April 2014
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Book Review
Susan R. Adams, PhD, Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

When I was just getting my feet wet as a high school English as second language (ESL) teacher 10 years ago, I was fortunate to get my hands on a copy of Constructivist Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners, by Sharon Adelman Reyes and Trina Lynn Vallone. I was an experienced world language teacher entering the field of ESL as a novice, and Constructivist Strategies shaped my thinking and my instructional design approaches for teaching my multilanguage, multigrade, multilevel English language development classes. Like many other ESL teachers, I was at first overwhelmed by the diverse literacy levels and disparate needs of my students, but Constructivist Strategies provided a strong rationale for constructivism in the ESL classroom and sufficient cognitive frames and mental structures that I was able to create a classroom culture that allowed access to improved literacy and engagement for all of my students. Thus I was eager to read Adelman Reyes’s (2013) newest book, Engage the Creative Arts: A Framework for Sheltering and Scaffolding Instruction for English Language Learners.

Adelman Reyes divides the book into four parts: The Framework, Strategies, Sample Units, and Resources. Of greatest interest to me was Part 1: The Framework, where Adelman Reyes establishes a clear, comprehensible, and useful foundation for practitioners who teach English language learners (ELLs), including a concise overview of learning theory, scaffolding, comprehensible input, and her theories of student learning through engagement with the creative arts. This section is what distinguishes this book from the ample array of strategy books claiming to represent “best practices,” often without providing any evidence for, or even defining what is meant by, that particular term. Rather than simply offering another cookbook of step-by-step instructions with overblown promises, Adelman Reyes instead urges teachers to explore the deep learning that is possible when students are authentically engaged, when the affective filter is low, and when attention is focused on communication in English for authentic purposes.

The largest section is the Strategies section, where educators will find ideas by artistic medium: dramatic arts, creative writing, music and rhythm, dance and movement, visual arts, and free reading. Each part provides ample ideas for in-class engagements with students of all grade levels. As Adelman Reyes notes, each activity can be easily adapted for use with older or younger students with a bit of thought. As a former secondary teacher, I was pleased to find primary engagement ideas I could readily use with high school students and conversely believe primary teachers will find themselves inspired by skimming the secondary strategies.

The Resources section includes sample primary, intermediate, and secondary units. These units are not meant simply to be lifted wholesale and imitated, but instead serve as inspiration and guidance for teachers to develop their own. Of particular use is the guideline section in which Adelman Reyes reminds teachers to “stress process over performance” and to design instruction that is engaging, that requires multimodal responses, that simplifies language, and that “prompts students to consider perspectives other than their own” (p. 105). It is here that her commitment to constructivist engagement with ELLs is most vibrantly clear.

As a teacher who has also experimented with specific sensory triggers, particularly scents and sounds, to lower the affective filter and foster a sense of belonging in my ESL classroom, I was intrigued to find Adelman Reyes encourage the use of essential oils in the classroom to “evoke mood” as students engage with the arts or with texts. She provides a list of oils, along with strong cautions about the potential hazards inherent in their use. While aromatherapy would certainly be effective in eliciting powerful mental images and associations for some students, I found myself shying away from the idea of imposing these strong scents on students out of concern for possible negative reactions from some and fear of triggering allergic reactions from others.

Overall, in a time when ESL teachers are often pressured to “fix” ESL students quickly and to focus on dreary drill, skill, and kill test preparation approaches, Adelman Reyes’s call for constructivist approaches is vibrant and refreshing. Engage the Creative Arts is a deceptively simple, yet important contribution to the collective thinking of the ESL teaching community.

Susan R. Adams is a former urban high school ESL teacher and instructional coach. She is currently assistant professor of middle and secondary education in the College of Education at Butler University. Her research interests include ELL literacy development, equity, and teacher professional development through critical friendship group approaches.
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