Part I: Tips for Collaboration
Team meetings: Looking at lessons from the eyes of an ELL
I am the ESOL teacher on the 5th grade team. So, that can mean a lot of things, but it means that my focus is mainly on English language learners. It means that I support classroom teachers in the classroom, it means that I help them plan lessons, that I provide resources, materials, I work one on one with students, I work in small groups, and I work in all content areas. So I help with reading and writing and math and science and social studies. So any part of the students' day is something that I'm a part of.
One of the things I do in meetings is try to look at materials that we're using, or in a lot of cases we're putting together lessons, and we're using SMART Boards, and so I tend to look at it from the eyes of an English language learner. So I try to look for the things that would be confusing, or the things that aren't as obvious and that would need some kind of support, and then I suggest changes.
Bringing a fresh perspective to the team
I think sometimes my team needs a fresh perspective, or just kind of a new idea for how to make things better, because even as teachers, we get into routines, and we feel very comfortable about the way that we're doing things.
And so sometimes it's just that fresh pair of eyes who looks at something, and says, "Oh I think we could change this and make it better." And so, I'm kind of that voice to say, "Oh, I think there's another way we can do this." And that doesn't always mean that that's the idea that's taken, but it's another idea that's presented that they can consider.
It's not always changing things, but just offering a suggestion or an idea for how to change it and improve it.
One of the things that we were looking at today with science was, you know we had some sentence frames, and that was great that they were already in there. But then we just needed to modify them a little bit to make it more of a sentence that a student would actually say, because part of the sentence frame has to be that they could use that, and then raise their hand and say it.
And if it's not something that they would feel comfortable saying, then one, they're not going to know how to complete the sentence. Two, they're not going to actually use it, which is what our ultimate goal is because we want them to have that practice of using the language correctly. So we want the sentence frame to not just be a well-written sentence that sounds nice, we want it to sound natural, because then they're more likely to apply it in other situations.
Collaboration strategy: Co-planning lessons
One of the great things about working here is that I have the opportunity to plan with all of the teachers in one grade level, because the reality is the English language learners are spread across all four classes, and there's no way that I can physically get to every room, and support every single English learner when they need it during the day. But what I can do is during planning advocate for them, and talk about the needs that they have, and provide supports and resources that can be used because then that's my way of supporting them without actually being there.
So having that opportunity to not just say it to one teacher, but to say it to all teachers at the same time, and build the lessons with them, because that's the thing, it's not me always coming in and just saying, “Well you need to change this, you need to do this.” But instead saying like, "Well, let's think about this way." Or you know, listening to their plan, and adding on to it, again that's the support, that's me providing support to all English learners because it wouldn't happen otherwise.
Collaboration strategy: Co-teaching lessons
I also have the opportunity to co-teach in a couple of the classes. So there are two classrooms that I go into the most, and I'm able to co-teach with those teachers, which is great, but it will look different in each room. So even with those two teachers it's a different dynamic based on their classroom environment, and based on their teaching and personality, which everyone has, and it's fine, and so that's our opportunity to kind of find a way to make it work.
So, in one room I don't lead as much, and so then I'm supporting the student, so that could be me sitting on the carpet with them, and that's just making sure that they're following along, that they're getting it, but then I also have the opportunity to speak up, and say, "OK, let's — Let me ask this question to the class." So I still have a voice in the room, but it just looks a little bit different.
Whereas if you go into the other room then there's a lot more of me standing in front, I might take the lead, and the classroom teacher is supporting the students, there's other times we'll break into small groups, or break the class in half, and then I take a group, and the other teacher takes a group, and so we're able to create those small group opportunities.
So, co-teaching can take on a lot of different forms. But to say that we're both in there to support all of the students and we're coming from the same place. You know that we've planned it together, and then we're in there together, and so, and it's always felt good because it helps keep both of us on track, and it's so easily we can get sidetracked, but then someone else in the room we just feel like “OK, you know, I'm supported, she's supported, and we're both supporting the kids.”
