Oscar Hernandez, um O-S-C-A-R last name H-E-R-N-A-N-D-E-Z.
Ninth Grade English Teacher
Teacher, secondary, high school teacher.
Currently I’m teaching ninth grade English a uh high school here in California. And I didn’t uh ever. Let me start over.
I never saw myself as a high school English teacher. I actually started out teaching elementary school. And before that I was working as a teacher’s aide. That’s what started this journey. And ii it was quite serendipitous the way it it happened because the opportunities that I had as time went on just sort of happened in my opinion. The fact that I we went to a a small private university that really focuses on on uh teach teaching uh liberal studies college really really was an excellent place for me to attend and really give me the background knowledge that I needed. So that’s what started it then I went to school district. They gave me lots of opportunities and uh after just a couple of years they asked me if I would become a mentor teacher in the area of language arts. I really focused on on literacy issues. I took training in um the the early grade, then the middle grades and that’s when I came across Bobbi Mason and the work that she had um developed working with secondary students. I experimented, tried this with fourth and fifth graders. It was successful. And um as years went on I just decided I needed a change in teaching and that’s when um I became a high school teacher. And the focus of my job at um at the high school level was to work with incoming freshman that were still struggling readers. So I use um the majority of my curriculum was based on Bobbi, Dr. Mason’s Learning Edge material, which a she calls it Learning Edge. And uh it’s really focusing on content reading and writing. And so I framed my entire based on her curriculum and showed success right away with the freshmen. They felt very confident about themselves as readers. And what struck me most after doing some initial assessment which we use a form of miscue analysis is that contrary to what I had read, the students really were not struggling with issues in um like many of the early childhood issues as far as a phonemic awareness. Really their issues were about comprehension. So I knew that my job then was to start to focus in that area. So much of my professional development then was centered around this. It became almost a fascination. I I bought every book I possibly could that dealt (laugh) with this issue. Any time that I knew that there was going to be a training or conferences uh the collaboration between colleague uh most of them, and then just coming back and deciding to get a master’s degree in in a reading that’s that was uh that’s my passion now and it continues to be.
That was a very lengthy qu answer to a (laugh) simple question.
Part of what my colleagues and I are doing that are working with struggling readers at the high school level is that we begin by taking the information and data that is there. It is very limited at this point. We have a standardized test and um you know I guess I don’t (laugh) need to get into all of that. But we look at that information and we focus on students that on just the subtest of the reading comprehension portion then we look at uh questions that dealt with informative and that it was really not the initial understand but more the critical analysis questions and the inferential questions. And and rather than looking at percentiles, we looked at stanines (sp) it just made it easier for us. And we took this group of students and looked at all of our junior high students that were in the eighth grade coming into the freshman class. Then went out and did a second uh layer of assessment which was to use this miscue analysis. We pulled the students. The schools were cooperative with us and it gave us a good list of who we should be working with. Once we had that uh data then we continued to look at these students to get more information with them. We tried some very informal interviews with them. Just find out what kind of literacy was going on at home. We realized that students that were struggling didn’t have a print rich environment at home. Many times the parents were not uh maybe college educated, some not even high school education. In the area that we live in here in California many of the students are children of migrant farm workers. English is their second uh occasionally third or fourth language if they come from indigenous groups of Mexico that speak various uh dialects. So um so Th. they’re, but it’s not strictly students who are second language learners. There are also a few students who are first generation either or I should say Anglo students or third and fourth generation Hispanics here in in the United States but are still dealing with literacy issues. And many times that’s due to low socioeconomic status, for others it might just be again a lack of um academic language spoken at home or parents that could model that a academic language which in turn really reflects on their academic performance on the secondary level.
OK. Because so much, because there is so little data on students. Let me say that again. Because there’s such little data from students on um the standardized tests. Then it’s really up to the classroom teacher many times to come up with their own forms of assessment. So what my colleagues and I developed were different forms of assessment that we can use throughout the year. The initial assessment that we use is actually their the end of the eighth grade year when we go into the schools and do a miscue analysis. We will do that two uh two more times. We’ll do one at the end of a semester and then at the end of the year. Now c of course, the first two are the ones that can really inform our instruction where we need to go with the students. Um but that seems to be the most effective because what this does, it really hones into some very specifics about what the student is doing as they’re reading. We find out is it a comprehension issue? Is it really that they are the miscues that they’re making are they uh were they semantically correct syntactically correct? And for some they still are dealing with some graphophonic issues and we address those as well. But like I mentioned previously that hasn’t been the biggest group of students. Informally there’s some surveys that we have the students fill out of just what kind of reading do you do? What kind of reading do you enjoy? Uh other informal assessments, we use the Burke interview that asks a very important question, when you come to a word you don’t know what do you do? And that’s very telling to just find out what strategies are in place. That’s always very revealing because, of course, um as you can imagine, the least amount of strategies they have in place, then when they go to reading independently you can see that uh.
