Wednesday, April 27, 2016

EL Methods on Location (Part 4)

Immersion versus bilingual language learning methods can be a difficult call to make for parents and administrators.  The elementary I observed in this district offers bilingual up to 3rd grade.  Then in 3rd grade students go to English classrooms with EL supports.  According to the district coordinator, schools may approach language learning in one of two ways.  In what they call their bilingual education program, the class is taught in both the first language and the target language.  Over time, the first language usage is decreased while the target language is increased.  In a dual language program, classes are taught 50/50 in the first and second language.

Unfortunately, some students may not have strong literacy at home in their first language, which means bilingual methods would not work well for them.  If students do not have a strong literacy background in their first language, they will struggle learning another language, and some students may come from extremely diverse backgrounds, as Rubinstein-Ávila (2003) showed in a snapshot of three EL students.

In the first-second combined classroom, Ms. Carmen* shared that she used whole brain teaching, a multisensory approach that involved the mind and body.  Teaching grades one and two allowed her to see students for two years, which helped her determine if language learning difficulties were developmental or indicative of a learning disability.  

At the beginning of the day, Ms. Carmen displayed a Spanish paragraph on the smart board and asked students to find three new words.  Students then added these Spanish words with their English equivalents to their vocabulary list.  The paragraph she displayed provided directions for the remainder of the morning.  Further, she pointed to a list of phrases in everyday English and asked students to practice the accompanying phrases in academic language. These included phrases about respectfully disagreeing with someone else’s point-of-view.  Collier (2008) listed strategies teachers could use to help ELLs access academic language.  Up to grade 4, students are learning to read, but older students begin to show gaps in understanding because instruction changes to reading to learn.  As Ms. Carmen demonstrated during my observation, small group instruction is important.  And, as Collier emphasized, using academic language verbally is more important than worksheets or other forms of vocabulary instruction.

After leaving Ms. Carmen's room, I was able to see the many hats of Ms. Lapiz, one of the EL teachers.  This day, Ms. Lapiz worked with a second grade student from China who had been in the school for only three weeks.  They played a matching game.  Erica counted as she laid out the cards with the color names.  As each card was turned over, she read the card aloud.  Ms. Lapiz reminded her to “use your words.”  Erica smiled with each match she made.  At the end of the game she counted the matches aloud.  She had six and Ms. Lapiz had four.  Stewart (2010) stated the importance of feedback, especially the type of positive feedback Ms. Lapiz constantly gave Erica:
Positive feedback can be empowering for students who lack confidence in the subject
matter. By giving them such feedback, ELL students may be motivated to put forth more effort, which will produce a higher quality of work, greater self-confidence, greater learning and then even more deserved positive feedback in a continuous loop. (p. 5)
I followed Ms. Lapiz to a 5th grade math classroom.  They were working on perimeter of a rectangle.  Ms. Lapiz circulated the room.  With some hand gestures, she communicated with a student.  She stopped to work with two students at a table group in the front of the room.  When the teacher directed students to work with partners, I noted how Ms. Lapiz facilitated students' learning:
Ms. Lapiz continued to circulate and occasionally paused to check student work.
“Use your resources,” the teacher said.
Ms. Lapiz knelt by another student to guide work.
A student asked the teacher a question.  She responded, “Where can I start to help you?”
Ms. Lapiz worked with a student.
The teacher circulated the room.  Students explained their answers and she asked, "Why?”  They explained further.
Ms. Lapiz worked with other students at a table.
The teacher said, “Prove it.”
Ms. Lapiz moved to another student.  I heard her say, “Yes, but how?”
Fenner (2013) said, “ESL teachers can play a critical role in helping content teachers analyze the academic language demands of their content areas, design lessons that teach academic language and content simultaneously, and implement CCSS-based instruction for ELs” (p. 9).  Ms. Lapiz and Ms. Carmen showed how they supported the youngest students in the district.  What I discovered was that this level of commitment to collaborating, co-teaching, and instructing with EL students' needs at the center continued throughout the grades but presented itself in slightly different ways.

