School Uniforms

Context: Every year, as a program-wide activity, this large ESOL program invites government representatives to visit and talk with students. This program tradition gives adults practice discussing community issues and introduces immigrants and refugees who may have come from undemocratic countries to the possibility of communicating with decision-makers – even holding them accountable for their promises – without reprisal. This year, a state representative will be coming and Sunita, the teacher, is preparing her class to use the opportunity to ask questions or share their views.

She starts by asking the group about their local concerns so that they can work on developing relevant questions for the guest. She notices that the concern about which the students seem to have the most energy is school uniforms, an issue that would be better taken up with a school board member than a state representative.

To address this point, she does a short lesson about who makes various governmental decisions. Using “state representative,” “city councilor,” “school board member,” and “Congressional representative” as the options, she lists on the blackboard some concerns she has heard from students (including cuts in after-school programming, zoning decisions about where restaurants/clubs are allowed to stay open late, the rights of non-citizens to vote in local elections, immigration policies, etc.) and asks them who would be involved in making decisions about each issue. They discuss and chart their answers on newsprint paper which they post on the wall so that they can add to it as they come across other decisions that matter to them.

From their chart, Sunita draws their attention to the issues that would be appropriate to talk about with the state representative, and they begin preparing some questions for the upcoming event. This entails practice in question formation as well as discussion about the different information you’ll get from a yes/no versus an open-ended question (read about the question formation technique). When the representative comes, they ask great questions about her support for ABE funding and help the more beginning students understand what’s going on.

Learning Activities: The following week, the class returns to their original concern about school uniforms. It turns out that many of their children worry about being made fun of because of their clothing. In most of the students’ home countries children wear uniforms to school, removing the expense and peer pressures of fashion, and now these parents want the local schools to institute such a dress code. Most of them feel strongly enough that they are willing to express their views to decision-makers.

Sunita has been slowly introducing her class to EFF concepts and language so she takes the opportunity to point out that, in order to communicate their needs, they will be practicing the EFF Standard “Advocate and Influence,” within the context of the Common Activity “Exercise Rights and Responsibilities” (the right to speak up and the responsibility to protect their kids). They begin by talking about their past experiences speaking up, individually or collectively, to decision-makers . What motivated them? What happened? How did it feel? Etc. Since there isn’t enough time to hear everyone’s stories, the sharing of their experiences becomes a written homework assignment which Sunita will build on later.

In the next class, she writes the Standard up on newsprint and the students talk about the connections between the components of the Standard and their own stories. Several people comment that their own experience has been a lot less deliberate – their advocacy has been more spontaneous and there’s some discussion of whether this helped or hurt their causes.

Sunita decides to use the components of the Standard to organize the following lessons . Since there is not yet a leveled performance continuum for the Standard “Advocate and Influence,” she decides to use the Four Dimension of Performance as a guide to monitoring progress. The class will collect the many artifacts created in the process of their advocacy (opinion pieces, parent surveys, interview questions, letters, oral presentations, etc.) into portfolios . She explains to the students that she will be looking for evidence of the following (knowledge base)

  • the ability to describe the advocacy process
  • the ability to identify and gather information (the numbers concerned, alternative options, etc.) that will help to build a case
  • understanding of how the Parent Advisory Committee and School Board function
  • the ability to focus on the group goal as they develop their individual pieces
  • the ability to communicate effectively with decision-makers

This is a new kind of activity for them to carry out in English, so Sunita will not be looking for a great deal of independence or range in the students’ ability to advocate. However, since all of them have advocated before in their own languages, she expects them to have some fluency in carrying out the process.

Advocate and Influence

Learning Activities that Address the Standard

Define what one is trying to achieve.

The students clarified their aim by discussing what they wanted to accomplish. Did they want to simply voice their concerns to the school board? The principal? Did they want a response? What if they got no response? The group needed to write a collective statement of their purpose, which became: “Our goal is to express our views to the people who make decisions about this and to get an answer.”

Assess interests, resources, and the potential for success.

Sunita explained that this part of the standard means that they need to investigate the situation: Who else is interested in this issue? Who might be for or against their idea? Has it ever come up before? If so, what happened? All of a sudden, this seemed like a lot of work! The students said that they didn’t have time for all that; that they just wanted to do something easy! It made Sunita wonder if she should just have them write letters and forget about the rest of the advocacy standard. But then she remembered that there are some immigrant parents on the school’s Parent Advisory Committee. Maybe she could get these parents to come talk to the class about their questions. This seemed like a manageable solution to everyone. The students also suggested that they could find out if other parents share their concern by surveying other classes.    

Gather facts and supporting information to build a case that takes into account the interests and attitudes of others.

Sunita arranged for the guest speaker while the students worked on a simple survey that they would present to other classes in the program. Individual students also volunteered to write about their own experiences and to collect information about school dress codes in other countries. When the guest speaker came (an immigrant parent on the school board’s Parent Advisory Committee), he told them that many immigrant parents share their concern but are not well represented at school board meetings. He suggested that they write a letter and come read it at a school board meeting. He would support their efforts by following-up with school board members. After two weeks of investigation, the class had collected surveys from 72 students (80% of which supported uniforms), several  personal stories and opinions to quote from, information about dress policies in other countries, and ideas from their guest about how to approach the school board.

Present a clear case, using a strategy that takes into account purpose and audience.

The class brainstormed and prioritized the key points they wanted to make, and then clustered them by topic:

-         What is the problem?

-         Why is it a problem for us?

-         Some possible solutions

-         Questions for the school board

In small groups, they worked to shape the clustered ideas into paragraphs. When that was done, they had to add an opening about who they are and a closing that made a clear request for a response and thanked the Board.

Revise, as necessary, in response to feedback.

Before bringing the letter to the school board, they sent it to the parent committee for comment. The parent committee gave them feedback about ways their issue dovetails with other school board concerns, such as immigrant parent involvement, problems related to other kinds of peer pressure, etc. They added these points to the letter and then talked about who would read it at the meeting. They also returned it to the parent committee, in case that committee wanted to use it to organize other parents.

In subsequent classes, the students compiled their portfolio pieces and wrote about the learning that each piece represented. Their final reflection piece was about how they might use these advocacy skills elsewhere in their lives . They also compared this experience to the advocacy they wrote about earlier.

As they waited for the school board meeting two weeks away, the class put together packets of support materials (student writings, survey results, etc.) to present and talked about their expectations of what would happen. No matter what, they wanted to stay in touch with the Parent Advisory Committee and maybe invite them back to explain the new testing system the school was implementing .