Using Nonfiction Texts to Differentiate Learning for ELLs

Jill Berge, a literacy and history teacher at Rose Hill Junior HighInterview with Jill Berge

In this interview Jill describes how she uses Facing the Future readings to differentiate learning for English Language Learners (ELLs).

School: Rose Hill Junior High, Redmond, WA

Grade: 9     Classroom Size: 26-30

Subject: Literacy and World History

Classroom Challenges:

  • Achievement Gap
  • At-Risk Youth
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Large Group Activities
  • Small Group Activities
  • Special Needs/Inclusion
  • Prescribed Curriculum

Click on a topic below to read more about Jill's work:

Please describe your experience with Facing the Future materials and how you use them in your classroom:

"I piloted 'Chapter 4: Thinking About Consumption' and 'Chapter 6: Improving Our Quality of Life' [see Making Connections]. I started with Chapter 6 and used it in a Safety Net Literacy Class. That’s a class for students who have struggled with reading and have yet to pass the state standardized testing on reading. I chose it because it looked like it offered some really good reading strategies. It wasn’t part of a class that required the content on quality of life and consumption, but it offered some really great ways to approach content. I was teaching the kids a unit on how to read their social studies textbook or how to learn social studies in content areas that particularly deal with informational texts. I read through the curriculum and I picked the activities that would be most applicable and we just went forth from there."

Jill uses the following Facing the Future resource:

How did these chapters fit into your course?

"With the class I piloted it with, it was helpful in terms of reading strategies. I have taught other units from Facing the Future in my social studies class. The class was more content oriented towards global issues. I am a support class for English and social studies and other content classes. I was focused more on the strategies. The content was very helpful, because they are going to talk about issues of sustainability in social studies, but at that particular time, it wasn’t for the content I chose it."

A lot of teachers struggle to find room in their curriculum for supplemental materials, like Facing the Future materials. How did you do this?

"I found it very easy. I have always liked Facing the Future because they make their materials so easy to fit in. Even if you can’t do the entire unit, I find each individual activity really helpful. It’s engaging to the students and usually has some sort of hands-on component and that’s really helpful and so that’s the approach I took with this one. I introduced the vocabulary. I really liked the vocabulary strategies they had. We did two or three of the activities that were associated with it. In fact, I pulled in some extension materials that I had. I tried a couple of the resource options that were mentioned in the teacher resource. It all tied together really nicely."

What standards were used or met when using Facing the Future materials?

"The standards I focused on in the Safety Net class are those oriented towards helping students pass the MSP [Measurements of Student Progress]. So we need to teach kids about informational texts, how to use specific reading strategies, and vocabulary development strategies. So those are the standards I focused on. Our district has our own specific list of standards that they have articulated based on the state standards."

What were your main objectives/goals for this course?

"My primary objective was to teach students strategies for reading non-fiction texts. That’s a challenge because I have a variety of needs in my class. I have some students reading at a college level, some students who have average skills, but not really much motivation to learn, and then I have students who have spoken English for only a year or so. What both units did was let me teach meaningful social studies vocabulary, but in a way that engaged the interest level of all students. Plus it taught specific strategies for different levels of learners. There was a great emphasis, I thought, on the vocabulary where individual words were introduced first with a graphic image and that way I could tie to students’ background knowledge even if they weren’t strong English language speakers. The pictures were great for kids who were strong readers as well. That was a good way to teach vocabulary. I enjoyed that. We moved to how we approach content information. 'Chapter 6: Improving Our Quality of Life' [see Making Connections] gave kids the vocabulary to talk about different quality of life factors. I extended that with some work with data and with statistics and how to read that kind of data and then students did the writing activity in the unit. Chapter 3 focused on cause/effect as a strategy. That was very helpful. A number of activities helped students sequence information. I used one of the extension resources, a video called Story of Stuff. That was great for cause and effect, looking at all those different interconnected industries and the impacts they had."

What skills did your students gain?

"I think both I gained skills and the students did. I felt I learned how to teach vocabulary, particularly to ELL students. The vocabulary exercises were really valuable to me in showing me how to provide a graphic image as well as the definition, how the word is used in a sentence. For the students, they learned the content vocabulary, and reading strategies. They learned really a lot of what they thought was very interesting information about global issues. Even though that wasn’t my primary objective, I was very pleased with discussions they had about quality of life. It was interesting since it’s a class of such mixed groups, they all brought a lot of background experience to what they expect in their own quality of life. I thought the class as a whole was enriched by these discussions."

How do Facing the Future resources help you address your classroom challenges?

Jill's students completing an assessment from the 'Making Connections' literacy textbook"Making Connections was particularly good for my Safety Net class. I have such a variety of learners who tend to struggle with English. So the emphasis on different types of thinking strategies, reading strategies, and vocabulary was excellent for them. It’s high interest information so I didn’t have to worry about lack of motivation. They are all interested in quality of life, they are interested in the environment, or where do my pair of jeans come from? The questions were tailored really well to their particular interest level, but with a variety of learning and language abilities. I have kids who don’t like school at all or don’t speak English and technically are qualified as at-risk kids because they are at-risk of not graduating from high school since they haven’t passed the MSP [Measurements of Student Progress] test yet. That’s what I thought made this curriculum helpful. It was engaging, but it was also very practical and the skills were at a level that I could match to the levels of the students in my class. Now, I do have some students who are strong readers so there was one activity I chose not to do because I didn’t think it would engage the strongest readers. But there was another activity that had a writing extension piece to it and that was great because kids at different levels at writing could respond to it, do the writing, and there was a self-reflection piece after and that was very helpful."

Did you make adjustments to Facing the Future lesson(s)/reading(s) for your classroom type?

