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by Claire E. Sylvan
Founder & Senior Strategic Advisor, Internationals Network for Public Schools

by Joe Luft
Executive Director, Internationals Network for Public Schools

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Topic tags: equity, English learner


September 26, 2016
PBL Speaks Many Languages

by Claire E. Sylvan
Founder & Senior Strategic Advisor, Internationals Network for Public Schools

by Joe Luft
Executive Director, Internationals Network for Public Schools

Internationals Network for Public Schools

Is race real?  What makes us human? Are all humans really one race or are there many races?  Multilingual students in a combined 9th/10th grade biology class are engaged in a project to answer these questions. The project has several components that take place over a few weeks:

  • Students consider modern definitions of race including skin color, nationality, or physical characteristics and use the scientific method to test whether these definitions hold up.
  • Students analyze their own DNA extracted from saliva samples and compare their results with an online DNA database at a research laboratory that partners with the school.
  • Students combine the results of their comparison with evidence of human migration, and create maps showing how students from distant countries could have closer relatedness than individuals from the same country.
  • Finally, students present their findings to their classmates. 

Much of the project work is done in teams. In one team, Li asks his friend, Juan, what “extraction” means. Juan explains in English but Li still doesn’t understand, so he gets another Mandarin speaker to explain. Li’s eyes light up, as he lets Juan know he now understands and begins to work on the task. Meanwhile, in another group, students are deciding who will take on the various roles and tasks that are required to carefully take the saliva samples and conduct the initial analysis. There is a new arrival in the group from Thailand and the teacher has made sure to have another Thai student who speaks her language in the group so she can participate. 

As the students work with in their teams, the teacher moves from group to group, observing, facilitating, and encouraging the students to collaborate. When students turn to the teacher with questions, he repeats it back to the group to make sure it’s clear and then asks the group members to respond to their classmate. The teacher helps by providing clarifying questions, which the students answer for themselves with his support. Each student has a teacher-designed project guide, a handout that shepherds their collective and individual work towards both academic and linguistic goals as they complete their project together. The guide includes key terms, opportunities to use native language(s) to understand the concepts and terms, and graphic organizers and scaffolds that allow the students to organize their own work both individually and within the group. The students are active, they are talking to each other, and they are learning both language and content. They are learning how to communicate effectively, think critically, and solve problems multilingually.

PBL can be specifically designed for or to include multilingual learners (MLLs) who are still new learners of English. (Note: We consciously refer to students focusing on their assets and their knowledge of multiple languages. More commonly, these students are referred to as English learners, or more appallingly, as limited English proficient).
These projects may seem similar to all projects but have some additional characteristics. Imagine students analyzing a major current event from the diverse, authentic perspectives of multilingual students. MLL students can read in their native language papers (or listen to the radio or watch television, if they lack sufficient literacy or access to news periodicals). They can compare and contrast these viewpoints and provide authentic diversity to classroom discussions.

We’d like to highlight some of the key attributes of Deeper Learning and Project Based Learning (PBL) used in the classrooms within the Internationals Network for Public Schools throughout the country and consider how they apply to any classroom with multilingual learners.

Language & Content Integration
The project explicitly addresses the language demands of the academic goals and has incorporated linguistic goals. Unlike some approaches that set linguistic goals and then use academic content to teach the linguistic skill, our projects are driven by deep academic content. Within that context, the teacher analyzes the language demands and designs projects through which students utilize the languages in which they are proficient to build their academic knowledge, skills, as well as English proficiency. Students’ use of multiple languages is like a carpenter’s use of multiple tools to build a house. No one would expect a carpenter to avoid using a hammer and rely only on other less appropriate tools. MLLs use all the appropriate tools in their toolkit, including all of the languages they speak, in order to both learn English and content. The additional benefit is that MLL students also become more proficient in their own languages and students often learn languages from each other. In a global society, this is a real plus.

Projects for multilingual students provide them opportunities to purposefully interact with each other, and actively use language(s) to complete the project. By design, projects foster student collaboration to enhance opportunities for oral (and written) language use. Not only are students learning how to learn but they are strengthening vital collaboration skills.

Heterogeneous Groups
Well-designed projects for multilingual learners frequently rely on the diversity of heterogeneous groups to enhance student learning. The groups incorporate students who speak the same and different languages and/or other languages, those with varying levels of English proficiency, and students with a variety of academic skills and proficiencies. Only by collaborating can they complete the projects. This not only enhances language development but builds their capacity to work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and solve problems both as individuals and as members of a team. There are times when more homogeneous groups may be preferable - for example if students are developing a product in their native language.

Public Presentations
Projects frequently include public presentation or sharing of their products. Oral presentations, in which every group member participates, are very helpful to multilingual students in multiple ways. Oral presentations build students’ proficiency in speaking academic English, as well as English more generally. Through opportunities to share their work with authentic audiences, students also gain confidence in their ability to speak English in front of peers. This is critical to their ability to participate in post-secondary education or work, as well as become full participants in a democratic society. 

Supportive Communities
Teachers actively work to create a supportive atmosphere for students of varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds can learn from and alongside each other. Teachers must create classroom environments where initially even one sentence or a few words in English by a recently arrived student is applauded (both literally and figuratively) by peers, in which students’ do not mock others’ accents and language errors but celebrate each step on students’ linguistic journeys. In schools and classes where some students are new learners of English and others are native English speakers, teachers and school leaders must actively build cross-linguistic and cultural understanding. Given the rancorous debate over immigrants and their offspring in the US, multilingual students often feel threatened and maligned. Teachers and school leaders need to educate themselves about the struggle that MLLs experience in learning a new language and a new culture at the same time that the MLLs are working to learn the same academic content and skills as their peers. With this awareness of their multilingual students, educators need to actively engage all the students in their classes to understand the MLL’s struggle and build a supportive community for all the students in their care.

We share the Buck Institute’s belief that all students should have access to high quality Project Based Learning to prepare them for success in college, career, and life. If Deeper Learning through PBL is truly for all students, we need a shift in mindset to view multilingual learners as a tremendous asset to classrooms in our global society. Their presence provides tremendous opportunities for teachers in all subjects and at all grade levels to draw on the MLLs’ experiences, cultures, and language skills to enhance the learning experience of ALL our students.

Claire E. Sylvan is the Founder and Senior Strategic Advisor at Internationals Network for Public Schools. Follow Claire at @ClaireSylvan.

Joe Luft is the Executive Director of Internationals Network for Public Schools. Follow Joe at @joeluft.


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