Collaboration Step 1: Start with Observation
I think establishing respect and trust is one of the greatest challenges as a resource teacher. Someone who is coming into the classroom, and you know this is my first year doing it, and as a former classroom teacher, you know I thought, "Oh, it's easy they just come in and help." I never really had to think through the different dynamics. And so this year has definitely been a lesson for me in learning how to do that.
And I'd say the very first thing, and I mean this is probably what I spent the beginning of the year doing is just going in and observing, and just kind of taking it all in, like how does this classroom work, how does this teacher work? To see where can I support, like where I could I add to this, and not coming in and saying, "You need to do this, you need to do that.” But just really understanding where that teacher is coming from to then see where is my place in this room, what could be my place in this room.
Collaboration Step 2: Establishing Clear Communication
Then after doing the observation, I think also establishing open and clear communication, because it's really hard to make any of this work without that communication. And I mean that was definitely even a struggle at the beginning too, they think it's just so easy, like we see each other planning meetings, and then I'll be in the classroom, and OK, we can email, but realizing, like no it needs to be specific, and how are we going to communicate? When are we going to communicate?
And when is it OK to make a change, like are we flexible enough to make a change right before the lesson, or does it really need to happen the day before? I mean, and there's things simply with email, you know when I would send out an email, and not get a reply I wasn't sure, was it not received well, or was it just not received at all?
And so then being able to go and say, “You know, I really need to have a reply, and it doesn't mean that you have to agree with my idea, but I just need to do that you've gotten it.” So, I know it's it's been, of course when that's said, it sounds crazy to have to say something so basic, but it was a huge piece for us, because I was like, "Oh of course." And that just again like cleared the communication.
Collaboration Step 3: Building Trust
I think that's the next piece is being vulnerable, because I think as a resource teacher it's easy to come in and say like, "Well, I know what to do, for these kids, and I know how to do it here.” But it's not always the case, and then the reality is whatever I'm doing should support all of the students in the room. It shouldn't just be I'm only helping these students. So anything I suggest should be for all of them.
So for it to be helpful to all students then I also need to allow that I might not know exactly what's best, because I might not understand the needs of some of the kids in the room that the teacher does. So being able to, being able to try things and fail, and being OK with that, but then to be able to communicate about it afterwards and say, "I really thought that would work, and it didn't."
But also being able to say like, "I really don't know what to do for this, do you have any ideas? Can you help me?" So that vulnerability, because that again starts to open up the trust, like if I'm able to say it, then the teacher is able to put herself in that situation as well to say, "I'm not sure. I don't know." Because then those are the opportunities where I'm able to provide suggestions, or things that we could do, because again if I were to just walk into the room and say, "You need to be doing this." Or, "I think we should be doing this." I mean a lot of that is just, immediately teachers are going to up a wall and it's not going to get through.
If I can't build that relationship then I can't expect anything to change in the room, and I think that's another piece as well for building the trust is to again, that safety of like I'm not going to judge what you're doing. And we're both here for the kids, and so we're both going to be trying new things. And some will work, and some won't, and that's OK.
But that's, but we're going to be OK with whatever happens and we'll move forward from that, so I think listening, trying to understand to see it from the other teacher's perspective, and then I would say another huge piece is follow through, because if I say that I'm going to be there at a certain time I need to be there at that time, and if I can't, again I need to communicate that.
If I say I'm going to do something I need to do it because then that shows, a teacher's life is busy, there's a lot going on, and so if I'm saying that I'm going to be a help, I need to show that I actually am a help, and you can rely on me, because that will establish the trust, and then also the respect that I do what I say I'm going to do, and I do know something about what I'm doing, like I have this to offer.
Professional development idea: A lesson in another language
One of the professional developments that I know, because I hear about it a lot from other teachers is there was a time when the ESOL teachers presented what a lesson would be like if it was in a different language, and so one of our ESOL teachers Kimberly Matthews, was able to speak German, and so taught this whole lesson in German, and we'd get up, and get into teachers faces as if they were the students, in German telling them things.