Rance-Roney, J. (2008) discussed the importance of establishing a classroom community inclusive of everyone in the classroom.  Such communities in EL classrooms are developed by teachers who work together.  Ms. Lyons, a middle school language arts teacher, stated it best when she responded to my observation follow-up email: 
I love co-teaching. It can be so much fun! It is like a good marriage. You have to work at it, and both partners have strengths and areas of growth. I like the people I am co-teaching to be equal to me. It helps to share the chalk when you are on the same page and can plan together. Everyone brings something to the table. Sometimes it takes time to develop the relationship, especially trust. It improves over time. The outcome for kids is amazing, especially when it is effective. I love teaching with [my EL teacher]. She jumps right in and is a great resource. Her enthusiasm and her focus on them as people is inspiring. She truly honors what they say and do.
Honoring students.  When honoring students is at the heart of their professional learning, instruction, collaboration, and reflection, educators wearing any hat in the school show teaching as more than just a job.  

*All names are pseudonyms

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

English Language Learners: Learning beyond Professional Development (Part 3)

In my English Learner/Bilingual Methods independent study course I wanted to experience different types of learning experiences.  An Illinois Writing Project in-service day offered two sessions on EL strategies for writing, one in K-5 and the other in 6-12.  This was my first introduction to practical strategies to use with students in the classroom.  During another Writing Project event seven weeks later, I had the opportunity to revisit EL professional learning with the same presenter.  Although some of the content overlapped, the professional development presenter, Melissa*, adapted the strategies and activities to the grade levels during the in-service day and expanded the discussion of standards and assessment during the later session.

Melissa began our in-service sessions with Six-Word Memoirs.  As we tried to introduce ourselves with so few words, we were called upon to succinctly capture the essence of who we are and what we love.  In the morning I wrote this memoir: Wiser for learning words, children, faith.  In the afternoon, I tried my hand at gerunds to describe me: Reading, loving, learning, sharing, teaching, creating.  Other people wrote about children and outside interests, but I do not seem to be that creative.  NPR has a series on Six-Word Memoirs, but teachers must be careful when sharing random selections with students because of possible adult content.  Writing these memoirs shows that words have power in and of themselves without being connected to one another in sentences or paragraphs.  Melissa continued by saying that this activity could be modified with photos, word cards, and sentence frames, which are all appropriate modifications for language learners.

Importantly, teachers must consider two objectives with every lesson: language and content.  To meet these objectives, Melissa urges her district teachers to plan for reading, writing, speaking, and listening in every class.  In our PD sessions, we considered these questions:
How do writing-to-learn and academic conversations shape learning?
What compels me to read and write?
How can we support EL students?
Finding out English language proficiency levels are of primary importance.  English learner development is measured in six levels:
1. Newcomer
2. Emerging—knows and understands phrases
3. Developing—conversational understanding with lots of fillers
4. Expanding—academic language and knowledge of idioms developing
5. Bridging—students may exit the program but still need supports, especially with writing
6. Reaching—fluency
In the morning in-service session, I was first introduced to the language assessments created by WIDA that provide scores for English learners to indicate proficiency levels.  In Illinois, students may be exited from the EL program if they score a composite of 5.0 in writing and 4.2 in reading and math, which are both still at the expanding and bridging levels.  It is important to know what students’ current levels are in order to understand what supports they might need.  The WIDA website provides detailed information including Can Do Statements, helpful for determining the appropriate expectations teacher should have for students at different levels of proficiency.

