National Writing Project

Texas Teachers Build Understanding of ELL Students at Border Literacy Conference

By: Dolores S. Perez
Date: March 2008

Summary: The fifth annual Border Literacy Conference brought 150 teachers from all over Texas to discuss building bridges across the different kinds of borders that ELL students find themselves facing.


English Language Learner writing teacher Yvonne Freeman
Speaker Yvonne Freeman stressed the
importance of bilingual books.

With the aroma of sizzling fajitas, rice, beans, and salsita in cazuelitas (clay pots) simmering in the background, students from elementary school to college read aloud their vivid personal accounts about life on the border.

Not only did the students read; their stories were placed at the tables of the 150 educators who came from all over Texas to South Padre Island for the fifth annual Border Literacy Conference, held October 5–6, 2007. Conference attendees generously gave the students feedback.

"It was an opportunity for students to view themselves as writers within a circle of people who value literacy—and especially writing," said Dr. Melba Salazar-Lucio, a participant at the conference.

The conference, cosponsored by the National Writing Project of Texas and the Texas Association for the Improvement of Reading, began with a focus on individual student writing and expanded into a plethora of related classroom topics.

Participants explored such subjects as spontaneous biliteracy in young bilingual children, strategies for teaching content-area reading to ELL students with learning disabilities, and life along the Rio Grande River—with an exhibit chronicling people's past and present through photographic anthropology.

Por cada frontera existe también un puente.

For every border there also exists a bridge.

Building Bridges in Literacy Development

The keynote speech from David and Yvonne Freeman, well-known researchers in the areas of ESL / Bilingual Linguistics from the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, focused on the theme of creating bridges between borders.

They began their speech with a quote from Gina Valdes:

Hay tantísimas fronteras que dividen a la gente,
pero por cada frontera existe también un puente.

There are so many borders that separate people,
but for every border there also exists a bridge.

The Freemans spoke about the use of culturally relevant texts in ELL classrooms. They pointed out that when selecting culturally relevant books, teachers should look for age-appropriate books, books with interesting themes and plots, and topics that are of interest to students.

They also stressed the importance of bilingual books. Many books now include both English and Spanish translations within the same text, allowing for easy transition between the two languages.

However, teachers should not conflate all Spanish speakers into one group, the Freemans said. For example, books from South America, Central America, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic may offer different translations of everyday English words.

Also, when choosing books, teachers need to be more selective and more sensitive to the different histories or experiences students bring with them from home. When it comes to the acceptance, validation, and celebration of culturally relevant books, "Ultimately, it's an identity issue," said Yvonne Freeman.

Ready for Composition I?

As part of the inquiry component, Carlos Flores of the South Texas Writing Project, author of Our House on Hueco, walked participants through his own project. He chronicled his work with an ELL student deemed "ready" for his Composition I class, when she clearly showed signs of writing way below the college level.

It did not take him long to notice a clear disconnect between what the preparatory classes offered and what was expected of a Comp I student. After being advised to drop the class, which she did, the student returned to his office asking for help.

What seemed the end of her college journey was a new beginning for both of them. After many months of guidance and a prescriptive writing approach filled with suggested readings and exercises, she eventually ended up in his composition class, where she sits today.

Near the end of his presentation, Flores offered a model that would help participants take their first steps toward inquiry-based work according to their specific questions and needs.

Understanding ELL Students Through Art and Song

Joe and Rosa Perez of the group Rumbo al' Anacua sang songs with commentary on the Mexican American experience in South Texas. While their specialty lies in the revival of many of the old songs from the Mexican Revolution, Rosa's original poetry and songs captivated the attention of all the educators in attendance.

One of Rosa's poems, converted into the song "Daría," details the struggles faced by students whose recent immigrant status leaves them neither here nor there when trying to fit into a new and frightening school setting.

Feeling isolated and scared, Daría is shuffled from Algebra class to classes like cooking and sewing because they are deemed less challenging for her. Unable to cope with the indifference she encounters from teachers she says "do not like her," she visits Rosa, the one teacher with whom she felt some small connection, before returning to the familiarity of her home in Mexico.

The conference also featured an interactive visual display of photographs depicting life along the Rio Grande.

Sites Helping Sites

The Border Literacy Conference has evolved into a significant event because of sites helping sites. Margaret Hill, from the Greater Houston Writing Project, was the first to envision this type of partnership.

Thanks to NWP's State Networks Action Planning Grant in 2003, eight Texas Writing Project sites were able to pull their resources and funds of knowledge together to build upon each other's work. Today, ten sites continue to meet twice a year at writing retreats in the fall and spring. They plan their cycle of work, review professional development offerings, discuss challenges and successes, and collaborate on projects—such as the Border Literacy Conference, an example of networking at its best.

Additionally, NWP's ELL Network has given minigrants to writing project sites across Texas. Many teachers have benefited from these grants, become teacher-leaders—some even serving on the ELL leadership team—and found other ways to learn with ELL leaders across the writing project network.

Supported by such collaboration and by discussions like those presented at the Border Literacy Conference, teachers can work locally with understanding, empathy, and compassion to build paths of success for students who stand on the bridge between two distinct languages and cultures.

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