And, you know for the teachers to feel what it feels like to not know what someone is saying to you, but feeling like you're supposed to know what to do, I think was impactful because I think it gave them the opportunity to see this is what our English learners face on a daily basis, and if we're not providing visual supports, and we're not simplifying things, and making sure that they understand, then this is their whole day, and we think that we're doing a great job, but maybe they're missing, you know maybe they're really not following along.
So I know in that professional development she did it once by not providing any supports, and then did it again by providing supports, and was able to show this is what the difference is. And I know, you know because if I go into planning meetings, or into classrooms, they're using a lot of ESOL strategies that I know I haven't brought to the planning meeting per se, but it's become so ingrained in that this is what kids needs, we need to make sure we're building this in, that it's great to see, then it actually is nice because I feel like at that point I'm able to refine what we're doing, instead of having to say like, "Oh, you really need this."
It's not huge pieces missing, it's little things that we can fine tune, and make better. So I know that was one professional development that clearly has had an impact, and they've definitely taken on in all of their content areas.
Becoming an ESOL teacher
I was a classroom teacher for three years when I decided to go ahead and get my masters in ESOL instruction, and basically it was because I was seeing so many kids come into my class who didn't speak English. I had a couple of newcomers come in, and then at the same point I had kids who had been at the school for maybe a couple years, but it was clear that they were still English learners, and I didn't know what to do for them. And it just felt like I should know, you know, or I should have an idea of what to do when a child walks in, and doesn't speak any English.
And so, maybe because I just felt completely out of it, or caught off-guard, I was like, "This is what I want to focus on." Plus I do love languages, I spoke Spanish, or learned Spanish, excuse me, this was growing up, but my husband is a native Spanish speaker. And, you know I taught aboard in Jordan, and so I was surrounded by Arabic, and so just being exposed to all of these languages really gave me a heart for these students who are coming in, because they are coming in with a language, there is something that they know, and we see them as knowing nothing because they can't speak our language.
I wanted to find ways to support them, to help them, and I knew it was out there. And so, went to get my masters, and once I finished I still was a classroom teacher, and at that point I just loved being in the classroom, and was using the strategies that I had learned because I still was in a school where there were plenty of English learners to work with, even if I wasn't the ESOL teacher.
But then I started to realize, or just think that I would love to help other teachers with this. I would love the opportunity to go into other classes and see what I could do. Almost like that next step in my career as a challenge, you know, to see could I do this? Could I make that switch? And really it was, could I leave the classroom because I love being in the classroom so much.
But it was good because once I did, it was just confirmation that yes, this is what I really want to focus on, these are, I love working with all students, but I just really empathize, and feel for these students that are coming in. I just want to make it a good experience for them. I want them to feel success. That it is possible to learn English, to be successful in life, in this country, that it doesn't mean that you're giving up everything that you've known before.
That there's so many connections, and that's, I mean that's one of the things I always try to build into it is what do you already know, or tell me about how you did this in your country? Or tell me what word this connects to? So that they can maintain the connections that they have, maintain that language that they're bringing with them.
Part II: Strategy: Pre-teaching Content & Vocabulary
Making kids experts through pre-teaching
This was a new idea that I had this year, actually based on some research that we had been reading, and one of the things at our school is that we're very immersed in research, and it's shared, you know, and so there was an article that was sent out about remediation, and it was talking about how special ed students and English language learners always end up in remediation groups.
And it was kind of asking like, why is that always the case, what could we be doing to better support them so it's not always seen as they need remediation, they need extra? And so one of the links was to this article about a special ed teacher who was using pre-teaching and had found success, that when she taught the students the concepts ahead of time, and made them the experts, so that when it was brought up into class they already heard it, that then it increased their participation.
It increased the number of connections that they were making, and it increased their ability to retain that information. So it was actually showing up again on the test. And so I was thinking, well, pre-teaching is a strategy that we try to use as ESOL teachers, and this is research showing this is why it would work, and we should be using it more.