Melissa cited John Hattie's meta-analysis intended to illuminate the most effective classroom strategies.  The following strategies were noted to have the largest effect sizes and can be adapted to benefit English language learners:
1. Clarity is intentional and purposeful. Teachers know the objectives for language and content and can articulately communicate those objectives to the students.  Teachers must ask, “Do students know what they need to do?”
2.  Lessons include guided, collaborative, and independent tasks.
3.  Tasks are meaningful and engaging.
4. Students can explain the purpose of the lesson and the tasks they are asked to do.
5. Teachers are authentic models.  In language arts and other classrooms, this means that teachers write.
6. Students apply strategies explicitly taught to them.
Melissa also led us in Jeff Anderson’s Power Writing activity, which is a timed writing based on words or images and sets a baseline for writing fluency and endurance.  Power writing is typically completed three times for a minute or two each time.  What is interesting is that often the second timed writing has the largest word count.  For this activity, Melissa used two unrelated pictures, but this activity could use pairs of words or phrases.  When we completed two timed writings on our picture choice, I noticed that the first image related to a memory, so I was immediately able to write.  This prompted me to consider that pictures could be content or academic related or culture related or family, etc depending on the purpose for the classroom writing activity.  These timed writings could also be included in the writer’s notebook and used for seeds for future writing opportunities (see Buckner, 2005 for more writer's notebook ideas).  Capturing writing in this way would allow students opportunities to return to their ideas and expand them.  One strategy would be to use short, timed writings at the beginning of a unit and then at the end of a unit to compare the quantity and/or quality of the writing or words.

But no matter how much knowledge and training teachers have, classrooms pose daily challenges and learning opportunities.  In last week's PD event, Melissa shared that she and a 7th grade language arts teacher have been conducting a study to document the supports students need at different proficiency levels.  For the most recent writing assignment, students were to use a folktale model and write their own "fractured" fairytale/folktale story.  However, she and the language arts teacher recognized late in the unit that they had left out some essential scaffolding.  The English learner students did not have a solid understanding of narrative structure, a cornerstone of successfully completing the writing assignment.  For example, one student had worked diligently on his piece for two weeks, but when he shared with the class, his onomatopoeias, simple sentences, and fragments lacked the essential narrative storytelling quality.  The bigger insight she shared with us that evening was that the safe classroom environment allowed this student to share his work without fear of judgment.  This student knew his writing would be received positively, and he would gain constructive feedback from his peers.

Feeling safe.  Some weeks ago, I attended an informational program about the refugee experience.  Later I learned from Melissa that if a school has twenty or more students who speak the same language, districts must provide a devoted EL teacher resource for them.  With the influx of immigrants, particularly refugees, in different areas around Chicago and the suburbs, this mandate has put a strain on several schools working to stay in compliance with the state.  And for some immigrants there may not be a choice of where or when, which is what I learned during a "walk-in-a-refugee's-shoes" activity during the refugee experience program.  As my semester progressed, my coursework was complicating my thinking in unexpected ways about what it meant to teach in diverse classrooms.  My next step would be to visit some.

Suggested resources:
Maria Nichols (2006) Comprehension through Conversation can be a cornerstone for early to mid elementary instruction.
Peter Johnston (2004) encourages teachers to speak to students in the language of literacy.  If we call students writers then they will become writers.
Stephanie Harvey and Ann Gouva’s Reading the World video series can be helpful for exploring culture; however, Amazon only lists the VHS version.
Zwiers and Crawford (2011) Academic Conversations.

*All names are pseudonyms.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Teacher's (Re)certification Journey: English Learner Standards, Common Core, and Resources (Part 2)

