holding each other accountable, you can remove the accountability measures you put in place.

The structures I’ve discussed in Part I and Part II share some key features. They ensure each student is accountable for participating, but provide safe ways to do so.  They’re endlessly repeatable in a variety of situations.  And they help students practice and apply academic language, collaboration, and listening skills.  No matter the structure you use, organizing the routine with these characteristics in mind will help students know what to expect when they step into your room.  And these academically focused practices help students, no matter their background, feel safe and as if they’ve entered a learning space.

What structures do you use to support your EL (and other) students’ emotional safety and academic language acquisition?

Note: My thanks go out to Quality Teaching for English Learnersamazing professional development for helping me think through ways to support English Language Learners in an inclusive classroom.


Literacy Coach for New Tech Network

Posted in English Language Learners

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