Larry Ferlazzo

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                                                               (Originally published as "Shaking Up the ESL Classroom"

                                                                    in the July, 2006 edition of "Language Magazine."


                                WHAT CAN ESL TEACHERS LEARN FROM

                                          COMMUNITY ORGANIZING?


                                                                                             -- Larry Ferlazzo


     During my pre-ESL teacher career as a community organizer assisting low-income people to build power and make social change, an organizer asked me this question:  “Have you ever called people apathetic when they don’t come to our meetings to talk about the things we want them to talk about?  That’s being a bad organizer.”  In other words, organizers who focused on what they, the organizers, wanted were unsuccessful. They were blaming that lack of success on what they called apathy in others.


     We called this the “irritating” approach, one that tended to cause displeasure, annoyance, and frustration to the people we were trying to organize.  We viewed irritation as telling people what they should want to know along with telling them how they should learn it.


     We would contrast this with an “agitational” approach, one that would, as various dictionaries define the word, “stir things up” and “arouse interest,” with the goal of “putting things into motion to produce changes.”


     We viewed agitation as challenging people to reflect on their own knowledge, lives and experiences; their visions for themselves; what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it (few wanted to be told and most wanted to do).  In other words, we focused on people’s self-interests.


     Teachers can often be more irritators than agitators.  We have our textbook and curriculum to get through. We have our lesson plans from previous years all ready to go!  I would like to share a few ideas on how we can more often be agitators, and not irritators, in teaching English to second-language learners.



     During my organizing career, we often would say that “organizing” was just another word for “relationship-building.”   You could quickly identify what people’s self-interests were on the surface, like getting a better job or owning their own home.  But to build  long-term power for social change it was necessary to go deeper and find out  what family or personal experiences  drove people to want to make those improvements.    This important knowledge could only be learned in the context of a genuine relationship.


       We can begin to build relationships with our students and identify their self-interests in several ways.  If we speak the student’s L1 or if an interpreter is available, we can have short conversations with them to learn about their hopes, dreams, and interests.   A short written survey can also be useful, but only if the information in it is used to initiate further conversation.  In a situation where I cannot speak the student’s L1 and they are beginning students, I have asked them to begin journals or do projects where they paste or draw pictures communicating similar information.   I have found that making personal visits to student’s homes to be the most effective tool towards relationship-building.  Not only is the effort appreciated, but one can learn a great deal about a person from what is in their home and from talking with family members.


     Learning English is just a means to an end for our students.   We can learn through building relationships what these “ends” are for each of our students – do they want to learn English because they have a specific career in mind, because they want to use it to create a better life for their children, or for other reasons? 


     We can use the knowledge we learn from these interactions to frame the content and character of our classes in a way that will develop a community of learners, not one where the expectation is that students are just empty vessels waiting to be filled-up by the teacher.  We can also encourage the same sort of interaction between our students.





     In organizing, our goal was to first learn people’s individual stories and then have them share those stories with others.  Out of that sharing would come a different interpretation of those stories, which would then lead to collective action.  


     Our students have an enormous amount of knowledge from their previous life experience.   A challenge to us as teachers is to figure out strategies to help students tap into that prior knowledge, have them share it with each other, and help them develop a different interpretation of it so they can advance their understanding of that experience to another level.


       We can have our students write down and draw or paste magazine pictures illustrating English words they know.  Then, using what is called the “inductive model,” we can have them categorize those words and challenge them to identify other words that fit into those categories.  We can then model writing sentences using some of those words and help students develop additional sentences.  Students can then categorize those sentences and turn them into paragraphs.


     We can use K-W-L charts where students first list what they know about a particular subject, then have them list connected questions about things they want to know (for example, prior to a field trip to a grocery store a student would probably know that they have to pay for items, and might want to know the English word for the person they pay and want to know how they could figure out how much items cost before they got to the cashier if it only had a bar code on it).  Finally, they can list the answers they learned to their questions.


     Students can also use their previous experiences when teachers use Freirian exercises.  For example, I recently showed my students a picture of a man on a street corner holding a sign begging for food that his children needed.  I asked students to describe the picture, asked them what problem they thought was represented by the picture, and then asked them to share if they or their families had ever been hungry and unable to feed themselves.  We then discussed what they thought caused the problem, how they responded to the problem, and what were other possible responses to the problem.




     Again, successful community organizing is based on responding to people’s self-interests.   Even within the curriculum confines that some ESL teachers might face there are many ways we can do the same with our students.


     We could ask them what kinds of things they would like to be able to talk about in English.   We could try out various kinds of teaching techniques and tools, and ask them to evaluate which ones they think are most effective for them.  We could ask them if the pace of the class is too fast, too slow, or just right.   We could ask them what they want to learn.


     Much research has shown that one of the best ways students can learn to read is by regularly reading books and stories that they are interested in reading.  This is a challenge for English Language Learners, especially beginning ones.  One way to respond to this challenge is to help our students take advantage of the thousands of free audio and animated stories, using both fictional and expository text, available on the Internet. . I have gathered links to many of them on my website (


     Language, however, is a social construct, so it is critical that we don’t just put students in front of computers and assume that will take care of things.  We must also create opportunities where they can discuss what they have read and demonstrate both verbally and in writing that they are using the strategies that good readers use. 


     Other research has shown that one way students can learn to write effectively is by regularly writing what they want to write about.  One way to do this is to have students keep journals where they can write about their lives or choose pictures from magazines to cut out, paste and either describe or write stories about them.




      In organizing, we focused on learning through experience.  The most effective organizing lessons were taught inductively where people learned for themselves. The organizer acted as a guide and did not lay out all the steps in advance. .  


     Students can experience this same sense of self-discovery in many ways.  The Language Experience Approach (LEA) is one well-know strategy to use.  We can take our students on field trips, do science experiments with them, create arts, crafts or maps,   and then write about them together. 


     We can also use the inductive model that was mentioned earlier.  We can create lists of various examples, also called data sets, of words and sentences and challenge students to look for patterns and put them into categories.   We can create data sets of various phonic, grammatical, and sentence patterns and instead of telling students explicitly what the rules are (the “deductive model”) we can have them discover those patterns themselves.  Once they discover certain patterns in examples that we give them, they can be challenged to seek out other examples on their own of words that fit those patterns and create their own sentences that reflect the models being taught.


     Another related strategy is called “concept attainment” which can be used in a variety of ways.  I use this method to help teach grammar and writing by taking anonymous examples of students writing (often taken from their journals) and look for common errors.  I will list correct forms illustrating particular concepts under “Yes” on the overhead, and incorrect forms under “No” showing each example one at a time until students identify the main “concept” being taught in the lesson.


         These are just a few ideas on how we can be agitators rather than irritators.  They are meant more to be a compass than a road map.  We can also regularly ask ourselves these questions:  Am I building genuine relationships with my students and know what their self-interests really are?  Am I building on my students prior knowledge, or am I acting as the source of all wisdom?  Am I teaching them what they want to learn, or what I want to teach them?  And are my students learning by doing, or am I the one doing the doing?


      At one point in my organizing career, a volunteer leader spoke to me comparing two organizers.  She told me that she learned a lot about organizing from one, but learned a lot about organizing from the other along with learning “how to think better.”    The latter is a legacy that I would prefer to leave with my students and one that is more likely to occur if I am an agitator in the classroom. Thinking about how we want our students to describe us after they have left our class is a good start to planning how we want to teach them.


Larry Ferlazzo teaches beginning, intermediate and advanced 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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