Teachers Shelley Gordon and Molly Nicol (L-R) are leading the way for staff at Roosevelt Middle School by creating a school-wide PD strand focused on the needs of Long Term English Learners. In this interview by Viet-Ly Gonzalez, Secondary Language and Literacy Specialist, they describe what inspired this effort and the journey in year one.
All right, we’re here with Shelly Gordon (SG) and Molly Nicol (MN) at Roosevelt Middle School. First of all, how did LTEL Students at Roosevelt first get on your radar and when did you decide this was work you want it to champion?
MN: We decided to begin this work as a school wide instructional focus during the Leading for LTELS PD last year. Both Shelly and I participated and it was really effective! The issues and the data have been there for a long time, but as far us as deciding to bring it to the attention of all of our teachers it happened at that PD.
SG: When I first came to Roosevelt, we were engaged school-wide in learning about how to best support our language learners through PD around constructing meaning. That was a really powerful learning experience for me as a teacher. When I was lesson planning, I drew a lot from what I had learned there. I know that we’ve had a bunch of turnover and teachers that did not have that type of PD since. So that was motivation to provide our current staff with more opportunities to learn about best practices for supporting all language learners.
What are some of the challenges and strengths within this population of students?
SG: At certain times we have more than 20 languages spoken at our school and many of them are LTELs. I guess that’s both a strength and a challenge. I love how we all have the opportunity to learn from a lot of diverse perspectives but it’s also a large challenge for both students and staff. Meeting all of those different needs takes a lot of expertise, energy and effort.
Another eye opening thing for me is that the vast majority of LTELs have been in school in the U.S. for their entire academic career. These students have mostly been in our schools in Oakland since they were in kindergarten and still are not at the level of academic English that their English-only or other grade-levels peers are.
MN: At the middle school level, it’s also a challenge to both prepare students for the academic expectations of high school and address needs both academically and developmentally at the time that we see them.
What strategies are you promoting for improving LTEL outcomes in your PD?
MN: We’re preparing a school-wide PD session that happens twice a marking period. We come together as a staff to learn more our LTEL students. In the beginning of the year, we participated in an ELL shadowing and practiced using the dashboard on a granular level. We asked each teacher to identify two focal students that they’ll track throughout the whole year with data, reclassification status and experience at school. Right now we are diving into some strategies that teachers can implement and collaborate on as a group and get support from us and each other.
SG: When Molly and I were planning, we anticipated spending a lot more time building background understanding and having people buy in to this as an important need. We found out after our first session at our retreat that our staff were already there. They felt a sense of urgency around addressing these needs with a surprising level of energy and investment. So we ended up pivoting a bit.
The vast majority of our staff have tried the strategies outside of the PD sessions. When we did ELL shadowing, we had a very large percentage of staff participate. That’s been true of the other pieces as well in terms of meeting with a focal student or doing a data dive. It’s a lot to ask because teachers have a lot on their plates, but they’re interested in doing the work and super engaged in discussions during our PD. I’m excited for upcoming sessions where we’ll ask teachers to bring in examples of student work and share what they’ve tried.
MN: Another highlight I’ll mention from an early session was a small group discussion in which teachers were reflecting on their own experiences of when they were ELL students and comparing that to their experience as teachers, considering the students they are now serving. It was very cool to see not just professional but personal connections to this work.
Can you expand on the ELL shadowing that you did and what the process was and then what kind of outcomes came out of that?
SG: We asked each staff member participating in our PD to spend 40 minutes in the classroom of one of their focal students and just observe what the student did for that time. Staff collected quantitative and qualitative data. So every three minutes, what was that student doing? And then additional observational notes about what the student said out loud or what they were doing at any given moment.
What really stood out for me was that the students were on-task the vast majority of the time but working independently or listening to a teacher or even a peer talking. They were not engaged in much academic talk. That observation led us to where we are now with implementing strategies and specifically focusing on increasing academic talk in classrooms.
What challenges have come up in this work?
SG: Keeping this work on the forefront of everyone’s mind with all the other things that we are constantly needing to do is a challenge. Creating enough time for the deep, interesting discussions to happen, but also the learning and time to plan and think about how to implement a new strategy.
MN: The timing is only twice a marking period for 40 minutes at a time. Even with that set investment, it’s difficult to create the parameters for what is needed. It’s really true professional development and learning that’s happening, which is great, but that requires time. Feeling rushed is not what you want when you’re trying to deeply think about the implications for students.
What are some goals that you have for teachers this year?
MN: I really do believe that focusing on instruction that provides access to curriculum for ELLs is just good practice for everyone. I like that this is creating school-wide cohesion in an organic way. It feels like it’s not coming from outside-in it’s coming from inside-out. I would like to see that continue and go in the direction of teachers taking on the work and leading the work themselves if it’s important to them.
SG: I agree. The very shortest term goal is more student talk and academic discussion in classrooms. Whether or not we get to observe that happening or look for evidence in student work, or it’s part of the discussion when teachers are co-planning. That leads to a longer-term goal of our teachers having the tools and constant thought of ‘how do I support English Language Learners in my class by providing them with opportunities to discuss and engage in academic discussion?’