Part I: Poughkeepsie Project
ELLs in Poughkeepsie
So the City of Poughkeepsie School District has approximately 5,000 students in the district and the ESL population range is anywhere between 9 and 11 percent of that population. Currently right now we have about 450 students that are in the ESL program, but we also track our newly proficient students who became proficient on the state assessment within the last two years. So if you bring that number up, we are close to 570 students.
So in our secondary schools, we have one middle school and one high school in our school district. And between those two schools, we have currently 133 ESL students that are identified for services. With the newly proficient year one and year two, which had just attained proficiency on our state assessment in New York, the NYSESLAT, that brings the number up to 186 students between both schools.
Out of the whole number of the students that we have, 18 percent are what we consider newcomers, which means they have been in the system for less than three years, three years or less.
So 50 percent of our students are considered long-term which means they are in year seven or longer in receiving ESL services. Also out of that number at the secondary level, 21 percent are considered special education students, so they have IEPs.
So at any given time in our district, we range typically between having 10 or 13 languages represented. So between the middle school and the high school we have six languages represented right now and that ranges from Arabic, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Patois, Mandarin and Spanish.
Planning the project
So we have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to do this grant with Diane August and David Pook and their team at Colorín Colorado. And we got started with it pretty much last year in March is when I first became involved.
We had a scouting team come out from Colorín Colorado, WETA, and they came to look at our space, look at our schools, look at our classes, look at our ESL population and how they are being serviced and which classes we kind of wanted to focus in on.
So at first, when I first became involved in the project, we actually weren't really sure if we were going to go in the direction of working specifically with ESL teachers or if we were going to work with content area teachers at the secondary level that had ESL students in their classes.
Through the visits, through the talks, as we were finalizing what we wanted to do, it became apparent to me and I advocated to say you know, we have this opportunity to work with an ESL expert researcher. What I know we need right now in this district, in my department, in the ESL department, is more support. So this would be a fantastic opportunity to kind of hone in on what's happening in the ESL classroom.
So Diane and David came out in August to work with our ESL teachers. And at the time, before the school year started, it wasn't completely understood in terms of which teachers would be continuing on. And also in our district some of the teachers had not yet gotten their placements for the fall.
So we knew after the training was over which teachers were going to continue with the professional development in the fall. And that was based around the fact that they were secondary teachers and that's what the grant really wanted to capture.
So this past fall we started working on a regular basis, meeting after school, meeting on the weekends to talk about what we learned from working with Diane and David and bringing their resources into our classrooms, into our lessons plans, into our materials.
The idea was really to give the teachers an opportunity for first round to understand how does this look in their class. The work was really difficult and so for them to take what they learned for four days and start immediately doing it in September and capturing everything authentically and efficiently wasn't really realistic.
So we needed to break it down and say, "Okay, during this time period, let's see how much we can capture and implement." And then Diane and a few other people came back and they did essentially, we deemed it as round one.
And that visit really allowed the teachers to kind of troubleshoot some of their questions, some of their concerns and really meet with Diane one-on-one and in person, not just via phone or email, to get some further clarification before we went into our second round, which was what was filmed.
Towards our second round, as we got further into the work, we realized that there were time constraints and certainly, there is so much to learn with the Common Core that we needed to make our expectations a little bit more realistic for the teachers.
So David ended up picking out the text that the teachers used for the second round for the video lessons, so he chose the grade-level texts for the teacher that round. He also created some of the guiding questions that the teachers were using in their lessons.
The teachers came up with the supplementary questions on their own and Diane was able to provide them with feedback on those supplementary questions. They also created and decided upon the vocabulary that needed to be taught explicitly or embedded in the lesson. Again, Diane was right there on a weekly basis giving feedback through round two on that part of the process.
On my end, as I was working with the teachers and trying to foresee difficulties and/or bring in questions and concerns to Diane, through the whole month of January for sure I was pretty much calling her every week and we would have a nice hour, hour and a half conversation about a particular part in the lesson, looking between what the teacher was doing and what Diane's work was doing and how her template was evolving I think gave me unique insight into how to help the teachers move forward with creating their lessons.
One thing I can say about the collaboration is that in working with Diane, I could see that what she was creating became more or less a unit, like a unit plan. So to break it out and to use the components for actual videotaping a real class setting, a real period with students, we had to see what was going to be manageable, but yet representative of the kind of work that we've been doing.
So I think in collaborating with her and having that clarification in those conversations, it really helped the teachers to hone in on what they could do during the time that they had the kids for 42 minutes.
Role in project
So my role with the grant, I started with the teachers in August as well. I was part of those four days of professional development right there with them, learning with them, learning from Diane and David as well.
Since I had more of a background to, leading up to August and understanding the direction and the nature of where we were going to go, I was charged with facilitating the further professional development and growth that was going to happen during the subsequent months.