So aside from the miscue analysis, surveys, Burke interviews, other things that we do as far as assessment, we try to have some type of contextualized measure to look at students as f as just to have another window into what they’re doing as readers. So one thing that we that we do with students is we have them read some poetry, transact with the poem and go through this whole process to see what kind of meaning they’re making from the poetry and um again we do this twice in the year just kind of as a as an initial and a final assessment with the students to see how they’ve grown as readers. We do do some um reading that that is timed because one of the goals and one of the things that students themselves say about themselves as readers and how they would like to become better readers is, ‘I want to learn to read faster.’ Uh for some reason they they just feel that that’s what good readers do. So we do talk about reading speed and about adjusting your reading speed depending on what kind of text you’re reading and um so it’s always good for them to have an assessment at the beginning of the year that shows how many words per minute they could read and then to do that again at the end of the year to see how they’ve improved. So we look at assessment four different ways. One is of course, the decontextualized measure which are standardized tests, we have some contextualized texture which we feel the miscue analysis does along with some of the poetry and newspaper articles that we use. Our observation of of process is basically the anecdotal records that we that we’re taking um the surveys and interviews. And then finally the observation of the product itself that we mainly see with the um writing and and some of the responses to the literature and informative text that they’re reading.
OK. One of the things that I’ve noticed about secondary students is that they’ve had a wealth of experience text since early on uh kindergarten and even before if they were read to at home they understand how story works. They understand that story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Something exciting is going to happen along the line. But then when they get into secondary school the shift of reading goes away from, or the focus goes from that story to more informative type of reading, the textbooks. And they look at it and they way to attack that text in the same way that they attacked a novel or a story that they read. And this becomes problematic for the struggling reader. They they want something exciting to happen. They want some character development. They want all of the things that they learned and they assumed reading was all about. And now all of a sudden they’re being asked to understand photosynthesis and all of these other historical terms and this becomes very uh confusing to them and and they become discouraged. So motivation isn’t there at all. So what I’ve learned is that if you focus on teaching them the structure and how informative is structured and how it’s a different picture than this than this picture that they’ve known all their life of how a story works that rather than it be beginning, middle, and an end, this is really set up as a hierarchy of ideas. That you have this important thing that the writer wants to write about, inform you about, persuade you with and and then there’s some support for that and then some details that you might have to know for a test as well. So that simple little fact of understanding the difference of how text is structured seems to make a huge difference in how they will come to a text and know how to navigate that text.
One of my functions at the high school is not only to work with my students but also to work with staff and both are superintendent and assistant superintendent and principal. Everybody is telling the teachers on our staff that literacy is an issue for all of us and not just for one department on the campus. And um our our ss like in most schools, some of the staff really feel that it’s the English department’s job, but other teachers have really tried so hard across the content areas and even in the electives to really support the students who are struggling. Uh they have been given information, testing information about the students so that they can know in their class, who it is that’s struggling a little more in case modification needs to occur. The other thing that everybody on the campus did is that they all developed what we call text sets. Now this is based on Jerome Harstee’s work and um what they did is that, this was a strategy that worked across the curriculum because what it really helped teachers do is that whether you are teak teaching auto shop or or home economics regardless of you area, the science teachers. They put together these text sets based on a theme and it had multiple reading levels. It had different types of reading so there was informative pieces and there was maybe a story or poem about the particular thing that they were studying. And they put these together, shared them with the students. The students read them and many used used this to scaffold to where they really wanted to go. But it gave the students an opportunity to have some background knowledge before they went into some of the content that might have been a little bit more difficult to comprehend. And the ss the teachers that that uh tried this and just went for it uh came back with some amazing results and became believers and and saw the difference that it could make in their classroom when they really were considering literacy for all.
