As I was reflecting on what the theme of this blogsite should be, I could not help but remember what Elizabeth Reveiz, a trusted colleague and Director of ESL and Bilingual Programs in East Hampton Schools, NY, said to me recently: “Andrea, you keep it real.”
Although I have been a professor of education at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, NY for 15 years and published 15 books (15 seems to be the number of the day), I have never forgotten, nor have I allowed myself to become removed from, the realities of the classroom. When I work with preservice teachers in the Division of Education at Molloy, offer professional development in local school districts on Long Island, visit classrooms to coach ESL or general education teachers on best practices for ELLs, or travel around the country and deliver keynote speeches, my formal presentations and informal conversations with educators are interlaced with real, authentic experiences in the classroom. But what I also hope she meant is that I keep my integrity and speak the truth about the challenges and rewards of working with ELLs.
So I decided to dedicate this blog to keeping it real. I will be posting from time to time on my experiences with preservice and inservice teachers, administrators and instructional coaches and leaders whose daily work is devoted to a unique, ever-growing population: English learners. I will focus on how teachers collaborate, how they innovate and use new tools and approaches, how they keep ELLs (and themselves) to high expectations, and how their school and district leaders support them. I will share what English learners can do and will do when they are nurtured and supported in an equitable, inclusive learning environment,
I will be sharing stories of when we succeed and when we fail (interpreted only as “first attempt in learning”)–and anything in between–to reach and best engage ELLs in learning and growing academically, socially, and linguistically.
I will also invite colleagues and fellow bloggers to share their realities about working with ELLs and their teachers.
My most recent reality is also a most uplifting one: I was invited to offer a short co-keynote in Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) in Maryland with Dr. Maria G. Dove to kick off their ELL Summit. The room was overflowing with close to 200 educators; you could feel some unusual, positive energy the moment you walked in and hear a different kind of buzz at every table, suggesting eagerness and readiness: we must talk about ELLs and we must do it now even though the population is still relatively small.
This was not a typical PD day; it was not a series of workshop with PowerPoints and with speakers and presenters (well, after we were done… ). Instead, educators—teachers, paraprofessionals, leaders and administrators from all departments were invited to have a dialogue: spend a day working in think tanks, exploring critical questions based on their own expertise, and establishing a clear direction for the district when it comes to working with ELLs.
In preparation for the day, Larry D. Steinly, Supervisor of ELL programs explained to us the following:
The focus of the January 15th ELL Summit here will be to encourage the spirit of collaboration and the benefits of that effort not just in the classroom, but also in curriculum committees, parent-teacher conferences, administrative functions, counseling efforts, and so on. Our system is at the point at which the ELL Office simply cannot continue closing achievement gaps, communication gaps, etc. on its own. We are hoping that this summit is the beginning of a more collaborative era for the sake of our ELL students and their families.
We were excited to learn that following our brief appearance, participants were to break into “challenge groups” to brainstorm and problem solve specific challenges that the district experiences throughout the system. As Larry shared, here are a few of those challenges:
•How can we enhance collaboration among all staff members to provide seamless support to our ELL student population?
•What are the research-based instructional practices need to support our ELLs at the elementary, middle, and high school levels?
•Besides many of the obvious instructional support that our ELLs need, they bring many other unique circumstances with them. How do we begin to meet those needs?
•What supports need to be in place to help ELLs transition fully and successfully into mainstream classes after they exit from the ELL program?
•Transitioning to the Common Core Standards can be challenging for all of us. How do we go about bridging the gap for English language learners to meet those standards?
•What are the barriers and bridges to literacy in a second language? What are the distinct implications for ELs?
•FCPS understands that families need to be involved in the education of their children. How do we increase ELL parent awareness and involvement in the our schools?
•Too many ELL students dropout. What can we do as a system to address this pressing need and to increase the graduation rate of this group thereby ultimately helping our community?
Since that day in January 2015, FCPS represents a new reality to me and a lot of what ifs:
• What if all school districts made ELLs their priority, no matter how small or how large the population is?
• What if all educators from all ranks and walks of life in a district could join for a day and offer multiple perspectives and solutions? Or, for more than a day?
• What if solutions to problems came from within?
• What if ELLs were no longer even perceived as problems?
I am excited to follow FCPS and many of their educators I met that day on Twitter and see their commitment to a vision of equitable education unfold in 140 characters, Twitter pictures of engaged classrooms, and samples of exceptional student work.