Hernandez teaches a bilingual class of 4th- and 5th-grade special education students at PS 257 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Using an instructional method called reciprocal teaching, Hernandez has empowered each one of her 15 students to act as an educator.
“Instead of the teacher having control of the class, it’s child-guided instruction,” Hernandez says. “When they interact with one another, ask questions and have conversations, that’s when they’re learning.”
Reciprocal teaching encompasses four reading comprehension strategies: predicting, questioning, clarifying and summarizing. For the first few months of the school year, Hernandez spends a lot of time modeling the strategies and working alongside her students to practice each one while reading nonfiction texts together.
Then, while working in groups of four, Hernandez’s students begin to take on each of the strategies themselves. As they read, they pause at regular intervals to have conversations about the text; each student is responsible for a particular role. One student makes predictions; another asks questions; a third clarifies unfamiliar words; and the final student summarizes the text after reading.
“I get great satisfaction when that happens because it’s like building a masterpiece and seeing it at work,” Hernandez says. “At first, I intervene and guide them. I listen to them and know they’re asking the right questions. Once they get it, the sky’s the limit.”
Her students are all English language learners with various learning disabilities. PS 257 is the only school in District 14 with a bilingual, special education program, according to Chapter Leader Lisa Berman.
“Ms. Hernandez is really good at modelling for her students and gaining their trust and confidence, which is essential in their case,” says Berman. “She builds their self-esteem and gives them the tools they need to be able to help each other in the classroom.”Hernandez, who has been teaching at PS 257 for more than 20 years, is a vibrant, animated presence in the classroom. She refers to her students as “my babies” and doles out smiles and high-fives with generosity. During a recent reading lesson on Jean Craighead George’s book “The Buffalo are Back” — about the history of bison on the American plains — she deftly dropped in key elements of reciprocal teaching while students hung on her every word.
“When I come to a word I don’t understand, clarifying is one of the jobs of reciprocal teaching,” she reminded students. “How do I clarify?”
Students eagerly offered suggestions: Reread the word. Break it into syllables. If that doesn’t work, ask a friend — or the “clarifier” in the group.
“The teacher is your last resort,” Hernandez said. “We want to be independent.”
Minutes later, Hernandez asked students to “take out their prediction balls and put their prediction hats on.” As they studied an illustration of farmers fleeing swarms of grasshoppers, the room was abuzz with conversation.
“We’re making a guess about what will happen before we get into reading, because that will help us understand more information,” said Shely.
“When I make a prediction, I base my prediction on the picture and the small paragraphs,” shared Selenny.
After the class read a page together, students broke into groups of different skill levels to continue reading. Armed with bookmarks that reminded them of their roles, they took notes on Post-its as they read.
“What does ‘naturalist’ mean?” read one Post-it from a questioner.
“Theodore Roosevelt saved the buffalo by making the people stop shooting at them,” read a summarizer’s Post-it.
After each paragraph, students paused to discuss their thoughts with one another, directed by a student leader. Hernandez listened in on the more independent group, reminding the students, “I want to hear rich conversations.” Paraprofessional Maria Rodriguez gently guided the group of struggling readers.
The students were doing more than merely using the four strategies. They were speaking respectfully to one another, listening actively and genuinely engaging with the material.
“With reciprocal teaching, they get to form their own opinions,” Rodriguez says. “They learn from fellow students instead of a teacher talking all the time. They become mini teachers.”
After reading and discussion, the class regrouped and students took turns sharing their ideas.
“It builds their self-esteem and confidence,” Hernandez says of this approach. “Children who are afraid of speaking in front of a group become very comfortable doing it with their classmates. They feel valuable, respected and smart.”
As a result, Hernandez frequently turns over instructional responsibilities to enthusiastic students.
“By Wednesday of each week, I assign someone to do the mini lesson,” she says.
Students agreed that the approach has helped them learn.
“We try harder because we work as a team to understand,” said Arianna.
“You understand more because it’s your friends telling you something,” said Shely. “It’s actually fun being a teacher.”