Friday, August 28, 2015

If You Only Do Three Things This September

By Ashley Coblentz and Jackie Moreno

The beginning of the fall is always hectic - teachers are frantically trying to finish bulletin boards, and parents are starting to pop into classrooms. In the midst of all this, the most essential systems of support are being established. There is a lot going on, but what are key steps that ESL and bilingual teachers can take early on that will make a difference for their students throughout the year?

Here are some ideas:

Make sure all teachers know about the language needs in their classrooms

One of the WIDA tools that we find the most helpful in the fall is the Can Do Name Chart. This chart is an at a glance resource that helps teachers better understand the language needs of students in the areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing. Share this valuable information with other teachers early on to help frame students from an asset-based perspective.

ESL and bilingual teachers are experts in differentiating lessons for ELLs, but in many schools students only work directly with these teachers for a small portion of their day or even week. If all teachers have a deeper understanding of what their students can do, it will have a greater impact on their daily instruction.

Be a central part of team meetings

Although working with small groups is very important, finding ways to co-plan and co-teach with other teachers can have an even bigger impact by helping make more content accessible to a wider range of language learners throughout the school day. ESL and bilingual teachers’ understanding of how students develop language is critical to their success, so make sure you have the chance to offer input and impact instruction during planning time.

Early on you can suggest to your team that collectively you might study your planning process and notice if the needs of ELLs are add-ons or if they are an integral part of how the team plans. From there you can have reflective conversations, make adjustments and set goals together as needed. Even though these conversations can feel a little uncomfortable at times, it is so much easier to have them in the fall from a proactive place then from a place of frustration later in the year. And of course, for the students the sooner this is in place, the better.

Place language learners in the center

When it comes to school-wide professional development, make sure that the needs of language learners are not an after-thought at your school. Be an advocate and ensure that the professional development prioritizes these needs.

For example, if your school is offering PD on technology, partner with the technology coach and focus on tools that serve as graphic, interactive or sensory supports for all students, but are particularly beneficial for ELLs.

The best part about the fall is that it is a fresh start for both students and teachers - take the opportunity to make this year the best yet!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Building Strong School Cultures

By Heather Jung

“The students in Miss Smith’s class always have test scores that are lower than the other teachers at her grade level.  It has been this way for 3 years,” complains a teacher.  “I’ve collected data on this and showed it to the principal, but he doesn’t do anything.  Our students need better teachers than Miss Smith.  She needs to go to a cupcake school or just quit being a teacher all together.’’
This is a scene that is repeated in schools across the country.   There are teachers who are struggling. Many of them work with our neediest students.  These teachers may struggle with classroom management, implementing best practices, or building community. The reasons teachers struggle are as different as the teachers themselves.  This often causes frustration among other teachers on their team, administrators, and teacher leaders.  

The struggling teachers themselves often feel isolated and attacked by their peers and their administrators.  They have reason to feel this way.  Often, the very teacher leaders that are supposed to be helping them are, instead, trying to get rid of them.  Sometimes, they do leave the profession or transfer to other schools where it is easier for them to hide, but more often a struggling teacher stays. They get frustrated, no longer seek to improve, and find other frustrated teachers to commiserate with.   Successful teachers begin to close their doors and disengage with struggling teachers.  Together these  groups create fragmented cultures within the school.   These fragmented cultures are bad for both the teachers and their students.  What can we do to break these negative subcultures in our schools?
We need to start by analyzing the overall school culture and the subcultures contained within it.  Within a school, there are often many competing subcultures some of which are moving the larger culture of the school forward and some that are holding it back.  
Every teacher is capable of teaching.  Teachers care about their students and want to help them, but they need the support of a collaborative culture to do so.  Teacher leaders need to take a critical look at the various subcultures that already exist within the school. Leaders should identify the subcultures that “fit preferred behaviors better or have a more positive influence on a desired vision”(Gruenert & Whitaker, 2015) .  Leaders should empower these positive subculture and encourage them to recruit others.
It is important for teacher leaders to think long term.  The negative elements in a school’s culture are not going to be revolutionized in an instant.  This can be frustrating, especially when you see at-risk students in classrooms where they are not getting all that they need.  Building a good teacher takes a long time, and so does building a strong, collaborative school culture.
Teachers in a  collaborative school culture have strong relationships with peers and students. They are highly reflexive in their practice, and actively seek to improve their teaching.  Building strong and supportive peer relationships is the first step.  Teachers will only listen to teacher leaders that they trust and respect. If a trusting, collaborative relationship  can be built between the struggling teachers and influential teachers in a positive school culture, then the struggling teachers will be more likely to reflect and improve.  
A new school year is the best time to begin building new relationships between teachers.  As you begin this school year, look at your school culture with a critical eye.  Which subcultures needed to be empowered?  How can you  strengthen them?  How can you recruit others to join them?
Works Cited
Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Using Visual Literacy to Engage ELLs