And so I was thinking in the area of science when it's so much vocabulary, and words that we don't use all the time, that I was like if they could get a background knowledge, and exposure to these words before it's taught, then yes, they become the experts. So that's what the goal of the group is, to make them the experts on the new words that are coming up.
Super Secret Science Club
What we'll usually do is meet during lunch on Mondays, it's our super secret science club, so it's fun, they don't feel like they're giving up something to do it. And I look at what are the lessons coming up that week, and I pick out what are going to be the difficult vocabulary words, or words that will help them the most, because we know that we're going to be coming back to these words.
And so I only pick about four or five, and I will usually find a mini—book that has very simplified language that explains the different words and concepts, or uses words and concepts, or uses them in context, gives pictures, and then I'll also try to find some kind of video, or I'll put together some kind of PowerPoint or something with pictures, which is what you got to see today.
So they're really engaged and immersed in visuals, and not so much text. So that the focus is having a picture in their head of what that is, or having seen a video. So that builds their background knowledge, and you know like because they're eating lunch at the same time, like the expectation is not that they're going to be writing sentences, or that they're going to be producing a lot.
It's just a chance for them to kind of absorb ahead of time. And I'm not expecting them to walk away from the pre-teaching group having mastered these concepts. But they've been introduced to it. And so then when we get to science class, and it's brought up again, and we saw it, you know within the first week that we did this, their hands are the ones that go up.
Connecting to students' background knowledge: Vascular plants
Our lesson for today was on vascular and non-vascular. So I wanted – Those are definitely words that are not used a lot. So I wanted them to have exposure to those and to see what that really looks like. So, on the PowerPoint I made sure that there were pictures on each page of each kind, so that they could compare and contrast to see how are they the same, how are they different?
And just to kind of start generating thoughts about it. So we didn't define the words vascular and non-vascular at the very beginning, we just let them try to see what are you seeing, what are your observations, what are you noticing? Because again, the research says that what they start with is more of what they'll hold onto. So that if they were able to observe and say, "Well, this one has leaves, and this one doesn't." Then they're going to walk away with that idea as soon as I confirm it.
If I was just to give the definition they have nothing to anchor to. So, getting their ideas out, and getting them to come up with what they observe, again gives them that foundation. So a lot of pictures, and just going through, what do you see? Some conversation, what do you notice? And then listing those ideas, and then getting into, OK, so now here is the official definition for vascular, and the official definition for non-vascular. And how did we do? What did we see that's true, you know that we got correct?
Making the connection: Vascular plants and straws
The other thing I did was because the definition itself was that a vascular plant has tubing, well for an English language learner when you say tubes, I mean that could bring up a lot of different pictures, or no pictures at all, because I might not talk about tubes all that often, but they make the connection to a straw, that a straw is a tube, and here we are at lunch, and they all are using a straw, that that they can make a connection to.
So again, it gives that anchor of when I say, "A vascular plant has tubing," it's like it has straws all the way in it, and the straws move the water through the plant. And so that – And that clearly was seen today, that became an anchor because they were referencing it later in the science lesson, and talking, they started using that as the definition.
So making it concrete, connecting it to what they already know definitely helped, and then like I said, when we got to science class they were sharing, they were using the words, vascular and non—vascular, and even if they couldn't remember it, because I did have some students say, "Oh, what is that word? What is that word?" And I said, "Well, which word are you trying to think of?" “The one about the plants that has, has the straw or the tube,” and they said, “I know it starts with a 'V'.”
OK, so they've made a lot of connections at that point, and I'm just filling in the word vascular, and then they're getting the chance to use it, to write it down, and so it's making more of that permanent memory. So then in class those were the kids who are raising their hands, who are giving their observations, this time they actually had plants in their hands, you know a real life object that they could compare and contrast versus just the pictures that I had shown them, but they were able to make the connection to the pictures that they had seen before.
