February 26, 2021

Constructing Central Ideas with Bilingual Learners

Author: Ms. Katrina Viloria - Grade 5 Homeroom Teacher, Team Leader

n this blog, I am sharing my experience of constructing central ideas with our Grade 5 bilingual learners.

For our third unit on Ecosystems, the 5th graders explored types of ecosystems, and relationships and balance within ecosystems through various engagements, such as making their own artificial ecosystems, exploring our school’s nature, interacting with experts, enjoying games related to food chains, provoking students thinking through their physical spaces and exploring their personal inquiry. The unit culminated with the construction of central ideas and a mini-exhibition.

Constructing Central Ideas

As constructing central ideas was an initial experience for our 5th graders this year, I was more concerned about helping them go through the process rather than writing the ‘right’ one. I added that central ideas are ‘big ideas or understandings’ that are enduring, and that they are true across time and cultures.  Some learners expressed that central ideas are important because they ‘show what you learn in a deep way.’

Grade 5 students are constructing central ideas

Learners were encouraged to write their central ideas in either Vietnamese or English; all of them directly wrote their central ideas in English.  Finally, each group went through one session of conferencing and made one revision and editing of their central ideas.  During our conferencing, I was very careful not to change much of the words and ideas that they were articulating to me as we wanted it to be as authentic as possible.

Reflection with My Students

We reflected on what helped and what limited us when constructing our central ideas. The students shared:

What Helped Us & What Challenged Us:

  • Working with a partner
  • Our lessons and what we have learned throughout the unit
  • Concepts of ‘level up’ words that we learned in the unit
  • Our reflections
  • Starting with an idea and building up on it (brainstorming)
  • Choosing the ‘right’ big words
  • Making a ‘big idea’ in general
  • Confused about whether we are choosing ‘big words’ or ‘key details’
  • Agreeing with our partner
Reflection on what helped and challenged us

My Reflection

  1. A benefit of asking the learners to construct their central ideas at the end of the unit (rather than the beginning of a unit) is that students gain substantial knowledge and understanding of concepts and vocabulary that help them build generalizations and conclusions. For bilingual learners (and perhaps for other types of learners as well), unpacking vocabulary and concepts are the building blocks of producing statements of understanding, if we really are aiming for an independent and authentic articulation of a big and enduring understanding.
  2. Exposing learners to central ideas and co-constructing central ideas with students may not be enough. They need to develop higher order thinking skills, literacy skills (eg. identifying main ideas and key details, unpacking vocabulary) and social skills, such as negotiation and cooperation if we truly want them to construct central ideas as independently as possible.
  3. Central ideas can be both the beginning and ‘thinking products’ of exploration and collaboration. Inquiry in its pure sense begins with a wonder, a question, rarely with a big statement. Hence, I believe it is not necessary for a Grade 5 student to construct a central idea in the beginning of an inquiry for an in-depth exploration to happen.
  4. The more opportunities we give to students to drive their personal inquiries (keeping in mind global connections) and make conclusions, the more that they gain confidence in sharing what they have found out and what they believe is true and enduring.

The value of this experience to me is the affirmation that central ideas are important for both teachers and students. While creating a central idea involves higher order thinking and knowledge, this experience affirms that 5th grade learners are developmentally ready to construct central ideas independently, if they are provided with tools and opportunities to develop transdisciplinary skills and knowledge. This also affirms the importance of conceptual learning and vocabulary building in bilingual learners. The next steps are to address the barriers that my students identified and for the students to create a criteria for a ‘good’ central idea. These strategies would hopefully contribute to our readiness for our PYP Exhibition.

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