By Heather Jung
Teachers often struggle to assist ELLs in learning grade level content in Science and Social Studies.  The frustration of trying to teach content to students with limited English proficiency often cause teachers to either lower the standards for these students or engage them in meaningless, worksheet based activities.  Neither of these provides ELLs with adequate instructional opportunity.
Our ELLs do not need watered-down instruction; they need instruction that is both accessible and meaningful, and provides the same content knowledge as their grade level peers.  

So, how can we accomplish this?   One way is to use visual literacy to build student background knowledge prior to content instruction with grade level peers.  Access to prior knowledge builds confidence and leads to more risk taking behaviors.  These factors are critical for student success.  Using Visual Literacy to build prior knowledge allows students to construct meaning without experiencing the confusion they encounter when confronted with text. It also builds student fluency and functionality in this critical form of literacy.
We live in an increasingly visual world where the ability to both convey and decode ideas presented in images is increasingly important.  Using online resources such as: YouTube and Google Images, we can expose students to instructional  content visually.  This provides students with practice learning verbal meaning using visual literacy.  We can use the understanding created through visual literacy as a basis to build understanding and oral language around content.  Once understanding and oral language are secure, we can begin to link that understanding to the abstract world of communication through text.
For example, when I was teaching a group of ELLs in 2nd grade about thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, and floods in science, I showed them YouTube videos about each topic.  Then, I had them sort picture cards to sequence the events shown in the videos.  Only, after the students had worked with the information visually, did we begin to discuss the topic and build oral language around the content.  When the oral language was secure, the students were able to write about their understanding of weather.  All of this instruction occurred with my ELLs before the content was introduced to the general education population in the class.   As a result of having built strong prior knowledge for the ELLS students they were able to fully participate successfully in whole-group content instruction.  

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Changing the Conversation: Rethinking How We Talk About Students

By Ashley Coblentz and Jackie Moreno

Minimal. Basic. Low. Why are these words used to describe children who are anything but? Reporting on a narrow set of skills (primarily reading and math), by using numbers reflective of achievement rather than growth, can make teachers feel complicit in a system that overlooks many students’ interests, talents and growth. Of course academic achievement is an important priority. However, when it becomes the singular focus at the expense of the whole child or acknowledging academic growth, it is problematic.

After spending countless hours nurturing a student's self-image in the classroom, what ends up being communicated to the family and the community about academic achievement often causes stress or disappointment. Conversations can easily become centered on what needs to be fixed.

If we just focus on math and language arts scores, what conversations are we missing, and how does this inform students’ beliefs about themselves?

Students celebrating their learning with their families

There’s a constant balance to be found with being straightforward with students and their families about academic achievement, while simultaneously celebrating academic and personal growth.

Although teachers find ways to highlight the positive, we inevitably find many of the conversations focusing around areas of academic concerns. These conversations are essential. However, they become problematic when they are expressed through deficit centered language. 

How do we help kids connect with their strengths while being real about core academics?

When we reframe the way we talk about kids, we reframe the way we think about them. Let's not deliver the same idea in a “nicer way,” but push ourselves to keep each child in mind as a whole person rather than reducing them to conventional metrics. This a huge temptation because these metrics dominate current educational discourse.

A Shift
One of multiple ways our school community is shifting towards asset-based communication about students is through holding quarterly student showcases - letting kids speak for themselves!

A student sharing his e-portfolio in preparation for a showcase

At our last quarterly showcase, hundreds of family members went into classrooms to talk with students about their learning. Students shared multi-media projects, presentations and other examples of their growth. It was refreshing to hear conversations that included statements of pride from students and families, kids articulating what they’ve learned, and students celebrating each others’ learning.

During the student showcases, our bilingual students are given a platform to share their ability to communicate and create in two or more languages, as opposed to conventional report cards and conferences that systematically frame students in terms of language deficits.

Although this might sound simple, there is a lot of societal pull to move in the other direction - to focus on oversimplified metrics. Instead of reducing the stories of kids and schools to numbers and rankings, let’s move towards a more meaningful narrative.