Brian Butler and Diane Kerr
Brian Butler and Diane Kerr are co-principals of Mason Crest Elementary School in Annandale, VA, a school built around collaboration. In this joint interview, Brian and Diane discuss the school's collaborative approach and how it supports ELLs. This interview was filmed as part of the ELL Best Practices video series, produced with the National Education Association.
To learn more about how Mason Crest has developed its collaborative approach, see Chapter 3, "Collaborating in the Core", of It's About Time: Planning Interventions and Extensions in Elementary School, written by Brian Butler. The chapter includes detailed charts and schedules showing the ways in which the school has made collaboration a priority and found time for collaboration throughout the school day and school year.
Part I: Supporting ELLs Through Collaboration
Mason Crest Elementary: An overview
Brian: Mason Crest is a new school. We are three years old, and we have about 600 students. We're Title I. We're about 48% free and reduced lunch, and we have students who come from 34 countries, and we're just a wonderful place where we embrace diversity, and it really is our strength.
Diane: Our English learners, the population varies anywhere from 40 to 50% of our overall population. Right now, we have about 260 students who are learning English. We celebrate the fact that we really don’t have any majority language. Although Spanish is the primary language of our English learner population, we have students who speak Korean, Vietnamese, Urdu, Arabic, Amharic. Just many, many languages, which is something that enriches the student body here at Mason Crest.
Identifying student needs
Diane: The supports that our English learners receive here at Mason Crest are varied, as are the supports that we provide all students, and I think that that's something that defines Mason Crest in terms of how we ensure that the needs of all students are going to be met. That when we think about our English learners, they have a range of needs in terms of where they're coming from, their academic experiences before they come to Mason Crest, whether they were born here in the United States, their proficiency, and their first language.
Something that we focus on here at Mason Crest, whether you're an English learner or not, is really looking at the data that we have on the students, and what is it that we're going to teach and coming up with a plan for each student, and giving them that support. So primarily our supports for English learners revolve around an inclusive model where they are included in as many activities in the general education classroom as possible and supported within that inclusive setting.
And that support is very fluid, depending on what their needs are. It could be from a one-on-one support to being within the whole group learning experience, and the teacher realizing, because of the planning that they've done, the supports that she or he can provide throughout the lesson.
Supporting ELLs as a team
Brian: When we talk about good instruction for English language learners, we really focus on backing up a little bit and talking about the mindset of our staff, and if our staff is supposed to take collective responsibility for all children then we have to learn together, as a staff, to make sure that that happens. And it's really important for us, as a staff, to learn different strategies that may help English learners.
Just like when we talk about our special ed teachers, and they will share strategies. Those aren't just good special ed strategies. Those are good strategies for all children. So as Diane talked about, we use an inclusive model. We make sure that we look at each child's progress as a team.
It's very fluid and flexible, but our English learners do take a forefront in a certain respect because they're bringing something different to the table, and it could be very dependent on—depending on what the English learner has brought to the table in terms of their levels, as Diane talked about.
So when we look at our English learners as a team, we look at many different facets of what they need to do to—in order to improve from backward—background knowledge to vocabulary to a host of things that most kids need.
But they may need a little bit more support than another student. So our team looks at that, designs a plan, and we monitor that plan every five to six weeks, and we come back together as a team. That the English learning teacher, English language teachers, special ed teachers, the classroom teachers or our specialists, reading and math, we all sit together and we look at that plan for each student and make sure that we are moving those students forward.
Building staff capacity to work with ELLs
Diane: Whether they have one ESL in a school or ten in a school, they still are not the sole person responsible for an English learner to be successful.
And that if a student is in school for six hours out of the day, they need to have support six hours out of the day. So how do we help all of our staff learn those strategies and techniques to help those English learners be successful? Because that ESL teacher's not gonna be there six hours out of the day for those kids, and to pull that support away when it's appropriate because we're working for these students to become independent and to learn that language and to be successful.
So I think the critical piece for us to always remember is that the role of the ESL teacher is to help build the knowledge and the confidence in our classroom teachers and the whole—the entire staff in the school so that they have the strategies, the tools in their pocket to be able to support English learners throughout the day, 'cause the reality is the ESL teacher is not there every minute of the day to support our English learners.
It's the job of the entire staff to do that.
Role of ESOL teachers: Helping colleagues support ELLs
Diane: Traditionally, as an ESOL teacher, you come out of school, and you get into the profession because you want to be working with kids, and I think what's especially difficult, if you're part-time at a school or the only ESL teacher at a school, your role is changed a little bit in terms of being more of a coach and a teacher for teachers because it is virtually impossible to take on that responsibility of the English learners are my responsibility and my—and only my responsibility.
