“If you’re going to teach him how to write, first you have to love him. If you can convince him of that, there’s nothing you can’t teach him.” -AVI
When we take time to reflect and notice when things go well, we create opportunities to replicate it. We learn to rise just enough to get a glimpse of why what we do in the classroom is so relevant. We begin to understand the wider impact of a learning environment and the benefits that come from of having one that is rich and nurturing.
The writing workshop environment is unique. Here, language is carefully curated and continuously changing to fit the needs of individual learners. Adjusting to the individual needs of a learner is the highest level of brain-based work we can accomplish in the classroom. It requires trust, hope, and love. Only three of many important, but sometimes invisible, pieces of a nurturing environment. Environments like these are filled with experiences that reach both the mind and the heart.
Environments that allow enough authentic and meaningful writing experiences, evolve the skills of a learner, all learners, especially learners of additional languages or EALs.
What does environment have to do with nurturing learners of additional languages?
Absolutely everything. Nurturing environments are crucial, especially to learners who are new to the space, new to the language, or those affected by trauma. Learners must feel safe and in trusted hands before they can even consider the possibility of moving forward with the learning.
When language is accessible, allowable, when we can investigate how it came to be, when it can be played with, invented, and when we can own it through authentic and meaningful experiences, language acquisition takes place.
These experiences with language and learning require those sometimes invisible practices, those you feel, but cannot see. Trust, hope, and love are only a few. These practices cannot be measured by data, but are without doubt, the most powerful learning practices we can offer in a learning environment. These are the heartbeats of a nurturing environment. These heartbeats move the whole of a group forward, including and especially learners of additional languages.
Benefits of Nurturing Environments
There is a magic that comes from places that welcome all who enter it. Places like these focus on the good that each learner brings into the space and engage those within it through trust and vulnerability―two invisible pieces necessary for learning.
Trust can be grown in many ways, but the tone of your voice can be a powerful tool for building trust. The tone of your voice can foster courage and bravery or eliminate self-worth and authenticity.
Trust and vulnerability must exist, in order for a learner to attempt communicating honest thoughts, opinions, or ideas with the use their additional language.
Do you see a deficit? Or, do you see “hidden gems” buried in that note? Where your attention falls first, matters.
Cultivating Nurturing Environments
Cultivating a nurturing environment requires many moving parts. It’s important to remember that a heart’s electromagnetic field can be detected 10 to 15 feet away. We really don’t have to use words to tell a learner how we feel about them; they can feel it.
The leader sets the temperature or feel of the environment. Whether you love what you do or whether you don’t, it shows. It shows in your actions, your facial expressions, in the tone of your voice, and your body language. You can speak volumes without words.
According to linguist and researcher Stephen Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition, “affective factors such as nervousness, boredom, or anxiety influence language acquisition… Boredom and anxiety are affective factors that can… block out incoming messages and prevent them from triggering acquisition” of any additional language.
Change the environment, and you change the learner. “If learning isn’t fun, then you’re just not doing it right.” I say that often to my students, and most of the time they believe me. It isn’t always fun, but we sure make a point to strive for it, daily.
We make sure that what lives in our classroom each day is: poetry, read alouds, music, singing, playing, talking, sharing, laughing, creativity, innovation, critical thinking, choice, experimenting, exploring, movement, and… writing. It helps create the space we want.
Cultivating a nurturing environment is not an exact science. We are working with humans, not robots. We are teaching an art, not a formula. Learning can and will be messy. This is the work of humans growing humans.
One Writer's Experience
I remember the first time we published our work and how he sat there staring down at the Post-it notes for what seemed like an eternity. I felt his heart, as I stood behind him for this photograph. The impact from that moment grew to be much more than I expected for him, for both of us.
Publishing student work for authentic audiences and authentic responses can shift a writer. There is unique power that comes when one human responds to another. The power of the written word can change everything. An audience is what helped this writer move forward, beyond language, beyond dyslexia, beyond SPED, and beyond trauma. He found his voice.
All We Need To Do…
Nurturing learners of additional languages requires us to nurture all who enter a classroom. It really isn’t that complicated when you stop to think about it. All we need to do is love them. Love them for who they are and what they bring into the space. Know that the most powerful practices we can perform in a writing workshop or any workshop, cannot be measured by data. Those invisible practices create passion, drive, grit, innovation, creativity, agency, acceptance, tolerance, patience, understanding, kindness, hope, trust, vulnerability, and love.
We teach who we are. And, so, the greatest indicator of how much our students are impacted by what we do is... what we believe. If we believe in them, they will believe in themselves. If we love books, so will they. If we love writing, they will, too. If we love the learner, well, “love brings… more love” as described in a poem written by one of my students this year.
Nurturing learners in a writing workshop takes time. Don’t give up. Every experience shapes the brain. Taking time to reflect and understand the impact of nurturing the whole child, the human part of them first, is the work of humans helping other humans.
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Marina Rodriguez (@mrodz308) is a California native, dual language teacher, National Writing Project, Heart of Texas Writing Project Teacher Consultant, Kidblog Ambassador, and co-author of Two Writing Teachers.