I had a student that when he walked in the first day of school, I .. even though I try not to do this philosophically, I I thought that what I saw in him was a real lack of motivation. And I thought ‘this is probably be a kid that won’t make it this year. He’ll probably become another statistic because I just don’t see that he has that desire of knowledge.’ And I was really glad to know, because it taught me so much that I shouldn’t do that because he ended up becoming one of the biggest success stories. He came in as a struggling reader. There were some huge gaps in his education. He had been moved around from school to school. He was a second language learner. Uh his parents didn’t have a whole lot of time to spend with him because they were working um out in the labor camps for most of of their time. And um he had been involved with uh gang activity. And um but he had a lot of ideas in his head and stories that he had experienced. So a starting point for him was just to be able to express that in his writing. And I would take his writing home that the conventions were not there, would type them up uh and make them look like they were publishable and then he would read them himself and read them to the rest of the class. The everybody else really became really excited about his ability to write and express his stories. And this this was all he needed as far as the confidence to to move on. Because he was so far behind um in the last year as a sophomore he continued to struggle a little bit more but felt very confident. His teacher entered some of his work in um some writing contests. I know he got honorable mention for one of his stories and his overall attitude is just completely turned around about himself and how he seems sees himself as a learner. Um and I guess what surprises me is that other kids that I thought would have been much more successful have either dropped out or other things have happened in their lives and that just really taught me a lot about not to prejudge a student on the first day of class. Laugh.
I have both monolingual and bilingual students in the classroom and at first I thought this would be an issue a difference in the way I had to approach the class in my instruction. But what I’ve found is that effective teaching works with all students. So um you know those first, those just good practices that all teachers can and should do work for everybody. And and there’s certain rituals that I have in my classroom and they they they involve reading, writing, speaking and listening every single day. I always think about the student who is a little bit more shy and has struggled most of his life and stays silent and I wonder if this is what their experience is from beginning to end in in the course of a day. At the high school it’s easy to get lost and just uh hide yourself. So I make sure that in every lesson plan I create. I’m I’m creating a lesson plan in which students are gonna have the opportunity to do everything that they need as far as to support their literacy. And again that they will be reading every day, writing every day, listening every day and speaking every day. And um that works for both sets of students. I know it supports my second language learners but even for monolingual uh students who are struggling, this is very important in order for them to just move on and be successful with their academic reading and writing.
Some of the rituals that exist in class on a daily basis um all centered around literacy of course, is that um there’s a print-rich environment. I ha—(laugh) have uh invested probably too much money in books, like most (laugh) teachers, and uh so the classroom, my own classroom library is full of of novels, but I also subscribe to various magazines depending on their interest so that varies from year to year. I take the newspaper in with me every single day. So I have SSR or silence sustained reading, uh which we call RIOT Time, which just stands for Reading Is Our Thing. Uh I don’t remember where I picked that up but since our mascot is a pirate I thought it was appropriate. And um the rule is that Monday through Thursday they have to read a novel and uh for their s SSR time, but on Friday it’s really up to them what they would like to read. So I still have many picture books, if they want to read poetry books, a newspaper, a magazine, it’s really their choice. So that becomes a ritual because they know that every day they are gonna have an opportunity to read something of their choice that they have selected. So that’s one. The other thing is that any t, as soon as we’re finished with the SSR they have five minutes to talk about what they just read. And I just recently read in Newsweek a quote that said about the book clubs, and it talked about the best part about reading a book is talking about it afterwards. And and um they really do. Some teachers don’t believe that they will talk about the book but they do. And word of mouth is the best uh as far as just knowing that a certain book that’ll be popular will just be passed from hand to hand because they talk about it afterwards. The other ritual is the oral, the oral presentation, especially with my second language learners, but even for all students. The fact uh uh is again that they don’t have a lot of opportunity to be able to get up and present and since part of our curriculum is that they must um they must give a formal speech in front of the class, but just to get them used to being in front of class and to build some community within the classroom we
start out in having fun by just a pulling out some poetry from the classics uh to some more contemporary. So I go from Shakespeare to Tupok Shukor (sp) and and we pull that poetry and and they have only seven minutes, now I’m real rigid about this time because I figure I don’t have time to waste and they don’t have time to waste and they know if it’s seven minutes they’re gonna use it wisely. So I set the timer. They have seven minutes everyday to practice this reading of this poem and get as creative as they want to and then on Friday it’s time to present it. And um it’s just amazing from beginning of the semester to the end of the semester how how that just evolves and it just becomes by the end very (laugh) theatrical and very exciting. Um the other thing for oral language is that if they’re sharing a piece of writing or if they’ve written a piece of writing that they will always have an opportunity to share that with the—their peers. That’s it’s not so much an editing conference as it is just a peer conference where they get to read their piece aloud, get some feedback and go back into their piece once again. Um if I read aloud a poem or maybe I still read picture books because there are some, so many picture books that really aren’t for children (laugh) they really are very provocative and and um thematically will will fit in to what it is that I’m teaching. And so because they are provocative and that’s the reason I chose them, then of course, they need to have an opportunity to be able to talk about what they just read and um I’m very committed to that. And I really feel that that’s something that lacks in so many secondary uh schools is to give the students that opportunity to talk and to construct their own meaning rather than the teacher constantly telling them what everything means. Uh so those are, those are some the rituals that are in place every day in class.
