Larry Ferlazzo

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                                (This article was originally published in the September, 2006 issue of "Language Magazine"
                                                   under the title "Building Cathedrals in the ESL Classroom.")


                                         IN THE ESL CLASSROOM?


                                                                                      By Larry Ferlazzo    


     In a previous article for “Language Magazine” I talked about specific tactics that ESL teachers could implement in their classrooms using community organizing methodology.  The four I described – building relationships, building on prior knowledge, identifying what students want to learn, and learning by doing  -- can all be effectively used on their own.


     However, their effectiveness can be magnified immeasurably if they and other organizing techniques are used in the broader context of what I would call the “organizing cycle” of planning, action, and reflection. This article will talk about how this organizing cycle can work in the ESL classroom.




     A man went by a construction site and encountered a bricklayer working.  The man asked him what he was doing.  The bricklayer replied, “I’m making  bricks.”  The man walked a few feet further and came upon another bricklayer. He asked him the same question.  The bricklayer answered, “I’m making a wall.”  He then walked by another bricklayer and once again asked the same question.  This worker replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”


     Without careful and strategic planning we can tend to teach lessons that make bricks and walls instead of building cathedrals; ones that can tend to focus on skills instead of strategies; and lessons that can tend to target the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy instead of the higher ones.  We don’t just want to teach skills (for example, how to pronounce this word). We want to teach strategies (how to pronounce this word even if you’ve never seen it before).  Skills are how to turn on the ignition in a car.  Strategy is what you do if you’ve lost your car keys. 


     The first thing that happens in the planning stage of the organizing cycle is looking at the questions, “What are the one or two key things we want people (students) to carry away with them from this lesson?  What is the legacy we want to leave with them?”   We want to make sure that students don’t forget what happened right after class is over.


     Strategic planning thinks in terms of several moves ahead, while tactical planning thinks about one move ahead.   Three other questions we might ask in this planning stage could be:


1)      What are we assuming students know?

2)      What are our expectations about what they (and we as teachers) will get out of this upcoming lesson?

3)      Where do we anticipate this leading to in our future lessons?


     It’s more “ready, aim, fire” instead of what often happens in the classroom: “ready, fire, aim.”




     The action stage of the organizing cycle is where some of the results of strategic planning come into play.  We focus on actions (lessons) that help students develop their own power (its Latin roots define “power” as  “the ability to act”) and develop their own leadership potential.


     A father took a son out to the woods one day.  As they were walking down a trail, the father saw a deer, but didn’t say anything.  Instead, he continued to walk, and made sure that his son walked on the side of the trail where he could see the deer.  “Dad!” the son soon said, “Look, there’s a deer over there!”  The son was then very alert the rest of the day and saw a number of things that his father didn’t notice.


    We can help our students develop their own power through many ways, including using the strategies I discussed in my previous article. We don’t want to simply tell our students the answers.  Other ways we can create opportunities for our students to empower themselves through discovering knowledge include:


     We can encourage students to interact with the text.  Our students can learn that the print on the page is worthless until and unless they bring meaning to the text.  They can do that in any number of ways, such as highlighting a few of the main words, writing one word or sentence to summarize the paragraph, writing questions they have next to each paragraph or on a page, drawing a picture that visualizes what they are reading, writing whether or not they agree with what is said in the text and why, jotting down a few notes saying why something they are reading reminds them of some other experience they had, predicting what they think will come next, or just writing some native language translations of key words.


     We can teach and enforce the “Iron Rule.”   Saul Alinsky, the father of modern day community organizing, wrote that the Iron Rule means  “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.  Never.”   We can use this guide and have students help create, and correct, tests.  There is the old adage that you don’t really learn something until you teach it, so after students complete a project I often have them work in round-robin pairs or small groups so they share what they have done.  I generally create mixed ability groups, and work closely with the small group leaders ahead of time about how they can act as effective teachers using this Iron Rule paradigm.   Even when we have small groups with “sister” classes of other more advanced or fluent English speakers, we always make sure that there is a reciprocal teaching relationship.    