So I was helping to collaborate with the teachers, I organized and facilitated that kind of collaboration when we would meet after school or we would meet on the weekends to talk about their lesson and talk about Diane's template, which has been a tremendous help for the teachers.
There have been a lot of questions that came out of our work and therefore, so I became sort of a mediator between the teachers and Diane and David as well in the fall to troubleshoot issues and/or get clarification.
And for myself, where I stood, I was also reflecting on the process as it pertained to Diane's perspective as the ESL researcher and reflecting on the process as it pertained to the teachers and the actual realistic implementation in the classroom.
So I tried to come up with timeframes, guidelines, especially in this second round as we got closer to filming, to make the work manageable. I kind of chunked it for the teachers as well. And so it's funny, because that is something that we did learn with Diane and David about chunking the text. It's kind of that same approach, I tried to chunk the work so that it became more manageable as we got closer to filming.
The grant, the AFT grant work was fascinating to me and interesting because it gave the teachers and myself an opportunity for clarification from an ESL expert. And I feel like up until that point there hasn't been a tremendous amount out there about what the Common Core looks like specifically for ESL teachers. There's been a lot that has been out there about what the Common Core looks like for ELLs, but not for the teachers in an ESL sheltered classroom.
I have personally learned that the teachers know more than they think they do. The ESL teachers really are competent and competent about what they know about their students. And I think sometimes that doesn't get translated very well when they are starting new initiatives.
I feel that the teachers gained more confidence in their skills by Diane's reinforcement of things that they do well and her ability to highlight what is really necessary for ELLs to succeed under the Common Core.
I think one of the things that was very well documented throughout the process was the ability to talk about the controversial topics such as including background knowledge. How do you teach vocabulary? How much vocabulary to teach? Is it explicitly taught? Is it embedded in the actual text?
The other thing that I think is very important for teachers to have learned through this process is what kind of text is appropriate and if we are trying to reach grade-level text, how do you do that? So I think that these are things that not only was reinforced through the process, but was also learned for the first time under what the Common Core means.
Reading and writing at grade level
Also through this project, the teachers I feel like gained a thorough understanding about the need to be very explicit about what they are doing in reading and writing. I know that for our population that we service, a good portion of our students have a facility with listening and speaking far beyond what they can do academically in reading and writing.
And so for our teachers to spend some real time understanding what the needs are for students that are reading far below grade level really, I think, provided them a lot of insight as to what they can do for their lessons to really meet those needs of the students and push them towards meeting the Common Core.
I think the collaboration that existed between David, Diane and the group here in Poughkeepsie was fantastic. I don't think that I could have asked for anyone more involved than Diane. I think she was very involved, she was sending us templates, she was sending us revisions, she was sending us feedback.
At the end of the day now where we're sitting, I think that we really feel that we were part of a process into what research is showing is best practices for ELLs.
And I think it is fascinating for teachers to be involved in where we sit, where we're in the classroom every day, we're in a school district, but to really feel like we're kind of on the forefront of doing something that is really needed for students learning English.
So throughout this process working with Diane, it really provided the teachers and myself with some insight into what happens with research and where do you go with that once it is done and to make it accessible and practical for teachers. Even back in August when we met Diane for the first time, she was very enthusiastic about working with us. She loved being with the teachers and being in schools. You could tell that she thrives in working with other people.
And so it was a real collaboration for us to work with someone that didn't seem very top down directive type person. She was the sort of person, she knows what she is doing, but she was very much a listener in a lot of the group discussions that we had.
She came back for round one to see what the teachers had been doing at that point and to provide individual feedback. And we also ended up having time that we set aside for the teachers to meet with her after that individual feedback time.
And in doing so, we all sat together with the template and her work and we tried to look at her work on larger scale. So we didn't actually sit down with the teachers and myself and look and hash out every single person's lesson plan at that moment. What we did is we looked at how her work was embedded in each teacher's, in each individual teacher's lesson and what were some of the complications with that, what were some of the questions that the teachers had, how was it going to work in this particular setting or how is it going to work with these type of students because not every teacher was teaching the same proficiency level of students, nor did they have the same makeup in their class.
So some students, we have a large long-term population, but we also have some students that are SIFEs, students with interrupted formal education. And so you had to take into consideration each of the individual teacher's classes.
And Diane was really good at thinking about that and thinking that through, but I think she valued the teachers and put more on that aspect because it made her work come alive for her. And I think that it made her realize that "Okay, this can work, the scaffolds that I put in place might work better for this proficiency level."
And I think it was a reflective process on both sides. And I really believe that that enriched our work together and the development of each individual teacher's lesson.