OK. I really believe that um that if if you can a unit that surrounds a particular theme you will have the most success. Um I was taught one way about how to do thematic teaching and I really shifted that into something that again I believe is is Jerome Harstee and Carolyn Burke. They talk about focused inquiries. So what you’re doing here is that you take some kind of you have this question worth asking and so for example one of the questions that I framed my year was how do we deal with oppression. And and uh I stole this from and essay written by Martin Luther King, Jr. And he says that there’s three ways to deal with oppression. You can either acquiesce um you know through violence or or peacefully. And um so this kind of framed my entire year. All of the literature seemed to fit into this um issue. And and as I was going, I actually taught some sophomore classes as well, and one of our literature books dealt with the Holocaust. So um the theme pretty much transcended throughout everything that I was doing that year and so that through through the literature, through the writing, and everything just kept on getting a little more and more focused as we went through the year. Uh that’s that’s where I’ve shifted as far as my thinking. Another another unit or focused inquiry that was developed by um a colleague, Pam Smith, was centered around the theme of bullies. And what happened there is that you go from looking at the school yard bully to ending then with going to the bullies of all which is Adolph Hitler. But in the middle of that we’re looking at issues of ‘Can Nike corporation be a bully with child exploitation? Can um you know can an entire nation be a bully to another race of people?’ So you raise these really big questions and you find the materials just seem to be everywhere. Once you have a good question in place, it just seems like you know every time you pick up the newspaper or a magazine or are at a bookstore that you find what you need to just enhance your curriculum. But um the layers of meaning and the amount of literacy rituals that are going on with the reading and the writing and the speaking is just endless when you have a good question that students really really enjoy.
When I’m selecting materials to enhance my curriculum one of course is ‘will this support the theme that that I’m addressing at this particular time?’ But um it’s it’s really a variety. The reasons why I’m picking the materials is really a variety. I’ve picked uh really bad pieces of literature to show, to compare that to the good pieces of literature. Uh when it comes to expository text, again, once we understand that expository text is different than this other type of text, the narrative text, then we even look at the structures more carefully. And we say ‘well, is this trying to inform us or is this trying to persuade us?’ So if I’m looking in the editorial page of the newspaper, I look at the structure, and I say ‘well, this is a good piece of text to look at how this is kind of set up as um opinion, reason, recommendation. Here’s another uh structure where we have the problem effect cause solution.’ So I’m constantly on the lookout to to see how text is structured and what I can use. ‘Oh, I need a good expressive piece to go along with this particular text set. Or uh here’s a good piece, here’s a good poem that would fit right it as well.’ So as as I’m reading just as an adult reader, it’s always twofold because I’m reading maybe just for my own personal enjoyment but also always on the lookout for what I could use in my classroom.
Uh. The high school culture is so different than of a of the elementary school culture that I had experienced. Uh many times we really feel like we’re an island. (laugh) And um but because I had this other experience I really long for it and and try to uh make it happen whenever possible. We started a literacy team that brought in people from different um different uh subject matters together to just talk about these issues. And then with the English department I know that my style of teaching and my philosophy of teaching is is probably a minority in my on on my campus. But uh I’m OK with that for right now, because I’m on a team that deals with staff development. Uh I know with with time and if they can see the success stories and they can see what just what simple good teaching can do that they will become believers too. Um it is extra work sometimes and I know that’s an issue. And there are teachers who’ve said ‘well, I’ve always done it this way and I will continue to do it this way.’ We do have certain things in place in California where people many teachers do have to rethink their teaching because we do have a a set of standards and um that has changed. We also put a high school exit exam in place based on the standards. So many of a a lot of the traditional teaching that has occurred specifically in the English department uh will have to change. Um so I know that what students are experiencing in my classes is a little bit different, but they they leave hopefully with a a different attitude about language, about literacy, that they feel that they’ve improved in their oral communication and their written communication and that they enjoy reading. And that they understand that reading has different purposes. That there is going to be times that they will read just for enjoyment, and there’s gonna be times that they’ll have to read to gain information.
