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Teaching languages in Urban schools - Guest post!

July 28, 2016

Note to the reader: This post was reviewed following an email to Jon & I by a reader in June 2020. Jon published a new blog post in response - Read it here.

I met Jon Cowart for the first time at iFLT 2014 in Denver, and his passion for teaching kids in urban, low-income settings was apparent from our first conversation. He has been committed to using language teaching as a way to connect with and empower his students. Specifically, he uses comprehensible input strategies to empower his students through language acquisition. He shared the following post in the iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching Facebook group, and he gave me permission to share it here as well as a guest post. As someone that taught in an urban,Title I school myself, I can personally attest to the fact that the strategies that he outlines in this post are effective.

If you find yourself in a similar situation and would like to connect with Jon to continue the conversation, you can reach out to him on Facebook or via email (jcowart at tscsmemphis dot org)!


Using CI in the urban classroom

Greetings all!  My name is Jon Cowart and I am a high school Spanish teacher at the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis, TN.  We are a high performing, 6-12 charter school in one of the poorest zip codes in the country. 100% of our students identify as black and 90% of them receive free or reduced lunch.  This coming fall will be my 8th year as a CI Spanish teacher and my 6th in an urban classroom.  Over the years, I have had to learn the (very) hard way that using CI in an urban or low-income classroom is extremely hard and needs an adaptation.  After 5 years, I feel confident in sharing some the practices that I’ve created in order to mesh these two worlds.  Even if you don’t teach in a high poverty or urban setting, I think some of these practices will still be beneficial.

Week 1 – Investment, procedures, and behavior management

The first thing I learned about successful urban education teachers of all content is that they intentionally invest their students into their class.  The term “investment” is a buzzword in many urban education classrooms that basically means “get your students to care about your class.”  This is especially important for low performing students and students from low income backgrounds for several reasons that I could mention later, but just take my word that it’s important.

Investing students into you 

Be yourself

Take everything you have seen from the "gansta teacher" movies (Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, etc..) and throw it in the garbage.  Urban kids - teenagers in particular - have an uncanny ability to size people up and figure out who they are.

If you stray from your personality and try to act "street" (use slang words, dress like an urban kid, put on rap music in your classroom), students will see right through you, laugh at you, and make your life miserable.  I’ve seen it happen.

During the first week of school every year, I go out of my way to "be myself" in the room.  I dance salsa, I talk about my infatuation with Game of Thrones, I show pictures of my family ... and I answer very intimate questions that my students want to know (see step 2).   I talk about my likes / interests, and make no bones about who I am to my students.  When they mention things I'm not familiar with (music, movies, slang words they use), I openly admit that I don't know what they're talking about, and I allow them to teach.

This is the first step in gaining student trust.  If they feel you are being "fake," they won't feel comfortable around you, they won’t trust you, and you won't be able to teach them.

Divulge about yourself 

As urban educators, we have to be more than content leaders.  We are psychologists, therapists, politicians, hostage negotiators, etc.  Children of poverty bring a plethora of issues to the classroom, and a lot times those issues prevent them from being able to participate and learn.  In most cases, we are the only ones they have who will listen to them.  However, getting them to point where they will divulge important information to you is difficult, but it's the next step to building their trust.

On week one every year, we play the "hot seat" game.  I sit on a stool in front of the class and tell them they have 5 minutes to ask me anything, and I'll answer as honestly as I can.  I don't give them any parameters.  I want them to know that I trust them to ask me questions.  I've done this for 6 years now, and every year it goes about the same.  Students start with questions like "Where are from?  What music do you listen to?  Who's your favorite actress?" and etc.  Eventually questions start to warm up a little - "Do you have a girlfriend?  Do you have kids?"  And then, inevitably, I get a question that turns the conversation.  "Have you ever done drugs?  When did you lose your virginity?  Have you ever been in a fight?"

When I get the hardball questions, I ask myself 2 things:  Do I want them to know this, and Do they need to know this in order to trust me?"   If the answer is YES to both questions, I answer it.  I do not answer the question about virginity (I don't want them to know).  But I do answer the drugs and fighting questions (yes to both).   Do I want them to know this?  I don't mind.  Do they need to know this to trust me?  I think so.  We are going to be spending 2 years together (Spanish I and II), and eventually they are going to make mistakes like I have.  I need to be able to look them in the eye and say:  "Take it from me, don't do this.  I've been there and done that."  My students respect me more when I’m honest with them about myself.  If you feel that divulging this type of information will get you in trouble, don’t do it.  But if the purpose is to connect with a student, use your best judgment.  My administration has actually encouraged me to have these types of conversations with my class and used videos of me doing it during in service.  It’s powerful, and it builds trust.

The more you share, the more they will share.