The other thing that we did this year that is related to the grant actually is that our participants from the summer who are not at the secondary level had this knowledge that I really wanted them to share with all of our other elementary ESL teachers.
So I asked them, after a few months in the school year, "What did you learn from the training and how are you incorporating it now?" And they came up with some great lessons that they had either tweaked or they had written that really embodied the kind of work that we did in August.
And so I asked them to work with our other elementary ESL teachers at the professional development department meeting to give some insight and some suggestions on how to transition to the Common Core and how to make it feasible for our ESL students in an ESL setting.
Part II: Common Core Planning
District planning advice
My suggestion for other districts tackling the Common Core in regards to professional development would be to start with what you know. So every state is different in terms of how the Common Core has been implemented, to what degree it has been implemented at this point.
And I think that for what we've experienced, it was really helpful to start with professional development on the six shifts. So that was a great way to have a conversation about the Common Core without it seeming so overwhelming at that moment.
The other thing that I would recommend is to keep it in perspective. That it is a very big undertaking and to start slow and to keep it slow. Keep it slow, implementing one component at a time if it's possible and giving the teachers time to grapple with that before adding something else.
Also in light of the teacher evaluations that have been changing across the country, I think it's really important to give teachers collaboration time to see what it looks like in each other's classroom, to do classroom visits and classroom walks, to sit down during PLC time, if you have them, and to talk about what does that look like in your lesson and how are you incorporating something from the Common Core. And what are the challenges that you still face that you might need further support in through either a coach or a department chair or an administrator.I think that it's realistic if we give ourselves time.
And the other thing that I think is really important for further professional development across districts is to keep in mind that every teacher is a literacy teacher and that's a really important component that I think administrators and professional developers really should capture when they are delivering some kind of professional development, because as we know through higher ed programs, teachers are certified in content areas and they are experts in their content area, but not everyone has had the opportunity to learn about literacy strategies and what works for students. And that is a very big component for all students of the Common Core, and especially ELLs.
So my advice to teachers that are ESL teachers working specifically with ESL students would be first to start looking at your text to see how you can scaffold up so that you can start to meet the needs at the grade level.
That's incredibly difficult to do based on proficiency level of students, based on status of students, special ed students, SIFE students, students that are refugees, students that don't have literacy in their first language. I do understand that it's a challenge that we will be grappling with for quite some time.
But I think through this process I have learned that there are some supports that can be put in place to help the students meet some of these demands. ESL teachers need to look at the vocabulary that they are teaching. I mentioned this before, but I think it's very important that teachers are reflective about how explicit they need to teach the text, they need to teach the vocabulary.
It's also important to think about in writing these text-dependent questions, how you are meeting the standards. So we learned a lot about writing questions for key ideas and details, the main piece of the comprehension, the over-arching ideas.
That's important for students to understand before even attempting to do standards four through nine which largely deals with craft and structure questions. It's very deep type of questions that students can grapple with once they understand the text.
Advice: Writing Questions
The other thing that when you are thinking about writing questions and looking at the type of proficiency level of your students is to consider what types of support are you putting in place. Do you have a word bank, do you have sentence frames, do you need those things, are the students able to work together, do you have question stems that are appropriately aligned to the standards?
These are things that we learned through our process that I think has really helped our teachers to hone in and be more explicit and reflective on what they really need to be doing. Sometimes I have seen the teachers kind of be reflective and say through the process, "I didn't realize how much I paraphrased the text until I went through this process. And then I am realizing that I am reading the text out loud to the students, they are being exposed to this level of text, but then I go back and I basically explain the text to them.
And I think that there's a time and place that that might be necessary for ELLs, newcomer ELLs, beginner ELLs, like I said, certainly students with disabilities, perhaps.
But I think that in order to meet the demand so that students can read on their own, we need to be able to provide the level of questioning that will get them to really deeply look at the text, sentence by sentence if necessary. And that is something that we found that we probably weren't really doing very well before.
Part III: Working with ELLs
Get to know your students
My advice for mainstream teachers that are working with ESL students is first and foremost, to understand your students. Understand their proficiency level, understand what their native language is and how that may affect their acquisition of their second language.
To understand how long they have been in the country, if they are immigrants, if they are simultaneous bilinguals, sequential bilinguals, if they are newcomers, if they are refugees, if they are SIFE students, if they are students with disabilities.
Understanding that whole component to the student holistically is really going to help the mainstream teacher to understand, where is the baseline? And that's a really good question to ask, but there's a lot of components that go into understanding what the baseline would be for ESL students.
Another thing that I would recommend for the general education teacher is to remember that explicit instruction is also good instruction and that's it's okay to be explicit with your students. It's okay that when you have a student in front of you that is learning English that you may need to provide scaffolds for them, you may need to provide background knowledge for them. And I think sometimes that gets overlooked through this new process that we are going through with the Common Core.