I think that my philosophical stance of how I view all students is is important in what ends up happening in my lesson plans. When I look out at the population and I see the variety of cultures and the variety experiences that students have had I want to be able to bring their world into the classroom. And I try to be very sensitive to that. I have uh just again a very diverse population within the classroom. But whether it’s a minority of ten, of twenty, uh try to bring in literature that they can relate to. Where they see themselves in the characters. Whether it’s because they’re of the same ethnic background, or the same socioeconomic background, because they’ve had the same experiences. I feel that it’s incredibly important for them to see themselves in in the literature. And uh our curriculum does say you have to teach certain novels and it tends to be those classic pieces that have been around for a long time but many times it just like with the text sets that I mentioned before, there’s also some adolescent literature that’s out there that students can relate to much more and has the same exact theme as the classic piece. So if we read this for the background then of course we can get into the classic piece of literature. One example is that for freshman, they all must read Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Well, uh I felt that with struggling readers this this would not be something that they maybe would enjoy if I just said this is what we’re going to read and that’s it. So I found a little play by Gary Soto, um a local author, he’s become more and more popular across the country. But these two kids happen to be Hispanic. He, Gary usually will put in some Spanish words in there or slang. Um it mentions local towns and the kids get really excited because it’s a comedy. Now from a teacher’s perspective, we’ve looked at how plays are structured. We looked at a comedy um pop um you know popular drama. We did everything we need to do with the drama, as far a play, from a teacher’s perspective. Then we go into Romeo and Juliet. Well, Novio Boy, this little play by Gary Soto, deals with the boy/girl relationship but it’s funny and the kids enjoy it. So when we go into Romeo and Juliet, which is a tragedy, we get to compare and contrast and we get to look at those characters and how they are different. And now all of a sudden they love Romeo and Juliet. So um as you look into, as you look at your audience you have to be able to say, ‘OK I need to bring their world in to get to where I need to go.’ So I I don’t want to call it manipulation, (giggle) but it’s just good teaching and um I think it’s very important. When it comes to writing I I feel that students really need to write their story. It it for many it becomes therapeutic but it also really shows that you value who they are. By them telling their story and sometimes they’re difficult even for me to read and I’m still overwhelmed by the experiences that a fourteen year old can have. It’s still very important because what it says to the student is that you know, my teacher cares about who I am. And um I try to recreate the same thing in the writing of poetry and um just everything that goes on in the classroom just really centered and focused around the student rather than around myself or my personal agenda. We are told to do a lot by our school districts and by our states regardless of where we are in this country, but I think that uh putting the student first is very important.
(Laugh) you don’t want to ask me that (laughing continues) you don’t want to ask me that. Oh gees. Um just about I mean I have a background in second language acquisition so I just am very, very much have my opinion about what’s the best way to get students to to
Yeah, I can do that. It’ll, I’ll try to be short to the point. Um um. It’s it’s really important that as teachers we value students’ first language. Unfortunately, we are the only country I think probably in the world, that really hopes for monolingualism. And in the rest of the world knowing more than one language, and even for our uh people in this country who have lots of money send their students to, (giggle) send their kids to boar you know to prep preparatory schools. They want them to learn more than one language and yet uh for the students in our public schools this seems to be something that’s looked down upon. And I feel that anytime, even if we are teaching in an English classroom, or or teaching in English to value that first language, to value the first culture is so important for our students. That the feel that um in that they have a voice and they can find their voice and express that voice freely. And my experience has been that if you value their primary language, OK their culture, then the acquisition of the second language is so much easier. And um you just really get your money’s worth when you can look at a student and say, ‘Your language, your culture, who you are is important. And we are going to first of all see how we’re the same. We’re also gonna celebrate our differences.’
I won’t go on about standardized testing cause I couldn’t do it in less than five minutes.
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