So how do I help all of the people in that school learn more about how to meet the needs of those kids, and that as a singleton or an only ESL teacher at that school, that you would have opportunities to be working with those kids and be supporting the English learners, but a big part of your job would be to help the other—the rest of the staff in that school understand how all of those kids belong to all of us.
And that here are some strategies that you can use that are going to be successful with those kids.
Leadership expectations: ELLs are everyone’s students
Diane: When staff come to join our team they know that this is a collaborative effort, and that our mission is to ensure high levels of learning for all students and all adults. So that expectation is laid out at the beginning.
And it is especially important, the collaborative piece, for our English learners in that our ESL teachers, or English for speakers of other languages teachers, our special ed teachers, our advanced academic resource teacher, our technology specialist, all of those people, including our reading and mathematics specialists, are at the planning meetings.
And the purpose for the ESOL teacher to be there is that her or his expertise is heard there at those planning meetings, and that they can ensure that the needs of all the students are being met, but also that the learning of the adults is occurring during those planning meetings so that those specific needs that an English learner may have can be discussed and talked about at those planning meetings.
And then those strategies and techniques can be learned together and tried together. We come back the table, talk about whether they worked or not, and what are we going to do next for those students?
So it's building the capacity of all of the staff at Mason Crest to understand how to meet the needs of our English learners through that collaboration.
What grade-level team meetings look like
Diane: Each grade level team has an hour planning meeting a week for language arts and an hour planning meeting each week for mathematics, and also an hour for science planning with our fifth grade team specifically. And the members of the team that attend those meetings are the classroom teachers, the ESOL teachers, special ed teacher, and any other resource teachers that support that grade level and that content area.
They all come together, and that is a non-negotiable, that they are all there because they are the team, and those are the teachers that surround each of the students in that grade level. What happens in those planning meetings vary depending on which of the four critical questions we're looking at. Are we planning—are we looking at the curriculum? What is it the students need to know? So the meeting may be focusing primarily on that question and looking at the curriculum and looking at the standards and the objectives.
And what does it mean in terms of what the students need to be able to do, understand, and know after they have learned that content. Or maybe it's question two, how do we know that they've—that they know it? So designing assessments or looking at assessment data and coming up with a plan for those students who may not have shown proficiency yet and they need more practice. So what do we do next for those students?
Or look at these students. They already understand this. They've learned this, so what are going to do to extend or enrich their learning in that content area?
So again, it's going back to what each student needs and how are we going to do that? So those meetings, the agendas look different each time this—the teachers meet, depending on which of those four questions that they're looking at.
But our outcome for the weekly planning meetings is for the teams to leave with lessons that are ready for that week, and in some cases for the next two weeks, and for all the teachers to be on the same page in terms of that viable curriculum. We're all—we've all made this commitment to teach this, and this is what we want the students to learn, and when we come back, we're going to look at the data that we have on whether the students have learned it. It's not about our teaching. It's about the students learning.
Role of ESOL teacher in team meetings
Diane: The role of the ESOL teacher in our team meetings vary. Their primary focus is to bring that lens of the English learner to the table and to help the team think about the supports that they'll need to put into place so that they can—those English learners can be successful. So for example, they may start, if the team is looking at this—the standard that they're going to be teaching, really looking closely at the vocabulary that is embedded in that standard, whether it's the content vocabulary or the academic language of the content.
And what is it that the students are gonna need to be able to do orally, reading in the reading format, or even in a written format, and what scaffolds will they need to put into place to help those students? Or is it a matter of background knowledge? Do these—do we anticipate that there are any students who might have no idea what the science concept is or the topic of a book that they're going to be reading about?
So bringing that lens to the table, and when we think about the linguistic complexity of a standard, what we're asking a student to do in terms of responding to a question or being able to incorporate that language of the content into any kind of oral or written responses, what kind of supports might they need to put into place. For example, sentence frames that will help the student not only be able to respond to a question, but to think at a deeper level about that content. Not just surface, you know, right there kinds of answers.
So vocabulary, background knowledge, supports like sentence frames, but also when we're looking at the actual resources that might be included in a lesson. How they could adapt the language of questions or their—the presentation, making it visual, and also thinking about an assessment that we might be giving, whether it's a—more of an informal assessment or a formal assessment, how might they adapt it to make it more accessible for the English learner to show what they know and what their understanding about the content.