The new Common Core State Standards for English language arts (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) ushered in new perspectives on literacy in the classroom.  I embraced these standards when I designed a literacy workshop that supplemented the language arts curriculum.  With additional time, students could experience books through small group discussions and projects and essential questions around relevant middle school ideas such as the First Amendment.  Yet, students needed to experience literacy throughout their school day instead of in designated writing classes.  I commented on this concern in my dissertation:
The Common Core State Standards Initiative (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2010), approved in forty-three states, addresses the implementation of literacy standards in all content areas.  Applebee and Langer (2009) wrote extensively of the state of writing instruction and cautioned that the long avoidance of writing in the content areas pre-twentieth century would make it difficult for educators to re-incorporate writing in the curriculum.  Nearly ten years later, writing accountability creates an urgency barely noticeable before, even though researchers have discussed the need for effective literacy strategy implementation for years. With the public reporting of achievement scores, schools vie in a competitive slap-down for prime spots at the top. (Vujaklija, 2016)
Expanding and increasing literacy in the content areas has become both a blessing and a curse.  Students are writing and reading more types of text than ever before.  Unfortunately, with so much pressure, content teachers hesitate to make modifications because CCSS standards require written text unlike many modifications for English learners that include visual supports.  These problems are real for EL teachers like Ms. Castle* who works to support her students both in the content-area classrooms and her level 1 and level 2 English classes.  She explained that recall ranks low on a Depth of Knowledge chart, but for an English language learner, recall ranks very high.  DOK and EL learning do not always equate, which complicates content-area learning for English learners.

Three pieces have come into play to address these challenges: WIDA consortium, TESOL Teacher Standards (revised in 2009), and TESOL Common Core resources for English learners.  These pieces form three sides of the EL triangle to include resources for students (and for teachers to meet students' needs), expectations for the EL teacher in response to cultural differences, and the supports EL teachers need in order to meet the demands of the Common Core. 

According to WIDA’s website: “Everything WIDA does revolves around the significance of academic language and how to empower language learners to reach for success.”  In fact, the WIDA website overwhelmed me with its resources on standards and instruction, assessment, professional learning, and research.  The same might very well be true for veteran teachers similarly overwhelmed with bridging new literacy standards to EL teacher standards, as well as best classroom practices for students.  During a professional development session I attended recently, one second grade teacher shared that her EL teacher collaborator did not access the WIDA resources and wondered why.  I would venture to say that although the resources are outstanding, when layered with the Common Core State Standards and the EL Teacher Standards, she may just be overwhelmed. 

The TESOL Teacher Standards identify culture as an integral component for English learners.  The document states: "Teachers of English language learners (ELLs) in the United States need to have knowledge of other cultures and know how culture may affect the acculturation of immigrants or children of immigrants in the United States. They also need to know how acculturation may be in conflict with typical U.S. educational patterns” (p. 6).  These teacher standards advocate for "constructivist pedagogy" (p. 10) with meaningful connections and considerations to students' home cultures.  Importantly, teachers must view students as having funds of knowledge as contributors to the classroom.  Resources such as this edition of The Magazine of the National Association for Bilingual Education offer inspiration and guidance.

The TESOL Common Core document stated that "ESL teachers can play a critical role in helping content teachers analyze the academic language demands of their content areas, design lessons that teach academic language and content simultaneously, and implement CCSS-based instruction for ELs” (p. 9).  The rigorous new demands for essential content-area as well as college and career-ready vocabulary places the ESL teacher’s vocabulary instruction training at a particular advantage to the content-area teacher.  Unfortunately, the document also included a personal reflection from one EL teacher who remarked that her co-teachers were surprised she was attending a Common Core training with them.  It is unnerving that anyone would be seen as not needed in a conversation about educational standards and the implementation of best instructional practices in and outside the classroom.  

The TESOL recommendations were typical of most professional development descriptions--CCSS training for ESL teachers needs to be practical and integrated with what is already being done within the classroom.  Without authenticity and a means for engaging teachers, professional development falls short of its intended goal to impact instructional practices.  The sessions I attended seemed primed for immediate classroom impact, which is the next step in this teacher's journey.

*All names are pseudonyms

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Crossing State Lines: Correcting EL/Bilingual Methods Deficiencies for Teacher Certification (Part 1)

When we first decided to move from Kentucky to Illinois, I sought out guidelines for becoming certified to teach middle and secondary language arts.  In whatever way our new adventure developed, I wanted to be prepared.  Many university teacher education programs require certification in their states, further catalyzing my push for an Illinois teacher license. 