So, again I find it really successful, if nothing else it gives them that confidence that they can learn these words, that it's not impossible, because one day exposure just in one science lesson would not be enough for them. But to have to review it wouldn't be as beneficial as just giving it to them ahead of time, and then building those connections.
Challenge of the week: Using new words
They get a challenge for the week, and so I challenge them to use the words, like I said if I pick out, I'll say, "Your goal is to use these words at least two times during the week." And we set a goal for the group saying, "The whole groups needs to have used these words 20 times." And that doesn't mean each word, but like the group collectively, if everyone used it twice we would definitely get to twenty, and then the next week they report back, how well did you do?
And they also listen for the words to be used. So they're finding the words in context, they're using the words in context, so then during science class, not only are the hands going up, but they're using those words in their answer because they want to show that they can, they know it, and then they get really excited, because again they look like the experts, because they knew this word, and they know how to use it, and everyone else is learning it for the first time.
So it makes it exciting, so rather that feeling of like I have to have it reviewed, instead it's, you know like, "Oh, I already have something I know about this, and now I'm getting other things to connect to it,” and it's making a solid connection in their brain.
Engaging students at the beginning of the lesson
One of the things that's important for English language learners is to feel safe, and a lot of times we don't always recognize where we're putting them into an unsafe feeling, and when you ask the question like, "Where have you seen, where have you seen the word 'vascular'?" Well if I've never seen the word 'vascular' then I'm feeling like I really am not a part of this group, because I'm missing something that they all have.
So if we change the question just, "Have you ever seen the word vascular?" Well then it's safe for — because some people might say yes, but it's OK if I answer that question no, because it's just a yes or no question, and then we can build on that because if someone has seen it then that student can share where they've seen it, and then I might remember, "Oh, I have seen that word somewhere."
Then I'm able to jump onto that, but if the first question automatically counts me out, then I'm not going to be as engaged in the lesson because from the very beginning I feel like I wasn't there, or I'm not part of it.
Part III: Reading Instruction for Older ELLs
The second group that I was with is my Fundations group, because we're working on the foundations of English language. So letter sounds, and building words, reading words, basic words, and tapping out the sounds, how to decode, because we really see – and what we found is that newcomers that come in, a lot of times they'll come in with language skills in their own language, but that transfer into English can be difficult, I mean for everyone, but especially when you don't know the basics.
And what happens is when you come in, in 4th or 5th grade, there is no reading group that is working on the basics of language, and it would be inappropriate to put them into a group with 1st graders or kindergarteners where they're learning letter sounds, but those are the basic skills that they need, those are the basic building blocks that they need.
And so we had seen this problem over the past couple of years because we have newcomers come in that we said like, "We just need a way to teach them the code. If we could just teach them English code then they would be able to start making these connections fasters, because they do have language skills if we can get back to the basics."
And so we used a program called Fundations, which really does simplify and go back to the basics, and so they learn all of the letter sounds, and with the vowels we just focus on the short vowel sound to begin with because that's what they're going to see the most, and they learn to literally tap out every sound that they hear. So as they're reading and they get to a word they don't know, they can just tap out the sounds and then put it together to be able to decode and read that word.
And at the same time it gives us an opportunity to teach sight words, we call them trick words because you can't tap those words out, and those words that just have to be memorized, so we practice those. And we do it in that small setting, again to feel safe, because that's not the kind of reading instruction that a normal 5th grader is getting.
And so if we were to do that in a regular classroom it would not feel safe, it would feel like, "Why am I doing this simple work? And they're over there reading a novel." And again we want to honor the relationships that they have with their peers, we want to be maintained.
So we do it in another setting where they're free to make mistakes, they're – this is part of the learning process that we're learning what the sounds are, so we're going to get it wrong, but then we learn how to fix it, and to make the next one, and so it builds on itself. So once we learned all the letters then we start moving into longer words, or you know, how funny English can be when these three letters are together it makes this sounds, but we say them together, and all of those tricky parts of English that you wouldn't get from just reading a book. But to get back to the basics.
