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Climbing the HILL Together

Sabrin Abedin and Gholdy Muhammad use culturally and historically responsive literacies to support multilingual learners

LEP? ELL? ML? What’s in a Name?
Popular belief has held and continues to hold the image of the teacher of English language learners/multilingual learners (abbreviated to MLs henceforth) being the sole holder of knowledge about ELL instruction. If you ask anyone to describe the needs of an ML in most schools, you will likely be directed to the English as a new language (ENL) teacher or the bilingual teacher. So what role, if any, do school administrators have in not only ensuring all teachers acknowledge themselves as teachers of MLs but also see themselves as true leaders of MLs? By 2030, 40% of school-age children will be MLs (Nalley and DeMeester, 2014). This increase, which is happening mainly in the states with little exposure to linguistic diversity, is pushing educators to devise ways to ensure these students’ educational needs are met to enhance their English proficiency. However, for the most part, that is not happening. Schools have remained relatively unchanged when it comes to meeting those needs. School-based administrators must grow their knowledge base not only on MLs’ needs but also on current policies so that they can create programs and support practices that ensure MLs’ academic success and social well-being.

School-based administrators may often be concerned about ML compliance and administrative tasks regarding MLs, but school leaders need the knowledge to support MLs equitably in instructional practices as well. McCarthy and Forsyth (2009) noted that a majority of school leadership programs have historically ignored the needs of MLs in their program design. That must change if school administrators are to promote effective instruction for MLs and if MLs are to be regarded as assets in their school communities.

The US Department of Education replaced the term limited English proficient (LEP) with English language learner because the term ELL “highlights what students are accomplishing, rather than focusing on their temporary deficits” (Lacelle-Peterson and Rivera, 1994, p. 54). ELLs are also known as multilingual learners to acknowledge that they may know or be learning more than one language. That, in and of itself, makes ELLs assets—the fact that they may know multiple languages while in the process of learning another. One should resist seeing MLs as a homogeneous and monolithic group, because, like all children, MLs have a variety of linguistic and academic strengths, needs, socioeconomic statuses, and levels of English language proficiency (Smiley and Salisbury, 2007). The assumption that all MLs are immigrants should not be made, as many MLs were born in the US. Regardless of their countries of origin, they all have features, characteristics, and histories that differentiate them. For instance, MLs can be immigrants seeking education or economic opportunities in the US or refugees from war-prone nations seeking safety. On the other hand, they may be native or native-born Americans, children whose literacy skills in their first language are well developed, or migrants or teenagers who have undergone formal language training. According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA, 2010), most students with limited English proficiency are not immigrants or recent arrivals. More than three quarters of them are native born. Nearly eight out of ten ELLs speak Spanish, but some districts have students who represent more than 100 different language groups. More than 60% of ELLs reside in six states: Arizona, California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois (p. 3).

Problems with Literacy Instruction
All students (MLs and non-ELLs alike) are more likely to be successful in school and beyond when the focus is on their internal strengths and assets (Garcia et al., 2004). Zacarian et al. (2017) emphasize that the essential task of leaders and educators of ELLs is to draw from their lived experiences so that they can create programs that build from those strengths and assets, and also create environments where students feel safe, welcomed, and affirmed.

However, that responsibility is often put on the ELL teacher, which is unfair because a responsibility that big cannot be accomplished by one person alone. District leaders, school-based leaders, and ELL educators need to work together and recognize that the definition of ELLs has changed over the years, as has our understanding of their needs. Meeting those needs requires strengthening Tier I instruction so that it is culturally and linguistically appropriate and leverages MLs’ strengths and lived experiences. School leaders must see themselves as instructional leaders, which means they must be responsive to students’ needs, starting in two ways: “a change in mindset and a change in skillset” (Hollie, 2018, p. 20). Historically, under the direction of school leaders, teachers have too often been using “popular” strategies for literacy instruction that have never been supported by research or by what our students—especially our MLs —truly need.

Those strategies rely specifically on strengthening students’ skills without recognizing their identities and lived experiences, and/or not giving them opportunities to make sense of and/ or comprehend complex texts with their multiple literacies and prior knowledge. Without deep knowledge about MLs and language acquisition, administrators and teachers tend to rely heavily on what they have been taught in certification programs and/or what they have been asked to do by the certified ELL teacher at the school. Hence, too often during literacy instruction, teachers are not engaging MLs’ multiple literacies, may provide texts to MLs that are “print rich” only, and/or look for “translated” versions of the texts when MLs may not be literate in their first languages. When MLs are unable to decode words in those texts just yet, they are too often isolated from their peers to work on content and/or tasks that are far below their grade levels and the standards for their grades. In other words, MLs are not exposed to the same complex texts and/ or content that their peers are, and they are often “pulled out” for intervention services and/or programs. Furthermore, content-area teachers and ML teachers who teach together in the classroom, ironically, plan lessons in isolation, without collaborating on how to infuse those lessons with instruction that will strengthen the literacy of MLs and non-MLs alike. They follow the “script” of the curriculum with fidelity to what students should say and expect students to respond based on what is written in the script, instead of following the curriculum with integrity. Instead of teachers who simplify the curriculum, our MLs need teachers who plan ways to amplify it with multiple layers of text and supplemental resources that enrich the linguistic and cultural experiences of all students. Our students need resources that speak to who they are and who their peers are, resources that tap into their prior knowledge, and resources that give them background knowledge of the topic at hand. These resources that speak to the needs of specific students in front of teachers will not be written by curriculum writers but need to be planned by the teachers of these students.

