Nowadays, it makes so much more sense for teachers of ELLs working in faced paced classrooms to collaborate. Teachers need to learn from other teachers what works especially when it comes to supporting struggling ELLs. But this is not such a simple task. As Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” For supporting ELLs, this collaboration never had a more meaningful role in supporting struggling ELLs learn how to read. I think new teachers especially, become frustrated when they don’t use collaboration strategically, but when they get to build on their collaboration, their interest grows.
Teachers can learn from other teachers who work with ELLs in either a general education class or small ESL learning group. They can create supportive learning and working environments when they know the various ranges of activities that have worked successfully for ELLs. They get excited about adapting activities when it can help their ELLs become more proficient readers and decoders. They learn collaborative strategies by collaboration. The key is to put the teacher as the learner.
My first and second grade ELLs enjoy oral work that focuses on sound and meaning when it is combines in a variety of playful contexts such as rhymes, songs, jazz chants and poetry, but I have found that they sometimes they don’t get the deeper meaning and this frustrates me. What’s this word? What does it mean? Back to thinking different strategies on my own…not again.
During my first year of teaching struggling elementary ELLs, I worked closely with a mentor and ten other teachers. The focus of our workshop was learning what worked from other teachers, so we could bridge some of literacy gaps. The facilitator had us engage in learning journals using guided subjects for reflection. We began by writing our concerns and questions, and then we reflected on the lessons using guiding questions. Our facilitator then responded to our journals and extracted various entries, which were then categorized under various subjects. Some of the other reflections revealed a totally different approach to teaching ELLs. Some of the teachers had plenty of practical activities and thoughts while others raised more thoughtful questions and concerns. Reading their responses helped me get into the mind of a first grade ELL – what a great experience!
After this, I realized that there were plenty of issues I needed to be aware of before expecting ELLs to read. The challenge with using the teachers’ responses as a guide for planning lessons was being prepared in knowing that some activities wouldn’t work for my particular struggling ELLs. They couldn’t acquire meaning without doing lots of decoding exercises and so there was not much they were able to do without a lot of oral help and support. In addition, they needed a lot of support in other areas as well. The most important thing a teacher of ELLs can do is to is to take a pre-assessment of their abilities and interests and create a student profile. Then, a teacher can customize instruction by providing successful activities based on what is available to the teacher and what the ELL can do. If teachers want ELLs to succeed just like their native English speaking peers, they need to be prepared a wide variety of learning options.
With other general education and ESL teachers, I tried to recreate a productive collaboration mode whereby teachers were able to learn from each other. I encouraged general education teachers to reflect on how successful they were able to teach a balanced mode of reading using components of oral and reading instruction. Then I asked teachers to reflect on the challenges using a series of lead-in questions and subjects for reflection we could investigate. Then we categorized the responses and as a collaborative group, we came up with a wide range of possibilities for teaching struggling ELLs in both educational and ESL learning contexts. The ELLs from both groups were then challenged using the wide range of activities we were able to pool together.
Creating the need to collaborate between general education and ESL teachers is a lot harder than it looks. General education teachers need encouragement, guidance and support to see the benefits of collaborating with ESL teachers and vis-versa. But teachers are actually benefiting when teachers successfully collaborate, not simply for the sake of acquiring additional teaching ideas but how to use those ideas more strategically to support their struggling ELLs. Students continued to struggle, but at least, teachers felt that the dialogue experience gave them more confidence builder strategies and tips to fully cater to the needs of their ELLs and they created lessons with more thought and engagement than before.
Reflective thinking is one process that I have used successfully, but there are strategies for encouraging reflective thinking as well. Reflective practice and professional development encourages educators to incorporate reflecting thinking in their daily practice as a prerequisite for collaboration. In our book proposal on Collaborative Teaching between ESL and General Education Teachers, Grades K-2: What Educators Need to Know, we wrote: “The critical need to successfully teach struggling ELLs in primary grades makes collaboration not only beneficial, but necessary. But before teachers can truly collaborate, they need to understand their ELLs and the areas in which they struggle. They will also want to consider how they have grouped their students. Teachers take this information as input when they meet with other teachers to work on practical solutions. Teachers face constraints of time, curriculum, and district procedures. They can suggest collaborative models to their administrators and colleagues to be part of the solution. The ultimate goal is to create a supportive learning environment for teachers and students.”
I think this sums up the goals of the collaborative teaching experience in a nutshell.