Adapting an early literacy program for fifth grade
The program I'm using, Fundations, is normally used with primary students, but what it's getting at, and what it's teaching we find it still is very appropriate for our 5th graders and our upper grade elementary school students, we just modify it, so like things that you would be doing with a first grader where you might pull out a puppet to say the sounds, to get them to speaker, or you know might use extra things –
We use some of the same materials, but it's just the basics. We're just getting at these are the letters, these are the sounds, and you know when we're doing the writing it's going to be on smaller sentence frames, not big writing paper. So you know, it still respects that they're at a different age, that they're older, but they still need the basics. They're still going to need those basic understandings of how letters combine, and what sounds they make when you combine them. And the cards, being able to tangibly move something, and to feel it not just to see it written down, all of those make connections in the brain. So all of those things are still good, you know, like I said we just modify it and make it work for older students.
In my case, you know when I've got 5th graders, of course they love competition. So I'm going to build in some more games that give them the opportunity to compete. I mean, it's just a small group, it's only three of them, so they love being able to show off and say, "Oh, I got that one. Or I got that faster." In all of that, I wouldn't necessarily create a competition for 1st graders, because they're all learning it, but you know these are kids who thrive on that, and that's how, they want to be better, they want to make themselves better than the person next to them.
And it's OK, like because that keeps them engaged, that keeps them wanting to do it, because as you can see it's very repetitive. So we're doing the same types of activities every day. We're just changing the letters that we're using or the sounds for the day, you know I might be introducing like one new concept, but they're going to always come back to moving the cards, to building the words on their board, to then writing it on a white board, all of that is going to be the same. That's the space where I can turn it into something a little more fun, or make a game out of it.
Making students feel safe
The first thing I think English language learners need at any level, but especially at the 5th grade level is to feel safe wherever they are. So that's safe in the classroom, safe with their peers, have a safe working relationship with the teacher. So all of that goes into any kind of other supports that we could provide, that's the very first one that we have to make sure is there.
So that's why a lot of times I might be pulling them into a small group because in a small group they feel safe that there's less pressure here, or I'm free to make a mistake. And then I also will sit with them in class, so those are the students that I'm going to make sure that I'm near. So if they have a question, that they're free to ask that question to make sure that they're following, because as soon they start to feel unsafe they're going to disengage.
I think one of the other things that they need is engagement. They need to feel a part of it, they need teachers to engage them to be not just asking them questions, but giving them opportunities where they can share what they know, and again for them to speak up in class, especially for newcomers, you know if that safety net isn't there, if they don't feel safe, then we're not going to hear their voice.
And we want them to have the opportunity because that's their chance to practice English language, and you know to feel that sense of success that they are learning the language.
So I would say safety & engagement are probably the first two, and those are definitely the first two that I focus on, and then everything past that is how do I support their language so that they're understanding what's happening in the classroom.
Scaffolding for students reading at a low literacy level
Students are at a level that they should be reading higher level texts. But then when you have students who are reading at a lower level, you still want to make sure that they can follow along what's happening. So making sure that there's visuals to support not only vocabulary, but new ideas, that there is simplified language, even if we're introducing new vocabulary words that we're going to explain it in a kid friendly way.
Or like when we're using our SMART Boards and we're giving directions, that we're using kid friendly language so that they can follow the directions, and keep the focus on what the new learning is, because if they get distracted by the extraneous words or the extra directions then they're missing out on what the goal of the learning is for that day.
Giving students goals for learning
I think another support that always helps is giving them specific targets, like an actual goal for what they're trying to learn because then they're able to see like, did I learn that?
If it's just, this is science, then at the end of the day how can they say, "I've learned science," you know, but if it said like, "Well, today we're learning about plants, and we're going to learn about how they make food." At the end of the day if they can explain this is how plants make food, then they have that sense of accomplishment, and they know that they are learning, and that they can use the language to explain these ideas that they're learning.