Therefore, more often than not, what we see in integrated classrooms is the content-area teacher working with non-MLs while the ELL teacher is in a corner with her MLs. However, both teachers may be using strategies that meet the literacy strengths and needs of MLs and non-MLs alike—or may not be. Academic language— both oral and written—and high-quality literacy instruction should be a priority for all students—and not just some. For our MLs, being literate in all their languages should be the instructional goal. For MLs to achieve advanced literacies, they need to be able to connect and communicate with people from various languages and cultures, in order to maintain and advance in their home language(s) while adding in another language.

When we give MLs material far below their grade and cognitive levels, we send messages to them about our expectations of them, our belief systems and biases about them, the extent to which we truly value what they bring to the table, what we think they are able to accomplish, and, more importantly, what we think they are unable to accomplish. But no matter what language you speak, lack of communication does not mean lack of thought. Our ELLs are well aware of their surroundings, our views of them, and their classmates’ opinions about who they are and where they are from. But let it be known, the temporary lack of English communication should not be a barrier to their thoughts in multiple languages.

The HILL Model as a Response
A note about the HILL model: The HILL model is Dr. Muhammad’s instructional framework for CHRE, in which she names five pursuits—identity, skills, intellect, criticality, and joy—as a response to students’ histories, identities, literacies, and liberation.

From the moment I started studying Dr. Muhammad’s HILL (histories, identities, literacies, and liberation) model, one word captivated my interest: genius. In a world where it is human nature to care so much about what others think, our students deserve to know that we think that they are geniuses. Our students come to us to cultivate their genius—and Dr. Muhammad’s model shows us how to do it purposefully, intentionally, explicitly, and strategically through instruction. She repeatedly asks the question: How can we make it impossible for our students to fail? As leaders and educators, answering that question should be our number-one goal. How do we ensure our students reach their full and highest potential? How are we working to leverage the many geniuses within them? How do we meet them where they are—and build on what they have—to bring them to where they need to and can be?

Alexander Den Heijer said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows—not the flower.” Yet time and time again, as leaders and educators, we blame our flowers—our MLs—for not living up to our expectations, for not meeting the benchmarks, for the troubling data on our spreadsheets, and the list goes on. Dr. Muhammad’s HILL model provides the guidance we need when our flowers are not blooming. When we’re tempted to point fingers at them, it makes us realize that four of our fingers are pointing back at us. Her model helps us to stop pointing fingers and start nurturing the geniuses that already reside in all our students. As Dr. Muhammad (2020) stated, “If we aim to get it right with all youth—a productive starting point is to design teaching and learning to the group(s) of students who have been marginalized the most in society and within schools” (p.11).

The pursuits that make up her model tackle not only skill development but also other essential areas of development. She starts with identity development, urging us to ask questions and seek answers about the students we are teaching. When it comes to our MLs, those questions include: What’s the student’s home language? What strengths in their home language does the student bring? Where is the student’s country of birth, and how will knowing that help me prepare lessons for them? If the student was born outside of the US, what is the educational system like in their home country? What are some relevant educational experiences this student may have had in their home country? What cultural connections with schooling might this student or their family have? Do I know enough about this student’s family background? How does that impact my expectations for this student? What are their interests that are tied to their cultural background? What inequities may this student face, and how can I work toward tackling them?

Dr. Muhammad’s model helps us not only to redesign but to reimagine the ways in which leaders and educators can plan pedagogy that leads to social transformation. When we start with who the individual is and work toward finding the genius that resides within them, half of our work is done. From there, we can look at the curriculum and revise learning goals so they speak to who our students truly are and what they can contribute to the curriculum—and work on their skill and intellectual development.

By asking preliminary questions like the ones above, we not only make sense of who our ELLs are but help them to make sense of who they and who their peers are before becoming knowledgeable about the content we want them to learn. Through the routines and protocols we establish for instruction, the groupings we create among students with similar and different experiences, and the materials we provide that speak to who they are, our students will become smarter about what we are teaching them and whom they are learning with. Often, we see that MLs are isolated with their like-minded ML peers in the classroom. While that may be beneficial for specific parts of a lesson, MLs also need to be given opportunities to be grouped with non-MLs so that they can explore new knowledge and concepts in the world and attain the ability to read texts (both print and non-print) that will allow them to understand power, authority, and anti-oppression.