So it—again, it depends on where the team is in that cycle of planning for lessons and assessing, and then reflecting on that data, but that that—those supports that the ESOL teacher can provide to the team increases the team's understanding of how to support English learners and moves that whole team forward.
Helping all kids master academic language
Diane: When we think about the academic language of a classroom, the academic language is often new language for all kids, and it's not only something that's new for an English learner. So thinking about this—the structures and strategies and the techniques that we can we use to help all students learn that academic language.
And then put in a little scaffold support for those English learners to have may be for them repeated practice with that academic vocabulary. It just might take them a little bit longer and will have—require more practice with that language.
Mason Crest: A great place to be
Diane: Before I came to Mason Crest, I was one of the ESOL coordinators for Fairfax County Public Schools, and when I saw the job opportunity posted, that there was going to be an assistant principal position here at a brand new school, it appealed to me because—for several reasons. I knew that the school would be a diverse school and that we would have language learners and we would have children from all walks of life, having all kinds of experiences.
But I also knew that my partner, Brian Butler, believed in the professional learning community at work, which was—which is something that I feel very strongly about, and so putting those two things together, the opportunity to open a new school, create a community of learners with children, with families and staff was just an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
And I was very, very lucky to have this opportunity to be here and to be surrounded by the children and the families of this community. It is a great, great place to be. It's a great job.
Part II: Making Collaboration Work: Behind the Scenes
Collaboration in a professional learning community
Brian: Collaboration is really more of—morally neutral. You can collaborate around the wrong things, and you won't move your staff forward or the students forward. So we focus on four critical questions in order for our collaboration to be truly focused, and those are the critical questions of a professional learning community at work. What do we expect kids to know? How do we know if they know it? How do we respond if students are not learning? And how do we enrich and extend learning for those students who already know it?
So one of the things that we talk to our staff about is, one, having that collective responsibility for all students. Abandoning that idea of the isolated teacher, that old isolated teacher where he or she is sitting in the classroom trying to figure out curriculum instruction, assessment, all by him and herself. So we really try to make sure that the staff knows that these are all of our kids, and then we're gonna go and look at those critical questions in order for us to answer those questions to move students forward, but it also helps to move staff forward.
Because this teacher can say well, “What did you do differently? Can you share some strategies? Can I come into your class and watch you teach a lesson?” That's where a big part of our professional development occurs. It's job-imbedded.
It's really around the data and around teachers talking about data and responding to that data and learning from each other, but also then designing plan for students because of the data.
Finding time for collaboration: The will to succeed
Brian: Time in Seattle and time in California and time in Utah and time in Virginia, in terms of schools, are the same, right? So it's not so much that we don’t have time. It's really finding and making that time in the schedule. There is time. There are schools that have done it across this country. We've done it. So there's not an excuse where you can't find time. It's if do you have the will to be able to do this work. In terms of logistics, it goes back to our culture.
We at the—in the summer, we have an invitation to the entire staff to come and look at our master schedule and look at helping develop it. It's not just the principal and the co-principals developing a schedule. We have very little in developing—to do with developing the schedule. We do have some non-negotiables, like there's gonna be a two- hour language arts block. There's gonna be a 90 minute math block. Every team has an hour of planning a day throughout the week, and that's where we start.
And then we have a big group of staff that have input on other parts of the schedule, and then we narrow it down, and then we have about six staff members who really work out the logistics of the schedule, and that's what drives our work. Those staff members are our art teacher, our phys. ed teacher, our librarian, our music teacher. When we talk about collective responsibility, we talk about the entire staff. Not just the classroom teachers, the ESOL teachers, the special teachers, the math and language arts specialists.
We talk about the entire staff, and these staff members really believe that their job, that their piece to this puzzle in helping teams collaborate is creating the schedule, where they look at all the pieces of the puzzle and put it together, and it's not easy. It's not—and it takes some negotiating, and everybody can't get what they want, but I think what we come with at the end is a schedule that benefits the children. Not the adults, the children.
Diane: It can be done, but it's almost erasing your memory and your thoughts about how it should be done, and the team being very creative, and that they know that this is our task. We need to find common planning time for every grade level to have every single day, and it's an hour, and the—and how are we going to do it?
And being—really think outside of the box. How can we make this work so that the—that entire team has the time together to do the work? The ESOL teacher being a part of that plan is critical in that they know from the start what that—what the needs are of being able to support those teams, and creating a schedule where they are physically going to be able to be at those meetings is really important for them to have that input.
And to make sure that we are thinking about all of the different needs of the kids and the specialists and their ability to attend those meetings.
