Engaging English Language Learners Using Culturally Responsive Teaching, Inquiry-Based Learning, and the Concept of Fair Trade

Engaging ELLs Using Culturally Responsive Teaching, Inquiry-Based Learning, and the Concept of Fair Trade

fair_trade_coffee_croppedIn fall 2014, I had the honor of speaking at West Chester University’s Latino Communities Conference.  Around the same time, I was doing research on inquiry-based learning. I was telling my husband about both of these things over breakfast one morning while we shared a pot of coffee brewed from coffee beans from Haiti Coffee Academy, a Haitian coffee farming school. My husband works for a coffee roaster that happens to operate this agrarian school on a Haitian coffee farm to train local citizens on effective farming practice. As if by magic, my daughter walked into the kitchen while we were talking. My daughter attends Media Elementary, a designated fair trade school located in Media, Pennsylvania, America’s first fair trade town!

All of these topics—inquiry-based learning, effective farming, fair trade—were floating around in my mind when suddenly a light bulb went off and I had my topic for the Latino Communities Conference: Engaging ELLs to Increase Academic Achievement Using Culturally Responsive Teaching, Inquiry Based Learning, and the concept of Fair Trade! A few teachers have successfully implemented the project, and I am excited to continue to share the details of the assessment with you.

Let’s start with the concepts of culturally responsive teaching (CRT), inquiry-based learning, and fair trade; we can then discuss the overview of the project-based learning activity that was developed using these concepts.

Geneva Gay (2000) defines culturally responsive teaching as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them; it teaches to and through the strengths of these students.” She lists the following characteristics of CRT:

  • It acknowledges the legitimacy of the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups, both as legacies that affect students’ dispositions, attitudes, and approaches to learning and as worthy content to be taught in the formal curriculum.
  • It builds bridges of meaningfulness between home and school experiences as well as between academic abstractions and lived sociocultural realities.
  • It uses a wide variety of instructional strategies that are connected to different learning styles.
  • It teaches students to know and praise their own and each others’ cultural heritages.

The research question I developed was, “How can I bring this pedagogy into the assessments I use to evaluate student learning with my ELL students?” My experience developing the project was similar to a student’s experience using inquiry-based project learning. The first place I looked for an answer was in the methodology of inquiry-based learning.

Inquiry-based learning is often thought of as just another project-based learning method. However, when done right, it is a much deeper and richer learning experience for both the student and the teacher. Inquiry-based learning asks students to develop research questions, learn and implement research skills, collaborate, problem solve, and participate in the creation and improvement of ideas and knowledge. Teachers can find inquiry-based learning rubrics and project starter kits at Galileo.org, an educational network that offers research and practical application tools. “The Galileo Educational Network creates, promotes, and disseminates innovative teaching and learning practices through research, professional learning, and fostering external collaborations.”

Now that we know the pedagogy behind the project, how do you develop the project? First, start by writing a content and language objective for your students. For example, here is a content objective: Using guided notes and the Internet while working with a partner, the student will be able to develop an inquiry project that utilizes technology and investigates a fair trade arrangement in their native country (or the country of their choosing) and a local business.  Consider what language skills your students will need to meet the content objective and write a language objective. Differentiate your objectives for the various proficiency levels in your classroom. Next, develop a rubric so that you and your students will know exactly what criteria will be used to evaluate student learning. Once you know what you want your students to know and do and how you will evaluate learning, it is time to present the project to your students.

You can build background knowledge by asking students about what beverages their parents drink in the morning, followed by a discussion of the path of a coffee bean. Another interesting activity is to ask students to look at the labels in their clothing and school bags and identify where the product was made. Have the students discuss how they think the products come to the United States and how they think the workers in other countries are paid. As an alternative, you can introduce the concept by showing the students video clips. Here are two websites that discuss the seed-to-table project: Ten Steps from Seed to Cup and Seed to Cup, the journey of a cup of coffee. Now, review the vocabulary to ensure that the students have the language to access the skills and content you are teaching. The primary vocabulary term I’ve identified is “Fair Trade.” Here is a simple but comprehensive video that introduces fair trade.

Now it is time to set the students off to inquire and investigate. Assign or allow students to choose collaborative learning groups to increase the interaction between native speakers and ELL students or between the ELL students themselves. Make sure to scaffold the assignment in a way that is responsive to each student’s proficiency level. For example, some students may need step-by-step directions and some may need a graphic organizer to guide them through the inquiry process, while others are able to follow simple directions, such as:

  1. Develop a research question.
  2. Identify sources for resource.
  3. Work to answer your question.
  4. Share your findings in a visual and oral presentation.

Ideally your students will be intrinsically motivated, since they have developed their own research question. Most students will select to research fair trade from the perspective of their native country. This adds an additional level of intrinsic motivation and engagement.

This project was piloted with great success in a middle school ELL class in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Additional resources are included below. If you select to incorporate this project into your instruction, please share your experience in the comments section of this blog.

Additional Resources

Fair Trade

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy
www.eou.edu/ccrp/ Eastern Oregon University Center for Culturally Responsive Practice
www.tolerance.org/supplement/being-culturally-responsive Teaching Tolerance
www.eou.edu/ccrp/  Eastern Oregon University Center for Culturally Responsive Practice
http://culturallyresponsive.org/  The Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning

Project-based/Inquiry-Based Learning

Standards and School Districts

Demographic Information



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