Find and become best friends with the “investors”

An “investor” is someone who has influence over a student’s behavior in a positive way.  Every student has one.  Most of the time my students’ investors are mom or grandmother, but not always.  It can be a coach, a pastor, an older sibling, or a lot of time, a former teacher who had success with this student.  It is CRUCIAL for the teacher to find out who each student’s investor is and work to establish a relationship with that person.  To find out who it is, just ask the students.  On day one, I have them write information on a note card (name, where from, favorite ice cream . And who is someone you look up to in your life?).  I figure out who this “investor” is by asking students more about him/her, I ask for a phone number, and I contact that person.  I introduce myself, tell them who I am, ask genuine questions about the student, all with the goal in mind to build this person’s trust and learn what I need to do to get this student in my pocket.

Questions I ask my investors:

  1. You’ve known __________ his whole life.  What do I need to know about him in order to be the best teacher for him?
  2. What are her interests?  What are her future goals?
  3. What can I do to help you support him?
  4. What are his triggers?  What sets him off?
  5. What calms him down?

I don’t go this in depth for all students.  I take my roster to the previous grade teachers before school starts and ask which students I need to work hard for.  I make a list of my most at risk students and then make sure to seat them in the front, find their investors, and work relentlessly to win them over and support them.

Investing students into your class

“Why learn Spanish?” - On week one every year, I show statistics, videos, and resources to my students that explain how becoming proficient in Spanish can help their job and earning prospects over their lifetime.  I show the statistics of earning potential of bilingual nurses, pilots, construction managers, and many other professions that my students are interested in exploring.  I have them do a written reflection that makes them answer what their interests are, what they think they might want to study in college, OR what career they might be interested in pursuing.  Then, they have write why they think learning Spanish will help them pursue this.  Most students find that connection with ease, others struggle, and few (my defiant ones) don’t really try.  (For those, I just remind them that this can be an easy GPA booster if they just pay attention and try, and that usually works to invest them).

Every week during the first 2 months of school, I refer back to these investment assignments and have students articulate to me how Spanish can help them in their lives. I work very intentionally to make sure I’m incorporating those pieces into each lesson.  My PQAs are specifically targeted to student interests and I’m very intentional early on to create stories that incorporate student future goals and make sure that because s/he speaks Spanish, the goal is achieved in the story.

This is great starting point for “investment”, but students will quickly lose that investment if 1) The teacher doesn’t actually teach well or 2) The student loses interest in the class.  Therefore, it is incumbent on me every year to supplement this investment assignment with good CI teaching.


The first 5 minutes of class

  • Students line up outside my door silently. I do NOT allow them in until they are silent.
  • All students enter silently, go directly to their chairs, and begin working on the Do Now (also called bellwork, warm up, etc.)  An effective Do Now MUST be silent, independent, pencil to paper, and be important (not just busy work).  I use it as a review from yesterday, to copy down today’s new vocabulary, or in the case of day 1, a student survey.
  • Students are 100% silent during the first 5 minutes of class.  I used to not do this, and once I switched to this, it had a huge positive impact how my class started and ended up.  Entering and sitting silent is the EASIEST instruction your students will have all day.  There should be no confusion as to what they should be doing.  If they are not following this simple instruction, it is an easy way to implement behavior narration and if you have to, your penalty system. “You should be silently working on your Do Now. You are talking.  That’s a behavior deduction.”

The last 5 minutes of class

  • ALWAYS teach to the bell.  Down time in an urban classroom equals bad things.
  • I end instruction (whatever we’re doing) with 5 minutes left to transition to the “exit ticket”.
  • Students are silent and have a pencil to paper assignment.  It’s usually a quick rewrite of what we did that day, or a translation, or they copy from my powerpoint as I type up what we did that day.
  • It is so important to calm the students down at the end of class and use this to get the desks/chairs back in order, pick up trash, and have a structured exit procedure.
  • I use these last 5 minutes to remind them of any upcoming assignments or homework.
  • I dismiss by rows.

Classroom management 

It is crucial with an urban classroom (or any difficult classroom) to run a tight, consistent, and fair classroom from day one.  Here are my foundational non-negotiable rules for myself.  As a disclaimer, many of them go against what we might think our students want/need, but trust me, doing them will have a huge impact on your classroom management and allow you to focus more on CI rather than your headache from students talking too much.


The first step to good classroom management is TELLING YOUR KIDS WHAT TO DO.  So many novice teachers I’ve observed just assume that students know what to do.  They don’t.  Be explicit in your expectations for everything.  Tell them what to do, how to do it, and WHEN to do it.  (When I say Go …)  Here are some key guidelines for expectations:

Explicit and Concise

Make your expectations for every task and assignment explicit and concise.  Too many teachers have a rules poster with 10 rules that take up an entire wall.  This is ineffective.  For every task or assignment, I give no more than 3 expectations that are no more than 5 words each.  I post those expectations on my board and have students read them out loud.  An example would be 1) Work on Bell Work silently 2) HW on left corner of desk 3) When finished, read ind. novel silently

During a TPRS story, I focus on 3-4 expectations for each class (depending on the class).  For my challenging classes, I focus on:

1) No English 2) Track the speaker / actor 3) Respond only when prompted

I could give a million more rules that I want my class to follow, but it would be counterproductive.  I post these 3 rules, revert to them before AND during the story, and correct students when they don’t meet my expectations.

