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Learning From The Field

Please consider contributing to this regular column on the Learning Forward Colorado website. Send your essays about learning and professional learning to Joan Watson at joan.watson@learningforwardcolorado.org.

A Beam Creates Sunshine for Second Language
Learners Through Writing Collaboratively

by Carol A. Sorvig, Ph.D.

Currently, it is difficult to find bright spots in the otherwise dismal educational horizon, but they do exist! They are often buried among the more prominent negative issues found in education today. When discovered, educational successes and triumphs must be publicly acknowledged and celebrated.

One example of teachers positively affecting the success of students can be found in first grade teacher, Lisa Beam's, classroom. Many students are challenged with the burden of learning English, while simultaneously learning content. Ms. Beam and her ESL Co-teacher, Mary Hyde Hermann, have developed an innovative approach to integrating oral language development with writing. They discovered that "When we were each teaching oral language development and writing separately, it just felt disjointed and it didn't flow; students were confused about how things related," according to Ms. Beam. "When the two are combined, a connectedness and purpose to each part of the lesson became apparent."

Learning to Write Challenges ESL and LEP Students
Imagine learning to write when you barely know how to speak English. Learning to write is daunting enough with all the intricacies needed to acquire the skill. Meeting this challenge is comparable to summiting fourteeners! Ms. Beam has been teaching first grade students for seven years. All of her experience has taken place in low income, needy schools. Her literacy class consists of 20 students. Half of these students are English as a Second Language (ESL) students and a third of these students are Limited English Proficient (LEP). Ten of the students are of Hispanic origin, three are Asian and seven are a mix of Caucasian and African backgrounds.

At Ms. Beam's school, Thornton Elementary in Adams 12, students are grouped according to language levels within each grade level. The Literacy Block is two and half hours long and students move among their grade level classrooms to be instructed according to their language acquisition levels. This elementary school uses On Our Way to English (OWE) materials, which are aligned with the English reading resources, Reading by Design. These are aligned to district and state standards for literacy and English acquisition levels, to instruct reading and writing with ESL students.

Collaboration Defined
The terms "collaborating" and "collaborative" have been used extensively in educational research. True collaborating is a highly refined skill and means two or more people working on the same outcome. It requires that each individual come fully prepared to participate equally and equitably. Friend and Cook (1992) define collaboration as a style of direct interaction between at least two co-equal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision making as they work toward a common goal. The defining characteristics might include:

  • It is voluntary
  • All individuals' contributions are valued equally
  • A well defined, mutually agreed upon goal has been determined
  • Shared responsibility is evident, especially in key decisions and products produced as well as accountability for outcomes
  • Resources are available to all participants
  • Attributes of shared decision-making, trust and respect among all participants evolve and emerge

All of these characteristics were found in the way Ms. Beam and Mrs. Hyde- Hermann worked together. Collaborating in this manner significantly benefitted the students in this first grade ESL literacy classroom. Additionally, it lessened the isolation felt by most classroom teachers while capitalizing on the strengths of both teachers. The teachers also learned from one another about each other's areas of expertise.

The Process
Ms. Beam and Mrs. Hyde-Hermann developed appropriate pre-assessments to determine where the students were functioning. This allowed them to determine where to begin/continue their instruction. Using the OWE materials, they developed language assessments using each student's Colorado English Language Assessment results to guide them. Accessing the state English Language Acquisition Standards informed them of what is appropriate for each level.

Mrs. Hyde-Hermann brings much of this information and Ms. Beam comes prepared to the planning sessions with current writing samples, analysis, district assessment results and any resources that may be of assistance. "We talk about what is related, we do oral language development activities and skills. Then we use those experiences to write. Finally, we match it to the theme reflected in the OWE materials to bring a sense of continuity and flow for the students," stated Ms. Beam.

For example, the theme in the first grade literacy materials when this article was written was "community." The lesson starts with the essential question: How do people in our community help us and why? Students turn and talk about this essential question with one another. The OWE materials follow the same theme as the English version of Reading by Design but are much more detailed to provide background information necessary for ESL students to learn ideas in English.

Each lessons comes with many materials that aid in the acquisition of English and related educational skills. For instance, in this particular lesson, dolls were used to represent various service providers found in our communities, the people in our community who help us. At the same time students practice putting various uniforms on the dolls to learn how to use pronouns correctly, often a struggle for our ESL students. Both teachers model and practice this skill with the students. At the same time students are acquiring vocabulary needed to understand our American school and community culture.

Next, Ms. Beam and Mrs. Hyde-Hermann use grammar and vocabulary to address the essential question as a vehicle to teach writing skills. Incorporating details by emphasizing the use of adjectives and adverbs delineate the grammar component. The teachers also continually emphasize the development of the beginning, middle and end of the writing process every time a writing piece is begun.

Ms. Beam and Mrs. Hyde-Hermann each take a group and teach a combination of a shared and modeled writing piece in which they incorporate the concepts from the previous lesson, including using details found by incorporating the five senses. This leads to the use of adjectives.

The following week, using the gradual release learning model, the students take on a more active role in the writing process, continually guided by their teachers. The class makes a book for the kindergartners as their audience about what community really means.

The final phase of the gradual release process, the independent phase, requires students to select a place in the community about which to write. The lesson requires that the students collaborate with the librarian for research on this topic, which addresses yet another necessary standard for literacy. Additionally, the class will create a 3D town and their written research piece will become part of this. A class sample and a student copy will be produced.

Overcoming Challenges
Some of the obstacles the teachers had to overcome included sifting through ideas each time they plan in order to bring focus to the concept. Maintaining the integrity of the theme and staying within very tight time constraints is also a challenge. The time needed to plan is never enough, but it is extensive. They meet one hour each week with an additional four hours every month for a total of eight hours a month. The four hours once a month translate to a half-day of planning given to them by the district. A substitute teaches the class while they meet. Both Mrs. Hyde-Hermann and Ms. Beam feel it is worth the time to put into doing a hybrid model. Careful, deliberate planning is needed to take a new concept or strategy and weave it into all areas throughout the day. Students benefit from much practice and familiarity with the concept being taught.

Supports needed to implement this plan included the dedication of the 1/2-day a month to four solid hours of planning. During this time, a broad picture of concepts to be covered is mapped out and during the one hour a week, a more refined lesson is created once materials are more closely scrutinized. The district writing standards, the ESL language development standards and the high quality theme based ESL program are all brought together to develop the unit plan. Ms. Beam says, "That while this is a work in progress one has to be flexible in allowing the process to evolve when collaborating with a co-teacher."

Evidence that students are improving can be found in increased engagement and a deeper understanding of concepts. Students are disappointed when they don't get to write. Writing conferences with students are richer and more frequent as a result of this collaborative effort as is the integration of oral language development with writing.

When collaborating with co-teachers, educators should shift their focus from expecting to walk away with a concrete lesson plan to one of creating a deeper understanding of who the kids are and what their next steps should be in moving students along the continuum of learning. With the appropriate principles of collaboration in place and two dedicated teachers on board, this and other challenges can be solved. When content specialists collaborate effectively with language development specialists, the future can become a brighter place for both students and their teachers.

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