Lastly, joy is the final pursuit in the HILL model, for good reason. If the first four pursuits are followed with integrity, joy will be present. The classroom will turn into a world where character matters, hard work and humility are treasured, and encouragement for one another is unconditional. Visitors will walk in and out of the classrooms impressed not only by the children’s academic abilities, discussions that burst with excitement, and hands- and minds-on activities but also amazed over something else: the culture of the classroom, because students see themselves and their cultures in every aspect of the lesson. Bottom line: if we do not know our students’ cultures, there’s absolutely no way we can be culturally responsive.

Lesson Plan Template for Teachers
So where do we start? How do we think about instruction using the HILL model? What questions and components do we need to be mindful of when strategically and intentionally planning lessons for our ELLs? Use this lesson plan template as a guide to plan instruction for MLs: It also provides administrators with “look-fors” to ensure that strategic planning is happening to unleash the geniuses of MLs.

This template is designed for two teachers to plan side by side. It gives both a shared sense of responsibility, as well as ownership of their students’ learning. It is hyperlinked to a refresher of the HILL model and the tools for scaffolding ML instruction. Guiding questions are included around the five pursuits to ensure that materials, instruction, and groupings are not only helping students meet learning goals but also recognize their prior knowledge, lived experiences, and multiple literacies.

According to Dr. Muhammad, a school that is truly equitable has structures, systems, and practices in place that allow students to reach their highest potential for academic success and personal success. Ironically, though, MLs are expected to take the same standardized exams as their non-ELL peers and be as knowledgeable about content, even though typically they’ve missed so much instruction due to being “pulled out” and have been fed materials far below their grade level in the name of “differentiating” instruction based on their needs.

For systemic change to happen, administrations must change their perspective on ML education because their priorities and practices directly influence teachers’ priorities and practices, which directly impact the students. Without exploring their implicit biases and assumptions and rethinking their deficit ideologies, administrators will continue to create schools in which MLs are placed in classrooms that lack rigor and don’t nurture higher-order thinking skills. Administrators must know the services MLs need and ensure ELL teachers and content-area teachers get the professional development they need so that MLs get the high-quality instruction they deserve to meet academic challenges. The HILL model helps all teachers reflect on their pedagogy and feel a shared sense of responsibility and ownership for all their students—which includes our MLs and non-ELLs alike.

Garcia, E. E. (2011). “¡Ya Basta! Challenging restrictions on English language learners.” Dissent, 58(4), 47–50.

Hollie, S. (2017). Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning— Classroom Practices for Student Success, Grades K–12 (2nd ed.). Shell Education.

La Celle-Peterson, M. W., and Rivera, C. (1994). “Is It Real for All Kids? A framework for 188 equitable assessment policies for English language learners.” Harvard Educational Review, 64(1), 55–75.

McCarthy, M. M., and Forsyth, P. B. (2009). “An Historical Review of Research and Development Activities Pertaining to the Preparation of School Leaders.” In M. D. Young, G. M. Crow, J. Murphy, and R. T. Ogawa (Eds.), Handbook of Research on the Education of School Leaders (pp. 86–128). Routledge.

Nalley, D., and DeMeester, K. (Eds.). (2014). ELLs in the Southeast: Research, Policy and Practice. SERVE.

National Clearinghouse on English Language Acquisition (2010). “Language Minorities, Languages, English (Second Language), Limited English Speaking, Population, Spanish Speaking.”

Smiley, P., and Salsberry, T. (2007). Effective Schooling for English Language Learners: What Elementary Principals Should Know and Do. Eye on Education.

Zacarian, D., Alvarez-Ortiz, L., and Haynes, J. (2017). Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress. ASCD.

Dr. Sabrin Abedin is a professor of leadership and education, a coach for Hill Pedagogies and a district administrator, where she supports schools in accelerating English language learners’/multilingual learners’ educational experiences and success. Recently, she completed her doctorate in educational leadership, and she hopes to change the narrative for our most vulnerable children and more specifically the leaders and educators who lead and teach these children.

Through her research, she created the ADVOCATE framework for superintendents and school-based leaders. This framework lays out the leadership moves, styles, and practices for ELL services that will make a difference, and she hopes to further explain the mechanisms through which these positive changes can occur in the near future.

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad is a professor of curriculum with a focus in literacy, language, and culture. She has served as a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, school district administrator, curriculum director, and school board president. She studies Black historical excellence in education with the goal of reframing curriculum and instruction today and has received numerous honors and awards for that work. Dr. Muhammad’s scholarship has appeared in leading academic journals and books. Her HILL model has been adopted in thousands of schools and districts.

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