Give the “why” behind it

Tell your students why your rules are in place.  Many students rebel against rules because they see them as “petty” or controlling.  When my students complain about being silent for 5 minutes, I explain to them why it’s important to start class off calm, collected, and focused.  It gives me time to relax my own mind and mentally prepare to be their best teacher.  When a student blurts out in English and you correct her I say “it’s important not to blurt out in English because then it opens the door for others to yell over you when you’re trying to talk.”  When a student doesn’t give me a physical response during TPR, I explain to him why it’s important that I see him respond.  Giving the why will eliminate a lot of rebellions, especially if your “why” is actually meaningful.  (Don’t make petty rules).

Behavior narration

Every time I give a direction and say “go”, I immediately narrate student behavior.  If you haven’t seen or heard of this, Google search “Lee Cantor – Behavior Narration”, learn it, and do it.  It’s awkward.  It seems inauthentic.  But it works.  It works for all students of all ages, and it has saved me countless battles and headaches.

Behavior narration is when you give a clear and concise direction, say go, and then find the students who are following that direction correctly.  Then, you say that student’s name out loud.  Examples are “I see Mike starting on number 1.  Jessica is working silently.  Jamaal is sitting up straight.”  You are looking for students who are demonstrating what you expect and simply stating facts.  Don’t give an opinion, don’t say “I like …”, just narrate.  Once you start doing this, you’ll see the students who aren’t doing these things self correct.  It’s like magic sometimes.

I cannot stress enough how important behavior narration is.  When a class walks in every day, and 4-5 students are talking, all it takes is for me to call out 1-2 students who aren’t talking, and 99% of the time those other students shut up.  I don’t have to fuss, I don’t have to call anyone out, and I don’t have to engage in a battle.  No deductions, no penalties.  Try it.

Behavior merit/demerit system

When behavior narration doesn’t work, the teacher must give out a consequence.  I could not survive in an urban classroom without a CLEAR, FAIR, and CONSISTENT behavior merit system.  I teach with a clipboard that has all of my students’ names on it along with a grid.  They know that they will earn points for good things (giving ideas to a story, speaking sentences in Spanish), and lose points for bad things (see list).  I make it very visible when students earn or lose merits.

Merit deductions (some of them):

  • Talking during silent time
  • Disruption
  • Off task
  • Not following a direction in a timely fashion
  • Checking
  • Sleeping
  • Posture

In my class, 2 deductions equals a side chat / hallway chat.  A third deduction is an office referral.  Remember, before giving a deduction, try narration first.  If an entire class is not following rules (talking over you), stop teaching, reset the rules, narrate behavior, and only THEN, after all of that, give deductions.

Positive merits (some)

  • Contributing to a story
  • Answering in 100% Spanish
  • Tracking the speaker 100% of the time
  • Showing one of our school’s core values (Respect, Integrity, Scholarship, Empathy)

I keep track of these merits in the website kickboard.  At the end of the week, students may choose from a list of rewards (positive phone call home, positive note home, out of uniform in my class day, get to hold a prop for a week, sombrero …etc.)  I sometimes let the kids tell me what they want and decide if it’s acceptable.

My “formula” for management:

  1. Give a clear and concise expectation.  Say go.
  2. Narrate behavior
  3. Give positive merits FIRST to exemplar students
  4. Correct behavior FIRST using least intrusive measures (glances, proximity to a student, gently touching a desk).
  5. Use demerits

The last thing I’ll say about classroom management is that it cannot be done in isolation from instruction.  If you aren’t doing CI well (slow, comprehensible, and compelling), you will have to rely more on management systems.  My best management days almost always correlate to my best instructional days.

Class compacting 

On week 1 every year, I have every class write and post a class contract or set of rules that we ALL create and agree upon as a class.  I facilitate this by asking them whole group what types of learning environments they like and what they don’t.  They are always very honest and we come up with the same set of rules that are usually:

  1. Don’t talk over each other
  2. Don’t say or do anything negative
  3. Participate
  4. Respect each other
  5. Encourage each other
  6. Etc. …

Once we have all agreed on 6-8 class norms, I post the chart paper on my wall and every student signs it and it stays there the entire year.  That way, later on if a class or individual is consistently breaking those rules, I can revert back to that and remind them that THEY were the one who agreed on these rules, not me.  It’s a powerful way to reground a class or a student and remind them of what kind of class culture we are shooting for.

My last point in this post about class culture and compacting is again, be a good CI teacher.  A good CI classroom will organically create this culture IF the teacher is intentional about it.

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