Every student belongs to each of us
Brian: Our philosophy is a collective responsibility. English language learners belong to all of us. Every teacher belongs to every child in the school, so when we look at a student, it's not your student or my student. These are all of our students.
When we get out of the mindset of being in lane and in silos then it's easier for people to see these children as all of our children, whether it be our ESOL teachers, our special ed teachers, our classroom teachers, our specialists. When we get in the room, it's really not about anymore who is meeting with what child. It's about the team making a plan and saying, “Okay, who is best to meet with that student at that particular time?”
It may not be the ESOL teacher. So when we really talk about scheduling, it's not about, you know, this teacher, your schedule's here, and this teacher, your schedule's here. Our schedule is fluid and flexible, and it changes every week. Our ESOL teacher may be meeting with a group of students who may be—who may not be ESOL students, and our special ed teachers, the same way. So I think we have to break out of that traditional mindset of “I'm the ESOL teacher. I have to be meeting with this group of students.”
It's really not based on the needs of the teacher. It's based on what's best for the children, and it's not what's best for my comfort level of—as a teacher. We've gotten out of that mindset for—again, for our ELL students and our ESL teachers. And also our special ed teachers, because our special ed teachers, when we first started this journey together at Mason Crest, they were very uncomfortable not meeting with all of their special ed students, and we said, “It's impossible. You're not gonna be able to meet with all of your special ed students, ” but the team can design a plan where we have a specific plan for each student, and somebody on that team will be able to meet with those students and give them what they deserve.
Collaboration: Helping more kids succeed
Brian: We in education have, for so many years, talked to people and said we're gonna do this because I say so, or we're gonna do this because it's the new fad. Well, if we can answer the question why, why are we working in such a way where we're collaborating to meet the needs of all children?
I think we're saying that, it's because it's our moral imperative. There is no way that we can do this work alone, and when we answer the question why, we also say to people this is what the research says. Every educational organization that we know of, all of the research that we've seen says that collaboration will help more children succeed than working in isolation.
Being a professional learning community and ensuring that all kids learn is more important if we work in a way that is focused, that is professional, and that we are answering certain critical questions collectively. Then we're gonna help more kids learn.
This is not a joke, and this is where we get very passionate, because we're helping save kids' lives literally. We can't afford to wait any longer for a new initiative. We know that this works. We know that working in a collaborative culture, we know that depending on each other, sharing our practices leads to more effective strategies for ourselves, but it also leads to higher levels of learning for children.
And we just can't wait for another initiative or another fad to come down the pike because we know this is the most effective strategy out there to improve schools collectively, top to bottom.
A new approach to gifted education
Diane: When we opened Mason Crest, we were designated as a school who would have what our school division calls local level four services, which means the students who have been identified as advanced academics or gifted and talent, that they would receive their services here at the school.
We believe that every single student who walks through the door has gifts, and they just might not be as obvious to us as others. In particular, a lot of our students come with a lot of background experiences and families who have been able to provide experiences for them; that have extended and enriched their backgrounds so that they can kind of pass that test to be labeled gifted and talented or advanced academics.
Well, there are a lot of other students who might not have had those experiences and don't necessarily get that golden ticket to be considered gifted, but they are. So we decided at the beginning of our existence that we were going to create a program that allows all students to have access to that curriculum and those higher-level thinking skills and opportunities.
And have set up our system so that all students have that opportunity when they're ready, and it's not necessarily that every student is ready at the same time, but we shouldn’t be—ever exclude a child from that opportunity. So one of the things that we've done to help move that forward is to have our entire staff certified in advanced academics or gifted and talented program so that they have those strategies and techniques available to them to offer to students when they are ready, and to use that curriculum with all of our students.
A student success story: Learning to read in second grade
Brian: When we talk about collective responsibility, I'd like to share a story of a student who came here in second grade this year. He came here as a special ed student, and he was two grade levels behind. He had been to two different schools, and he was a struggling student. He didn’t have a lot of confidence. There was some behavior issues, and when we looked at why he couldn’t read, it wasn't because he was special ed or English language learner.
It was because nobody had ever taught him how to read. They had never taught him how to read. He had been to these different schools, and his parents told us they thought he was a problem child, and the problem was that these schools weren't working as professional learning communities. They were working—all the staff were working in isolation. So if I'm a teacher, and I am—I have all these students at different levels, and I'm working in isolation, and I can't meet the needs of all these students, what is my first recourse?
