Diana Schneider, the U.S. Department of Education employee who visited my classroom during ED Goes Back to School Day, proved to be a wonderful thought partner to me the entire time. We have a lot in common: we both were English Language Learners and we share a passion for helping students develop their English language skills, while also fostering a respect for their heritage languages and cultures. Diana definitely showed this passion when she co-taught a few lessons with me throughout the day. She helped me add layers of connections and critical thinking to our reading tasks and also forged relationships with my students who continue to talk about her to this day. Diana even volunteered to help chaperone a future field trip so that she could sustain these newfound relationships with our 3rd graders.
I hope that Diana saw how much collaboration goes into being an ESL teacher and how much job-embedded professional development schools provide nowadays. I’m glad that Diana could experience a professional development session as well as a grade-level planning meeting. Hopefully, these experiences captured how teachers use every spare moment to learn from each other and grow their practice.
I’m glad that Diana was able to see the multiple reading levels of the ELLs with whom I work and the amount of differentiation that goes into planning lessons that target their varied interests, decoding abilities, and comprehension skills, while also ensuring that all students are challenged to think critically. Diana noted that even lunch duty was infused with inquiry and academic discussions with the students. Every minute was used purposefully and it was wonderful to share that experience with her.
It would be great for Diana to also observe the ways in which I co-plan and co-teach with my entire 3rd grade team. I am extremely fortunate to collaborate with three dynamic and flexible general education teachers, each of whom has their own unique style of planning and teaching. We often experiment with different approaches and try to tailor our instruction to the needs of the different students in each classroom. Diana saw some parallel teaching, but didn’t get a chance to observe the team teaching or station teaching that I have done.
Students benefit from seeing skills modeled in two different ways or from getting more individualized support from targeted grouping when two teachers are present and both viewed as resources equally capable of leading instruction. I think that ELLs benefit from positive co-teaching relationships and inclusive settings that foster language and communication development.
In 2014, there are still too many ESL programs in which general education and ESL instruction are far too separated. Collaboration ensures that teachers are partnering to meet all students needs together.
The field of ESL is growing and the Office of English Language Acquisition at ED has the potential to spearhead national innovation and research in best practices while advocating for our ELL students that have been historically marginalized. The ED Goes Back to School experience allows for teachers and policy-makers to collaborate on certain issues that require seeing student learning in action in order to debrief what student and teacher needs truly are — Diana and I were able to talk afterwards about what she saw and it caused me to think more critically about what ELLs need and what is possible for them.
Flora Lerenman is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in Washington, D.C.