Kentucky requires tests called the PRAXIS that assess teacher candidates in content areas and teaching knowledge, which I passed in 2003 before being hired as a middle school language arts teacher.  However, Illinois required another round of tests, which I paid to take last fall and passed, and which removed some of the "deficiencies" (yes, this is what Illinois calls them), moving me toward full certification--but not completely.  Throughout my teacher education graduate program and later doctoral studies, nowhere did I have coursework specifically focused on English language learning or bilingual methods.  Therefore, my dissertation adviser and I worked out a plan for me to design an independent study to include different types of observation hours (professional development sessions, classroom observations, and interviews) and various readings (English learner teacher standards, research articles, proven strategies, and critical literacy texts). 

At the end of my dissertation journey and having been certified to teach in Kentucky for so many years, I was more than slightly annoyed at having to complete these requirements (pay for tests, pay for another graduate course) but chose to see the potential positives of this last "deficiency."  The positives did, indeed, come to light as I found readings and field locations to support my English language learner/bilingual methods curriculum.  Through texts such as O'Donnell-Allen and Garcia's (2015) Pose, Wobble, Flow and Al-Saraj's (2015) The Anxious Language Learner, I realized there was more to an English language learner methods course than best classroom practices and time-proven strategies.  I learned to shift my mindset to look at cultural and motivational components of learning English.

After gathering reading material, I volunteered to help the Illinois Writing Project with an in-service day at a nearby district.   By serendipitous fortune, I met Stacie who was a director for the English Learner/Bilingual program in a northern district.  She presented a professional development session on K-5 EL in the morning and 6-12 EL in the afternoon.  I attended both.  Her presentations and classroom strategies for meeting the various needs of English learners prompted me to request observation time in her district elementary, middle, and secondary schools.  And that is where real learning began.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Career Crossroads with a Ph.D.

When I started the Ph.D. program nearly five years ago it was because I needed to know about literacy instruction, how it affected my middle school students, and how to do it better.  Fast forward four and a half years and see how the direction has shifted ever so slightly.  But a few degrees on the compass changes everything.

My dissertation, successfully defended on March 28, 2016, documented a narrative inquiry study about planning professional development.  Interest in literacy instruction and student motivation led to studying those topics, but this interest also led to presenting at conferences, co-facilitating institutes, and planning large-scale professional development to be implemented across the country.  My friend and colleague in the National Writing Project who I worked with in the most recent planning adventure has often said that teaching her high school students fills her.  That is partially true of me, too.  But more so, being with other teachers as we plan, work through school demands, and become smarter together fills me.

Knowing I belong in a professional development or adult-learning career, I have applied to various universities within the metro area.  I also keep my eyes open for curriculum positions.  So today I come to a crossroads in my career.  As I consider my family and the ages of my children, the idea of commuting to a university in downtown Chicago makes me queasy.  I continue to apply for positions at these institutions of higher learning because I am passionate about teaching pre- and in-service teachers.  However, commuting to satellite campuses and teaching online courses are my best family-friendly options.  Unfortunately, a newly-minted Ph.D. cannot (or should not?) make demands such as these.

Nervous and scared of the unknown, I began applying to the local school districts when junior high language arts position openings started appearing.  After teaching 8th grade in Kentucky for ten years, this feels safe to me.  No matter what I tell myself about needing some Illinois classroom experience or getting known in a school district, it is safe. Period.  My whole family would continue comfortably within my comfort zone (and theirs, too) if I return to the middle school/junior high classroom.

A few degrees on my compass has changed my direction and now I'm facing risks, a scary unknown.  I realize now that I should embrace the words spoken by the director of national programs at the National Writing Project during our recent initiative:
You know it's scary but you keep having these experiences where you walk up to that scariness and then you do it and then you're on the other side of it and you realize you can do things you didn't know you could do.
Am I ready to walk up this new pathway?  Is my family ready for the scariness of possible commutes, irregular hours, unpredictable pay?

It's time to decide.  My next interview is in just a few hours and I need to prepare my answer if offered a position.