I'm gonna refer them to special ed, and this is what happened to this student, and this is what happens around this country, unfortunately. We have so many kids, minorities, English language learners, and they get farmed out to special ed because we are putting people in isolation, and it's a shame. It really is a moral shame that we are doing this. So our moral imperative is it is hard work.
This is extremely hard work for us to work in a culture of collaboration, where we're asking people to be transparent. We're asking teachers to say to themselves these are—you know, “I do this well, but I don’t do this well,” and then we're asking teachers to say to their teammates, “I don't do this well. Help me.” And it's hard, but it's also liberating because for too long we've allowed teachers—or we force teachers to be the experts at everything.
And it really has put a lot of pressure on them, and they don’t feel like they can do everything, and that's where we get burnout, but if we work in this way where we are sharing practices and being transparent and being honest with each other and really saying okay, the team, the collective wisdom of this team is gonna ensure that this child, who is somebody else's child, but this child who we own as our child, our—and our children, they're gonna have the life of endless possibilities that we want for our own children.
Then the moral imperative is not so hard. It becomes a mission, and it's not—and it sounds pie in the sky, but whose child are you gonna tell that's gonna be in jail in ten years, whose gonna be dead in ten years? Nobody. So if we're gonna say that that's gonna happen then we have to work in such a way that we ensure that that doesn’t happen, and we can't do that in isolation. So when we tell people you're gonna come in and work here, and when we hire them, and they come here, and they see in the way that we work, it's actually liberating because they don’t have to know everything.
And they can rely on their teammates to make sure that we get this child the best opportunity that they deserve.
Diane: So what happened with this little boy that came to us in second grade. In having that culture here of collaboration, when he walked through the door—or when any student walks through the door, but when this little second grader walked through the door, his team circled him. So the special education team, the second grade team, the reading specialist, the mathematics specialist, the ESOL teachers, the counselors.
We all put our arms around him and looked at the data that we had. We gave him some assessments. We looked at his plan that came with him and poured our work around the needs that he had, and it was very intensive support. He was a second grader, and he was not reading even close to grade level. He was still at the beginning of a first grade reading level and had a lot of deficits in mathematics as well.
So we designed a plan for this student that was very specific to the strengths of his team, and if you wanna think about a medical team surrounding a child, it's all of those specialists putting their expertise and their hands on the child, and the—where he is now, he is no longer in special education. He is reading at grade level. He is being successful in the classroom.
And those labels that are often attached to kids that they carry through their life impacts their future, but this little boy, he is not going to be going to middle school as a special ed student or an English learner or anyone with that label that could potentially impact the choices that he has in terms of classwork, course work, and what he wants to become as an adult.
So when we think about that collaboration, it's about circling every single child with the entire team and all of the expertise that they bring to the team and working through it. Sometimes we try things that don’t work, and we come back to the table and say well that wasn't a very effective strategy. What are we gonna do now? And you don’t give up.
Brian: So in one semester, this child is out of special education. Now think about that. Think about if he had stayed in those other schools where he was in isolation. It should not be dependent on the school you go to, which depends your—depends—which directs the trajectory of your life. That's not fair, and if that student had stayed in that—those other schools, that student would still be in special education.
That student would be labeled, and that student's trajectory would be jail or death, and that's why we say it's a moral imperative, and that's why we don’t play.
Often English language learners and students who are minority are put in special ed because they are in—unfortunately in failure schools or in situations where teachers are working in isolation and they don’t know what to do, so they refer them thinking that they're getting them help, but in reality they're giving them a life sentence to something that's probably not what they want.
Learning experience as a professional basketball player
Brian: I think being a professional basketball player did a lot for me, not just as a principal but as a person. I learned about working with others. I learned about defeat and victory. I learned about how to bounce back from a challenging situation. I heard—learned how to communicate. There were a lot of things as a basketball player, but even in basketball games, the ups and downs of a game that prepares you for life in general. So I think that was part of it, but I think most of the things that part—that helped me prepare for being a principal were people along the way.
The various administrators and teachers who saw something in me that allowed me to feel confident to be able to work in a school setting and help lead people to a place of fulfillment. I wasn't a good student. When we talk about gifted and talented, I was always the person, the lowest kid in the class. I got 790 on my Scholastic Aptitude Test, and if I didn’t play basketball I wouldn’t have gotten a full scholarship to George Washington University.
There's no way I would have gotten into a school, but I knew I could do the work if I had the proper support. So I think my life journey from basketball player to all the other things that I've been fortunate enough to have done prepared me for working with people in a way that honors our profession and also honors our kids.