As you prepare for a new school year, I’d like to share with you a rich multimedia project that was recently added to Colorín Colorado. The Common Core in Poughkeepsie, NY highlights authentic ways six ESL teachers worked with middle and high school ELLs to implement Common Core-aligned lessons. The teachers designed lesson plans with the support of ELL expert Dr. Diane August and David Pook, one of the authors of the CCSS in English Language Arts. Those lessons were then filmed with the teachers’ ELLs, and the classroom videos showcase the kinds of innovative strategies the teachers used in the lessons to make the CCSS more accessible for ELLs. The project was a collaboration between Colorín Colorado, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Poughkeepsie Public School Teachers’ Association (ATF) and was made possible by a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund.
In this post, I’ll introduce you to the topics of the classroom videos, share classroom strategies you can use that cut across the lessons, highlight some hot topics the teachers mentioned in their reflections, and leave you with my own take-aways.
Topics of the Classroom Videos
There are three classroom videos available for viewing:
- Answering Guiding Questions with Middle School ELLs – students read an excerpt from the widely acclaimed novel Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck about a man who takes a road trip with his dog
- Instruction of Key Academic Vocabulary with High School ELLs – students read a letter that Captain John Smith of the English Army in Jamestown, VA wrote to Queen Anne in 1616
- Reading Non-Fiction Text with High School ELLs – students discuss the language used in Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Court Speech “An Ideal for Which I am Prepared to Die.”
Each video contains a lesson summary, alignment to Common Core standards, lesson materials, related ELL strategies and resources from Colorín Colorado that support the lesson, a video of the teacher’s reflection of the lesson, and a space for viewers to comment on the lesson.
Classroom Strategies that Cut Across Lessons
It quickly became apparent to me that many of the teachers were using similar, effective strategies to engage their ELLs in challenging CCSS-based lessons. Some of the strategies I noticed included:
- Multilayered vocabulary – teachers focused on key vocabulary from small chunks of text, highlighted words they predicted would be challenging for ELLs, gave definitions and images of vocabulary, provided real-world examples, embedded vocabulary instruction into lessons, had students use the vocabulary in sentences, and provided a glossary for the text being read
- Read-alouds – teachers modeled fluency through reading aloud to students, embedding definitions of certain vocabulary words as they read aloud
- Student-centered approach – students were grouped in different ways to allow them to practice using the rich language they were acquiring through the lessons
- Support for textual evidence – teachers used a guiding question that provided a central focus for reading and supplementary questions to help them answer the guiding question; students articulated their processes for answering the questions and providing textual evidence
- Comprehension checks – teachers constantly monitored students’ work to informally assess and adjust instruction; teachers monitored students’ use of vocabulary through discussion, examples, and student generated sentences
The teacher reflection videos are organized around the following topics: teachers’ interest in the project, strategies they learned, challenges for ELLs in the CCSS, CCSS professional development for ESL teachers, and CCSS advice for ESL teachers. Several common themes surfaced as I watched the reflection videos.
- Teachers described multiple challenges they face in implementing the CCSS for ELLs. One challenge includes finding appropriate texts for ELLs that support the curriculum but are also accessible to ELLs at different levels of proficiency. Also, teachers noted that it is often difficult to go into as much depth as the CCSS ask teachers to, and it’s challenging to differentiate instruction across ELLs at multiple levels of proficiency within one classroom.
- Teachers who are “getting their feet wet” with the CCSS should align themselves with another colleague who has more classroom time and who is good at what they do. Teachers should get informal professional development from teachers who are using the CCSS well.
- ESL teachers bring vast knowledge of students to the CCSS classrooms. ESL teachers tend to know the students better than most other teachers, and the ESL teacher needs to become part of the CCSS conversation in schools to share this knowledge of students.
- This project gave these ESL teachers opportunities for clarification on the CCSS from Diane August & David Pook. Teachers described a more positive and confident outlook on the CCSS after this opportunity for professional development to explore and implement instructional strategies such as writing text-dependent questions, embedding vocabulary, and creating glossaries.
In my own experience providing professional development on the Common Core to content and ESL teachers, teachers who work with ELLs usually like to see what strategies actually look like with real ELLs at different levels of proficiency. I noticed a high level of discourse among students as they used the vocabulary and academic language they were learning throughout the lessons. This video series provides an inside look at how ELLs – some of them long-term ELLs – can be taught within a CCSS framework, and I’ll definitely use the videos as an example of how to implement successful strategies to use with ELLs.
In addition to showcasing effective strategies, the project also highlights the very real struggle that these teachers face. Some were aware of the CCSS but originally faced the standards with trepidation. I’m left with the feeling of how it is essential for teachers to collaborate to help the CCSS succeed (as they did in Poughkeepsie for this project). What is also remarkable about this effort is the positive transformation that these classrooms experienced as a result of a deeper understanding of the CCSS. Incorporating grade-level content, complex text and high-level discourse into ESL classrooms was certainly a challenge, but as you will hear from the teachers, an achievable effort through the support of other colleagues
So, what can you do for your own professional development when you’re not working on a project funded by AFT in partnership with national ELL and Common Core experts? The advice to form informal professional development groups with trusted colleagues who are comfortable with the CCSS really resonated with me. You, as ESL teachers, already have multiple, effective ELL strategies up your sleeves. When you collaborate with colleagues who have CCSS expertise, it can become a partnership that will certainly pay off!