Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famous American poet, once said, “The human voice is the organ of the soul.” As a teacher, this quote speaks to me and reminds me that one of my greatest responsibilities as an educator is to encourage all of my students to find their voices and learn how to use them. I also know, after having been in classrooms for over ten years, that this isn’t always an easy task.
While some students are eager to raise their hands and participate, others are happy to sit quietly and never say a word. This can be especially true of English learners, who are still learning a new language and may tremble in fear with the thought of making a mistake or embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates.
So what can we do as educators to ensure that all voices in our classrooms are heard?
Co-teaching has recently become a hot new buzzword in education; something at which veteran teachers might normally roll their eyes as they wait for the pendulum of best practices to swing back the other way.
After spending more than a decade serving English Language Learners, it’s a bandwagon that I’ve wholeheartedly jumped on. I’ve spent the last six years co-teaching my ELL students in a variety of settings — from self-contained and sheltered classrooms with push-in support, to a resource role where I pushed into several K-2 grade level classrooms.
My push-in support typically was scheduled during a balanced literacy block for an hour each day. As a resource teacher, I collaborated with my K-2 classroom teachers to provide literacy and language support during guided reading and Writer’s Workshop. As we became more comfortable as co-teaching partners, we expanded our work to include Problem Based Learning units in science and social studies, and technology integration with in-flipping and Google Tools.
Adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) calls for an increase of rigor for all students and the California English Language Development Standards (CA ELD Standards) provide guidance to ensure English learners have entry points into meaningful and intellectually challenging curricula. San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) serves approximately 57,000 English learners who make up about 25% of the student population. We believe English learners have the capacity to meet the expectations of the CCSS through instructional practices that provide intentional and strategic scaffolding and strategies that equip English learners with the skills to engage and communicate meaningfully and authentically.
In this new series, in partnership with San Francisco Unified School District, we step inside classrooms where teachers are using strategies to engage and support all learners, especially their English Language Learners (ELLs). In Part One of the series, we visit two elementary classrooms to see how teachers use the district’s recommended five essential practices to teach their students during designated English Language Development (ELD) time, as well as to integrate ELD into content. For more information on these practices, read Lisa Kwong’s blog post about the district’s ELL work.
A few days after the November election, I had a meeting with Angie Estonina and Lisa Kwong, two talented educators who lead professional learning efforts on ELLs for San Francisco Unified School District.
With our webcams on, the mood was a bit somber — the election talk of deportations, walls, and targeted registries hung in the air as the rhetoric suddenly became more real. In fact, it felt a bit suffocating. In education, we all have days when we feel weighed down by how much needs to be done and by our professional and personal puzzles, but the unknowns of impending political shift pushed on us from the sides, making us feel the squeeze of change.
I even started wondering if an upcoming presentation I was about to do in Canada on ELLs with school districts from Ontario/Montclair, California, and Yakima, Washington, was even relevant. In retrospect, it was incredibly sad to even think this. But this was my state of mind. It was easy to go there when the personal and professional intersects — my nine-year-old son who is of half Mexican descent asked if he was going to be deported. This was not a question I had at nine years old.
Like most teachers across America, I have students that are described as English Language Learners (ELLs). It seems an opportune time to raise awareness among educators about the state of flux in the demography of learners in our classrooms and to offer research-based principles and approaches for their education.
We’re looking for five teachers or instructional coaches who are interested in building their ELL content and instructional practice through collaboration on the Fab Five ELL Squadster team.
Teaching tips and instructional strategies flood teacher professional learning sites and blogs, responding to the continuous need to better engage students and improve instruction. There’s no doubt that teachers need many tools to take multiple approaches to get to a particular learning goal. But here’s something surprising: teachers are usually given very little time to dig deep and understand the impact of those strategies they spend so much time planning and implementing.
The core of our work at Mills Teacher Scholars is to focus teachers’ collaborative time on the question, “What is happening for students?” Teacher-led collaborative inquiry is the method that drives this question. While there are several components to inquiry work, perhaps the most overlooked is the effort to make student thinking and learning visible. Being able to “make student thinking visible” sounds easier than it is. Video is a fantastic tool for gathering this process data.
It may feel a little unusual to think that the more your students talk in class, the more they might learn. But that is just what we, researchers and professors at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, have found to be true. Constructive conversation and meaningful interaction throughout a lesson not only develop students’ crucial communication skills, but also give them a richer understanding of the content.
Although new education standards in college and career readiness highlight collaboration and communication as critical skills, this type of peer-to-peer interaction is actually quite rare in the classroom. While common activities such as whole class discussions, jigsaws, and think-pair-shares can produce the appearance of constructive interactions, they often don’t provide enough substantial opportunities for students to engage in back-and-forth dialog, especially for ESL students.
So what can we do to make sure our students are getting the opportunities to learn deeply about a specific topic AND hone their communication skills?
Editor’s Note: Oakland Unified School District’s ongoing partnership with Teaching Channel has involved producing videos, building capacity on Teaching Channel Teams, and creating interactive video for #TchVideoLounge.
Recently, the Oakland Unified School District partnered with Teaching Channel to launch a three-part video series on Engaging ELLs in Academic Conversations. We were at the beginning stages of using classroom discussion as a district-wide strategy to more explicitly integrate language development into content area instruction.
A little over a year later, our learning continues! Oakland teachers are still hard at work, exploring the ways they can best support both language development and content understanding through whole-group and peer discussions. We know from research that language learners need regular opportunities to rehearse new language and apply it in authentic contexts. We also know that teachers need to be intentional about engaging all students, especially our ELLs, so that no one can hide and everyone can experience success. And anyone who has spent time in the classroom knows fostering authentic conversation among ELLs is no easy task.
In this new series, we visit or revisit Oakland elementary and high school teachers taking on the challenge of integrating language instruction for their ELLs in content instruction. You’ll see them trying new strategies, fine tuning old ones, and reflecting on student learning to hone their craft.