Reading text with ELLs
The other thing that I would recommend for general education teachers working with ELLs is to consider in reading text that re-reading, recursive reading is really key, it's a really key component to allowing the students to grapple with the text, to see the text multiple times, to hit this text sentence by sentence, if necessary.
And then by doing so you're able to really work with the standards in reading, like I said before, with key ideas and details versus craft and structure. I think that's the key component for general education teachers, as well as ELL teachers. And it is something that perhaps the Common Core was not very explicit for us with the standards that we had in New York state before. So that's a, in re-reading, I think we allow our students the opportunities that may have been missed otherwise if we just move something and move on.
So part of my role in the district is trying to create, facilitate or deliver professional development opportunities for the teachers. And what we do is we try to partner, one of the things I try to do is partner with the surrounding universities.
We are very fortunate where we live that we have four or five universities within easy commutable distance. So we do partner right now with Vassar College. They work at all grade levels, but they have done a tremendous job in the past few years working with our high school students.
And so bringing in professional development to work with those undergraduate students from Vassar to basically tutor our ESL students, we've had a real collaboration where I go over and I work with these undergraduate students and train them and give them an orientation into what it's like to work with these students, with our ELLs.
And our undergraduate Vassar students really engage in the process and love the opportunity to work with our students, facilitating their growth and their language development and supporting also their L1, their first language, if it's possible.
SUNY New Paltz has been a great resource for us, not only because they have the ability to offer professional development because they have an ESL department, they offer TESOL graduate degrees, but because we can also use teacher candidates from the graduate program in our school district and we have done that.
So one thing that we did do recently to help support our secondary middle school teachers is we offered an in-service class. Which is essentially a class after school where we brought in a professor of literacy and language to come over and work with our middle school and high school teachers on developing strategies for working with ELLs in the content areas. That was very successful and I am anticipating continuing that kind of work as well this year.
Bilingual Common Core
The other type of professional development that I have been engaged in recently is the development of the bilingual Common Core progressions in New York State. And even though they are in draft form, we have the luxury of having a local regional bilingual education network system here in the Hudson Valley and they are not that far away.
And by having them reach out to us and work with us, we have a great relationship with them and coming through and working with our ESL teachers. And we plan to incorporate them actually in the next few months on a superintendent's conference day to work with them on the bilingual Common Core progressions and talk a little bit about what that looks like for ESL teachers.
I'd like to see that expand into doing some professional development with our content-area teachers and what the bilingual Common Core progressions mean for them. I anticipate trying to do that in the coming months and/or next school year.
Another professional development that I believe ongoing is the opportunity that we have in our secondary schools, middle school and high school, for professional learning community time, PLC time. And so what that does is give our teachers release time essentially for professional development during the day a few times a week.
I have been meeting with the ESL teachers at that level for about two years now and we have talked a lot about our lessons and we talked a lot about our materials. And I think that is a really good starting point for talking about professional development as it relates to the Common Core because it hits on the shifts, which is largely nonfiction text and talking about the vocabulary and how to incorporate academic vocabulary.
And I think for ESL teachers, if we are trying to bridge that gap with their reading ability and trying to reach that grade level text, that was a necessary conversation to have. So we have talked about that and that really has helped to lead us into conversations about curriculum development and the alignment of the standards and bringing in grade level authentic text for the students to support their ESL materials that they have.
Passion for ELLs
I am very passionate about working with ELLs because I really believe strongly in second language acquisition and that every student has the right to be bilingual. I come from a background where I have been exposed to other languages and know how to speak other languages. My husband is from another country and he speaks another language. I believe that where we are in this country, we need to remember that we all the right to be life-long learners. And I think that that's a really key component about why I am such an advocate for ELLs.
Pam Knittel has been the ESL District Coach in the Poughkeepsie City School District for the past 6 years. In that role, she works with one Pre-K/Kindergarten school, four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. She also collaborates with administrators, building literacy coaches, and teachers to provide information and clarification on regulations and data to drive ESL program development; coordinates program and testing administration for ELLs; and delivers professional development for teachers of ELLs (ESL and mainstream/content area teachers).
Pam has had the opportunity to present on different topics related to second language learning at Vassar College, Marist College, SUNY New Paltz, and at the NYSTESOL conferences. In addition, she presented the Common Core and ELLs project at the International TESOL conference in Portland 2014.
Prior to being a District ESL Coach, Pam taught elementary K-5 ESL in four elementary schools in the Poughkeepsie City School District. Pam received her B.A in German, M.S. in TESOL, and her post-masters certificate in Humanistic and Multicultural Education through SUNY New Paltz, in New Paltz, NY. She plans to pursue her educational administrative degree starting in the Fall of 2014.