Dr. Sally Nathenson-Mejía is an Associate Professor in the Literacy, Language and Culturally Responsive Teaching program at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education & Human Development. Her research in secondary education for English learners is conducted in collaboration with a team of professors and educators working on two National Professional Development grants. Her research in the field of K-5 English learners’ literacy development is conducted in collaboration with teachers and administrators in the Denver metropolitan area. Dr. Nathenson-Mejia is co-author, with Dr. Maria Uribe, of the book Literacy Essentials for English Language Learners (2008). Together they are researching building-wide literacy initiatives for schools with high English learner populations. She presents and does workshops nationally on K-5 English learners’ literacy development and instructional implications.
In this space, over the past several months, educators have discussed how we must attend to the needs of English language learners and to the professional development models we are using to build capacity among teachers for working with ELL students. I would like to build on the ideas and knowledge of previous contributors by discussing efforts we are making at the University of Colorado Denver to address both of these concerns.
What is the relationship between Professional Development and student engagement/achievement?
“…students’ achievement will not improve unless and until we create schools and districts where all educators are learning how to significantly improve their skills as teachers and as instructional leaders” (Wagner et al, 2006, pg. 23).
As university faculty who specialize in teaching English learners and providing professional development for teachers, we get excited about the prospect of working with districts to help all educators improve. We want to be involved with school administrators and teachers as they find ways to impact the engagement and achievement of ELL students. It is this excitement that led us to the work we are doing with two Colorado districts that have high populations of English learners.
We are a team of professors and instructors from the university working on a large scale PD initiative with teachers in the Denver metropolitan area who have English language learners as their students. From the university, Ruth Brancard, Mark Clarke, Alan Davis, Jennifer QuinnWilliams, Barbara Vaille and I head a group of experienced, qualified district instructors and coaches. The professional development we provide includes courses on effective teaching and assessment practices for English Language Learners, learning labs designed to address the specific needs of particular schools, and coaching that is designed to address the specific needs of particular teachers. We also work with teachers and administrators on building leadership efforts grounded in data-based decision making. We have long term relationships with two districts and nine secondary schools in these districts in order to have as much impact as we can over the course of five years (two National Professional Development grants support our work).
To give a sense of the work we are doing, here is a quick snapshot of our activities.
1. We are providing the English Language Acquisition (ELA) training for Denver Public Schools:
• Four courses every semester (including summers) on instruction for English learners taught to 400+ Denver Public School teachers
• 2-4 sections of each course each semester
• A cadre of 30 instructors (most from DPS) who teach the courses in online/face-to-face (hybrid) format
• 4 lead instructors from university faculty who teach, organize and oversee the courses
2. We are working with five secondary schools in DPS and four high schools in the New America Schools district to provide further PD on instruction and assessment for English learners:
• District instructors, coaches and university team members conduct Learning Labs with teachers in the building
• District instructors, coaches and university team members provide coaching for teachers in the building
• University team members work with school administration to plan professional development for the building
• Additional coursework is provided to teachers beyond the four ELA training courses
Just as important as all of this professional development for teachers, perhaps even more important, is the fact that the entire team of university and district professors, instructors and coaches see ourselves as learners in this process as well. We meet regularly to discuss the issues, questions, theories and practicalities of what we are doing and why we are doing it. We take Wagner’s call to significantly improve our skills as teachers one step further, to continually improve our skills as learners, along with the teachers and students we serve.
We don’t have all the answers but we are working on addressing the questions
Over the first two years of our project we have learned about the importance of creating relationships with teachers, administrators and district personnel, the importance of consistent communication between districts/schools and particular individuals on our team, and how important it is for us, as university faculty, to not take for granted our place in the lives of the district, administrators and teachers.
We have also learned that it is not enough to have high quality courses, highly qualified instructors and coaches, and well thought out professional development plans. We need to have a core understanding among all the players, an understanding about what is at the heart of our efforts, what is important to us about teaching and learning. To this end we have worked with our team of instructors and coaches to identify what is at the heart of our work. The following belief about what is important in teaching and learning guides our practice: Learning is dynamic, defined as change over time through engagement in activity, and thus involves engagement, relevance, rigor, and respectful relationships (Clarke, 2003, 2007; Wagner et al, 2006; Lave & Wenger, 1991).