"The modifications I made were mostly based on reading activities I thought some of my stronger readers probably wouldn’t engage as well in. There were a variety of activities to choose from so I didn’t feel that was a loss."

What parts of the unit engaged your students the most?

"The vocabulary activities were engaging to the students. Just with the images and talking about what these images convey and using these images to build a definition. I liked those. Now specifically some of the activities we did, when we talked about consumption, there was a couple of pictures where students compared typical foods people ate in different parts of the country. They were just fascinated by those. So we ended up looking at the photographer and finding more images on the website, putting them on the big screen. The kids were literally coming out of their seats to come up and look and identify individual types of foods. I found that one very engaging for the kids. I also showed them the Story of Stuff. That was very interesting to them. We talked a little about being critical thinkers. Certainly in the presentation of that, there may be a strong message towards one side of it. What is that message and how do we go about evaluating it and perhaps checking some of those things. At the same time, kids were struck by how much waste is generated. There is a cost to creating something we never see that we don’t even see when we buy something off the shelf. That was great for the kids."

What resources do you use to complement Facing the Future materials?

"Well I did use Junior Scholastic and so I used their data sheets to make some extensions to quality of life. We looked at quality of life indicators and looked at different countries using these indicators and made some statistical comparisons. So, that just ended up being a really nice way to add to the curriculum based on materials we had in the classroom."

Did you incorporate an action project or service learning component in the unit/lesson?

"I haven’t done service learning or action projects. We are actually gearing up for one in our history class. All the kids have to do 30-hours of service. At the moment, we are studying Latin America and are focusing on environmental issues and poverty issues. We’re getting them started on a poverty project and then we’re moving them into a service learning action project. So we’re excited about that and I’m actually pulling in some of the materials from the other book I have, the global issues book [Global Issues and Sustainable Solutions]. The students I have in Safety Net also have history so they will get service learning through history."

Have Facing the Future materials helped you participate in school or district-wide sustainability projects?

"We have had a school wide emphasis on service learning. In the last couple of years, that’s increased in terms of the environment. So what we’re doing with our students and the environment is that they identify a issue. They create a film that proposes a solution to that issue. And then they try to participate in a service-oriented activity. I feel like what we’re doing with using the curriculum is we’re supporting school-wide initiatives. We have an environmental club that focuses on recycling. We have a different environmental group that focuses on open courtyard spaces that tend to get overgrown, so they’re working with that. It’s given us a way to be a little more cross-curricular. It’s not just us in a particular department focusing on these issues, but it’s school-wide.

I also participated in a class on teaching Asia. We had to do an activity for a classroom based assessment (the research projects students have to do). In 9th grade, our focus is on humans and the environment. So that was one more way I was able to bring in what I was learning from Facing the Future. I created the whole unit and shared it with 30 other teachers in the class. I brought in a lot of Facing the Future activities on sustainability and created a unit for humans and the environment based on population and sustainability. I really enjoyed doing that. These were teachers in the Puget Sound area who in some way have to teach Asia. The class was funded through a grant with the Freeman Foundation. They run it every spring for a semester."

Do Facing the Future materials help you be a better teacher?

"Absolutely. Honestly everything I have used from Facing the Future has helped me be a better teacher. We can kind of get stuck in a textbook and there’s so much information to cover. That’s one thing I like about Facing the Future. It’s much more hands on and engaging for the student. Some of the different small activities I have done with the global issues book- a little simulation in class to show how systems are dynamic or there’s that activity called 'Bears in the Air' [see Lesson 8 in Engaging Students Through Global Issues]. It’s just great. It doesn’t take long as a simulation, but you get such a rich discussion out of it and you can apply it to so many different things. I feel like I have learned a lot of things I could use in this situation or that situation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a unit on global issues. I used it in the Safety Net class and as a team builder. So yes, I found them all very helpful. It keeps me thinking active strategies, getting the kids involved, less of me talking and more of the kids trying something out and having a chance to articulate it."

What resources do you have available to help you acquire new knowledge and skills in teaching about global sustainability?

"Very little. It’s one topic that really doesn’t get covered a whole lot in the standard curriculum we are given. I actually learned about Facing the Future through our district committee that was trying to choose a textbook. It’s not that it was a textbook we were considering, it’s that here’s something you could use as a supplement and I’ve used it ever since. It’s a great supplemental curriculum to add to what you are already doing. These are issues that are so contemporary that they don’t seem to make it into the standard curriculum and yet these are the issues kids care about too. That’s why I like them."

What advice, if any, would you give to teachers using these Facing the Future lessons for the first time?

"I would say read through it, explore the teacher resources because they are very rich. If you’re not ready to dive into the whole chapter, pick and choose. Individual lessons are just as valuable. And the kids enjoy them. They are great to modify if necessary. They’re really targeted at a variety of levels. A single lesson can reach a lot of needs in the class."

Is there a particular teacher you would recommend Making Connections to?

"I would recommend this resource to teachers who are struggling with how to differentiate their learning for ELLs. That’s a big challenge and something teachers don’t get a lot of training in. It was an eye-opener for me on how I can do a better job in just my instruction by providing more access for English language learners to understand what is going on. I would encourage it for those teachers. I would also say for teachers who want hands-on activities and fresh ideas about different activities to do with students."

Anything else you’d you like to share with other teachers who are looking to engage their students in global issues and sustainability?

"I think Facing the Future provides a lot of fun, active resources and I enjoy using them."

Have you created inspiring adaptations with Facing the Future's lessons? Then contact us to be featured as a Classroom Example.



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We equip and motivate students to develop critical thinking skills, build global awareness, and engage in positive solutions for a sustainable future through hands-on curricula and professional learning.

Facing the Future is an
independent program of WWU