     In addition to creating opportunities for students to develop their own personal power, we can assist students to develop an understanding of collective power, including having the whole class help develop seating charts, class guidelines, ideas for field trips, etc.  We want to teach that people without power react to rules, while people with power create or change them.


     We can also assist students develop their own leadership potential.  Qualities of leadership that can be encouraged include the importance of having others respect your judgment and what you have to offer (which goes along with the reciprocal teaching that was discussed earlier).  In addition, these kinds of mutual teaching situations help teach the importance of developing allies – one does not necessarily need to like everyone in the class, but one can learn something from everyone. Creating regular opportunities for the entire class to make decisions also teaches the same concept. This understanding of how to function in “public” relationships is critical knowledge that can be easily transferred to other areas of the students’ present or future life, including in the workplace and in participating in efforts to improve their community.


     Finally, we can help students learn that one key quality of leadership is the ability to risk and to be comfortable with tension.  Most of my key life growth experiences came in the context of tension – whether it was right before my first date, before renting my first apartment, or when I told my first joke in Spanish. It’s really a question not of avoiding risk, or taking unnecessary risks, but, instead, it’s an issue of understanding what risks should be taken.  When I was organizing, I always spoke with people about the importance of being at least 20% outside of one’s comfort zone.   This understanding is especially critical to English Language Learners, or else they will be less willing to risk communicating in the English language.


     The more our students believe they have power and are leaders, the quicker they will learn English and the more they will use it to communicate.  More importantly, the more they believe they have power and are leaders, the more they will tend to act powerfully and the more potential they have to use that power to enhance community life.




     The next stage in the organizing cycle is reflection, both for the teacher and for the students.  In our society, we often define ourselves by our activity and, because of that, teachers and students are sometimes made-up of piles of undigested or unprocessed actions.  The importance of reflection, I believe, is best demonstrated by a quote from T.S. Eliot, who said, “You can have the experience, but miss the meaning.” 


     Reflection is critical to making sure students have gained knowledge, which is defined in one dictionary as “the confident understanding of a subject with the ability to use it for a specific purpose” and that they have not just gained information, which is defined as “a collection of facts and data.”


     Hannah Arendt wrote a book after she observed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust.  She wrote that she had expected to see a monster.  Instead, she was shocked to see a man who was mechanical, bureaucratic, and thoughtless.  She began thinking that evil was more the result of the absence of thinking and reflection.  This is important for those of us who are not perpetrating evil, too.  If we don’t think and reflect, we can be mechanical and live our life by a formula.


     There are many activities we can use in our classroom to facilitate reflection.  Rick Wormeli has written an excellent book called Summarization In Any Subject, which offers some good suggestions.  Here are a few reflection activities, both my own and from his book, that I have students complete in a “Learning Log”:


     We certainly don’t want to do the same type of reflection each day, and it is also important for students to be able to share their responses with others.  It’s particularly interesting to have students share their reflections individually or in small groups, and then see if students have decided to change what they wrote.  It’s an opportunity to teach that not only are reflections about having, as Plato called it, “a silent dialogue with the self,” but also a way for students to learn that often times ones best judgment can also come after listening to others.


     This type of reflection then leads to another cycle of planning, action, and reflection.

     This organizing cycle is less a methodology and more an orientation.   I have used it effectively with both pre-literate high school students who have never been in school before and with very advanced English Language Learners.  There is no reason why we can’t create countless opportunities for ESL students to develop these higher-order thinking skills at the same time they are learning English.


     The question may be:  Are we taking our students on a pre-packaged tour, or on an expedition to exciting unknown lands? 


Larry Ferlazzo teaches beginning, intermediate, and advance English Language Learners at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California.  He was a community organizer for twenty years prior to becoming a teacher.

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