We have also found that this set of beliefs needs to translate directly to the work we are doing with ELL students, in other words, the orientation we use towards our own work and our work with teachers should be the same orientation that teachers use when working with ELL students. We are learning to keep these beliefs in mind as we create and negotiate professional development experiences and encourage teachers to keep them in mind as they create educational experiences in their classrooms.
For example, we are currently having a discussion with the teachers in one school about grading, evaluation and high expectations. A common mantra heard in regard to education for ELL students is, “High expectations for all students.” But what does this mean? Should high expectations be the same for newcomer English learners and long-term English learners? Should we be looking for the same outcomes on the same time line as native English speakers? The secondary (7-12th grades) population of English learners in this school includes newcomers who have literacy backgrounds in their native language and may even be proficient in two or more languages before they come to English. At the same time, in the same school and even in the same classrooms, teachers will have students who have very little education, are not literate in their native languages and come from families with little literacy background. What should the high expectations be in these classrooms and what is the appropriate timeline for reaching those expectations (Uribe & Nathenson-Mejia, 2008)? How can we use our set of beliefs to help us work through this issue in ways that serve the students well?
Teachers and professors alike must grapple with what individualizing instruction means for their students. The need to clarify and address high expectations applies to the professional development activities we provide for teachers as well. The teachers we work with have a wide range of experience and background in working with ELL students. In some schools we are working with brand new teachers who are still working on their initial licenses. They have little experience working with students at all and sometimes no experience working with English learners. At the same time, and often in the same school, we have teachers with years of experience teaching and working with English learners. What should the high expectations be for all these teachers and what is the appropriate timeline for reaching those expectations? How can we, as a learning community, use our set of beliefs to help us work through this issue in ways that serve the teachers and the students well?
What are we doing to incorporate these ideas in our own work?
One of the challenges university faculty face when we are asked to provide PD to districts is building collegial relationships among teachers, administrators and other school personnel. We need to negotiate our interactions with teachers in ways that are perceived by the teachers as facilitating their work rather than adding to it, and elevating their status rather than diminishing it. We also want them to perceive us as an integral part of their learning community
To that end, we spend time on a regular basis, as a learning community (professors, instructors, coaches, teachers), discussing what our set of beliefs mean for all of us (including students). We have found some guidelines to help us:
• Engagement: People learn when they are engaged in meaningful activity.
• Relevance: People learn best when activities start where they are, when they have goals for learning, when they are given a choice and are in control of their learning.
• Rigor: Learning happens in an environment that is emotionally, academically and socially challenging. People learn when they are supported to perform at a higher level than they can sustain on their own.
• Respectful Relationships: People learn when they feel valued, when relationships are nurtured, when they feel safe. People learn within a social network.
• Learning is dynamic: We can’t control what is learned, we can only create an environment for learning to occur. Neither language nor content is an end in itself; both are interdependent vehicles and tools.
Here are some questions we keep asking ourselves:
– How do we continually work on building respectful relationships with the teachers we are working with?
– How do we guide teachers’ thinking about specific decisions they make and help them look for evidence of these principles in their decisions?
– As we look at our instructors, coaches and teachers as models of teaching and learning, what do we take as evidence that our efforts are making a difference for English learners? Can we use our beliefs as criteria of effective teaching and learning?
Becoming Professional Learners
As university faculty we sometimes refer to ourselves as “professional educators,” but perhaps we should be thinking of ourselves as “professional learners” instead. We must keep asking the questions that get us closer to the real reason we are here, improving student engagement and achievement. We must keep talking with teachers and students, learning to see the world of education through their eyes. Maybe the key to the relationship between Professional Development and K-12 ELL students can be found in our ability to ask questions and be professional learners.
Clarke, M. A. (2003). A place to stand: Essays for educators in troubled times. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Clarke, M. A. (2007). Common ground, contested territory: English language teaching in troubled times. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Lave, J. and E. Wenger (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Uribe, M., Nathenson-Mejia, S. (2008). Literacy essentials for English language learners: Successful transitions. New York: Teachers College Press.
Wagner, T., R. Kegan, et al. (2006). Change leadership: A practical guide to transforming our schools. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.