Relevance of Rights for All

Ayanna Cooper incorporates social justice into the Common Core for English learners

To date, 43 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2015). Educators at all levels are working to ensure full and thorough implementation of these standards, which offer the opportunity to self-assess and revise initial instructional goals with a focus on improving outcomes for all students but especially those identified as English learners (ELs). The adoption of CCSS has undoubtedly fuelled the conversation as to how to address culturally and linguistically diverse learners in light of the rigorous standards. As a language educator, I am excited that the CCSS bring forth the need for all domains of language — speaking, writing, reading, and listening — to be emphasized and a permanent part of instructional practice; hence, all teachers are language teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition reported for the school year 2011–12 that 9% of all K–12 students were enrolled in language-instruction education programs. For that same year, apart from English, the most common languages spoken nationally were Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Hmong. The table below shows the states with the highest percentages of ELs enrolled in K–12 for the 2011–12 school year.

The Department of Education recently released guidance on educating English learners, which is a civil rights issue. This guidance will shed a brighter light on English-learner programs, their teachers, administrators, and ELs in general. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has received more than 475 complaints since 2009 and has 60 active investigations in 26 states (Brown, 2015). Issues around high-quality programs for English learners, the identification process of students, ELs with learning disabilities, and graduation rates continue to be areas in need of attention.

With increased cultural and linguistic diversity, themes of social justice and civil rights are undoubtedly going to be topics across classrooms, especially in secondary settings. Current events and social unrest continue to ignite controversial topics in the U.S. Issues such as race, privilege, economic divides, and misconceptions about anyone who is “other” continue to exist. These same issues present themselves in classrooms and prompt the following questions:
• How do educators prepare themselves to teach social justice topics and educate all students but especially those who are learning English as additional language?
• How can educators discuss sensitive topics such as race, ethnicity, and privilege?
• What resources do the Common Core State Standards provide, if any, to assist teachers in teaching these topics?
The following recommendations provide a starting point for all educators. The recommendations are not at all exhaustive of all areas in need of consideration but can provide a framework for preparing and delivering instruction around current events and social justice issues. Since all educators are responsible and are part of an EL’s educational experience, one’s sense of responsibility to teach and advocate for ELs is an important question that must be asked and answered by all educators.

1. Acknowledge the Uniqueness of Students, Especially Those Identified as English Learners
This implies that educators must not only “see” race and ethnicity but also embrace and acknowledge it. This includes acknowledging, but not necessarily accepting, injustices related to who the students are and the perceptions others have of them. For example, English learners are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers — in spite of their dual need for learning the language and academic content — and are more likely to attend high schools with a limited selection of math and science courses (Education Week, 2014). The skills that ELs bring to class with them, including literacy in their native languages, are an asset, not a deficiency. For students to be biliterate and maintain biliteracy in their native languages and English is much needed if students are to be college and career ready.

2. Create and Sustain Inclusive School Communities
Before we can discuss sensitive topics such as race, ethnicity, and privilege in classrooms, adults within the school communities must have those conversations. Diane Staehr Fenner (Advocating for English Learners) offers a resource to support such conversations. The EL Administrator Reflective Tool is a survey to determine where educators, within their school communities, find themselves in terms of their visions for equitable education of ELs (p.85). An additional resource for educators is Courageous Conversations About Race (Glenn E. Singleton and Curtis Linton), which provides principles of anti-racist leadership and how to engage in professional learning of sensitive but necessary topics.

3. Sensitive Explanations
Just as social studies and history must be taught, we are living history today. Recent films such as Selma (2015) and The Butler (2013) and classic films such as A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) all have similarities and cover issues that are not fully resolved in America. Explaining these issues and related current events requires more than understanding isolated vocabulary. It also means more than celebrating Black History Month in February. It requires a deep understanding of what these issues were, are, and mean and how they impact our lives and the lives of our students. During a recent assignment, a Japanese American man asked me if I was “colored.” I explained to him that that was a term that I do not use to identify myself. I identify as Black or African American. We then went on to engage in a conversation about politically correct terms and how they change over time. This was perplexing for many reasons but primarily because he did not know nor understand the historical context for either that term or how offensive it was. For students who have not been taught about the history of segregation and discrimination in the U.S., faux pas such as this are bound to happen. Another more pressing example would be recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the aftermath of nationwide protest. How do images of people of different ethnicities, ages, and genders marching and holding signs reading “Black Lives Matter” differ from or reflect the marches, protests, and signs like “I AM a Man” held during the civil rights movement? An EL who enters the U.S. and enrolls during high school may or may not take American history classes. A female EL from Haiti who came to the U.S. in 2010, after the earthquake, shared with me how difficult tenth-grade U.S. history class was for her. Notable African Americans, about whom the majority of us learned in elementary school, were foreign to her. The “why” behind the ways things were, historically, in the U.S. for minorities requires a complex answer.

4. Identifying CCSS Resources
Teachers can incorporate social justice issues across various content areas and grade levels. Heightening students’ awareness of these issues contributes to the students being college- and career-ready citizens. Addressing social justice issues also contributes to students’ sense of social responsibility and future decision making. Educators of ELs must take the following factors into consideration when teaching social justice issues:
• Students’ background knowledge and ways to build their background during the units
• Related themes from their home countries or notable figures (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi, Jane Addams, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Cesar Chavez)
• Any topics that may currently be sensitive issues (e.g., students who are from war-torn countries, refugees, terrorist attacks, unaccompanied minors)
In conclusion, social justice topics are components of a well-balanced K–12 ELA curriculum for all students. By including social justice issues as part of English language development, we are providing ELs with language and access to relevant nonfiction texts and literature that address human rights both domestically and internationally from a variety of sociocultural perspectives. Educators can provide an opportunity for ELs to continue becoming critical thinkers while learning English, not as a result of learning English.

Text Exemplars
These text exemplars for grades 9–12 contain social justice and/or civil rights themes and come from the CCSS Appendix B (NGA & CCSSO, 2010).

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye.

Informational Text
Hand, Learned. “I Am an American Day Address”
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech
Wright, Richard. Black Boy.
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Brown, E. (2015, January 7). “New federal guidelines highlight civil rights of English language learners.” The Washington Post.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010b). “Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects: Appendix B: Text exemplars and sample performance tasks.“ Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from
Singleton, G., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous Conversations About Race, A Field Guide for Creating Equity in Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Staehr Fenner, D. (2014). Advocating for English learners: A guide for educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is an independent consultant, author, and advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Her areas of professional interest include social justice, ESL teacher efficacy, professional development, and educational policy. Ayanna’s work involves shifting the perspective of all educators so that they view themselves as change agents, advocates, and leaders in the profession of K–12 English language teaching and learning. Her first co-authored book, Evaluating All Teachers of English Learners and Students with Disabilities, Supporting Great Teaching, will be out in March 2015 from Corwin Press.