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