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A Collaborative Game Plan for Student Equity

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Q: What happens when teachers work to ensure their students’ success but that success remains elusive?

A: Frustration. I hear frustration from teachers when they feel they are not meeting the needs of their students. Teachers care deeply. They work diligently to meet their students’ needs. At the root of their concern, they may not have had the professional development to gain the skills to equitably meet the diverse needs in their classes. Their frustration is palpable, accompanied by descriptions of students not participating in instructional activities. They want to help but may be uncertain how to equitably meet the needs of their students.

This concern is often especially vivid when working with English Learners. English Learners (ELs) bring the fullness of second languages and cultural diversity into classrooms. They provide different perspectives on our world, yet frustration is often the emotion I see in teachers as they wonder how and when they can meet the needs of their EL students. The combination of celebrating different cultures and perspectives while providing equitable access to instruction and academic language can lead to awesome rewards for both teachers and students.

Studies confirm the concerns that teachers have with providing equitable instruction for ELs. Ross (2014) found that teachers felt less confident teaching ELs than non-ELs, and years of teaching experience did not change teachers’ lack of self-efficacy.1 Reeves (2006) found that nearly 70% of teachers “reported they did ‘not have enough time to deal with the needs of ESL students’” (p. 136).2 In that same study, over 80% of teachers disagreed with the statement that they had adequate training to work with EL students. O’Brien (2011) revealed that teachers indicated they were unable to meet the needs of ELs in lessons, assignments, and projects.3

The good news is that professional development, in face-to-face or remote environments, can increase teachers’ self-efficacy and skills in reaching and teaching ELs and save the teachers time.

Educational leaders can reduce the frustration for teachers and provide them with collaborative professional development opportunities that will enable them to meet the needs of students. Professional development involving collaboration builds not only the sense of self-efficacy for teachers with English Learners but also their abilities to implement more equitable practices (Hazzard, 2019). 4

As leaders formulate a game plan for equity, there are several critical steps.

1.   Find out the needs

Ask and listen to students, families, and staff about needs they see related to equity. Include teachers in discussions to clarify needs. Teachers have great insights into what students and parents perceive their needs to be. Along this journey, leaders have the opportunity to build stronger relationships with teachers and families. By listening, leaders learn the needs of their constituents and can formulate the game plan for meeting their needs and exceeding their expectations.

This spring when we all suddenly found ourselves working and teaching from home, I listened as teachers shared that ELs needed more support with their assignments. Teachers shared that students felt frustrated as they strived to meet instructional challenges. Teachers worked tirelessly from home but often did not have the opportunity to directly see the struggle of ELs after a synchronous class or group meeting, and the students didn’t always reach out to the teacher to ask for help.

Teachers and parents were united in their commitment to the success of our students. More academic language support was necessary for some students to be academically successful.

2.   Set the goals for equity

Based on the needs discovered while listening to students, families, and staff, set the goals for equity. What are you trying to accomplish in the name of equity? Consider how your data aligns with those needs. Data can be numerical or qualitative. What you hear from parents, students, and staff is an important part of your data. What support can be offered that will meet student, family, and staff needs, and what will impact the data that you have?

Pre-made and readily available scaffolds for students became more critical during remote learning. Those scaffolds needed to provide support for any student who needed access to academic language including ELs. If teachers needed support in creating those scaffolds because of time and learning how to make them, then a solution must be forged.

3.   Offer professional learning for the short and long term (impact now and later)

Professional development during remote learning is not just for remote learning. Professional development needs to impact practices for the short and long term. The practices need to work whether we are face-to-face or remote to meet students’ needs in any situation.

Teachers implemented many engaging remote activities, and the work was intense and time-consuming. How could we incorporate something that saved teachers time during remote learning in our professional development? We needed to help teachers, students, and parents during this time frame and ensure the impact would be lasting.

4.   Create the opportunity and purpose for teamwork

Collaboration offers the opportunity for everyone to combine their expertise and build relationships. Leaders focus the team on the goal. Time is important, so ensure the purpose is clear for the work of the team.

Create teams that offer the opportunity for cross-sharing complementary expertise to reach the goal. If teams of teachers and specialists will be working together, consider the expertise lens that each team member will contribute. For example, reading specialists offer great insights into English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum and students’ literacy needs. EL specialists contribute valuable insights regarding academic language and ensuring access to grade-level content. Special Education teachers can promote ideas for differentiation. Content teachers maintain focus on grade-level content and standards. When leaders focus expertise on one purpose guided by the needs and goals set before them, then real change for equity can happen. Diversity in team members’ skill sets can help meet the needs of diverse learners.

Ensure that where your team meets, especially if it’s remote, is conducive to teamwork. Zoom breakout rooms work better for collaboration than large groups in Zoom. When we are face to face, breaking larger teams into smaller collaborative groups or partners encourages strong collaboration from all. Remember, the members of groups and partners should offer heterogeneous insights into solving the problem.

5.   Create the path for communication

When a team has great ideas for a great purpose, then those ideas need to be shared. Consider what opportunities already exist for communication and sharing. Can they be leveraged efficiently and purposefully?

During remote learning, my district implemented weekly Remote Planning Workshops (RPWs) akin to cross-school Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) for grade levels. RPWs were created to provide teachers from the same grade levels throughout the district with the opportunity to cross-share ideas for upcoming content. Two reading specialists would lead each grade-level RPW in a Zoom with breakout rooms. These RPWs were the perfect opportunity for professional development about academic language supports because the supports could be linked to the content discussed during RPWs. EL teachers and I shared academic language scaffold examples and the “why” behind them with grade-level teachers.

One key to the communication pathway for the RPWs was learning the content to be discussed prior to meeting as a team. Reading specialist meetings followed by EL specialist meetings were key in this process. Each week to prepare, I learned what ELA instructional topics the reading specialists would be talking about the following week in RPWs and then relayed that information to the EL specialist team, so they could develop examples of academic language supports to share in each RPW. Collaboration with reading specialists and EL specialists provided opportunities for necessary communication to meet our goal.

6.   As leaders, model the way5

Leaders must model the importance of the steps they are asking their team to take for equity. Set the example for your team, so they take strong steps for equity with you.

I wanted my EL specialist team to know that I valued equity — and the work that goes toward it. After meeting with the reading specialists, I made scaffold templates and models to share with the EL specialist team. Then I met with the EL specialists who designed similar models for different grade levels. For example, we made writing frames and graphic organizers for argument and opinion as one type of scaffold. I shared examples in grade-level RPWs with the EL specialists. I modeled the importance of enhancing equity. One EL specialist or I shared a grade-level model in each RPW.

This game plan resulted in wins for our constituents.

The grade-level teachers left the RPW with great ideas for ELA, an academic language scaffold they could implement with students soon after, an understanding of why the academic language scaffold was helpful for ELs and other students who needed it, and a template to make a similar scaffold in the future. Teachers were thankful for those examples that they could use right away for instruction. Parents could see their students participate in activities using those scaffolds during remote learning. Using those scaffolds reduces student frustration and enhances learning.

In this process, the EL specialists gained a stronger foothold with grade-level teachers and reading specialists. Their collaboration extended beyond the RPWs, and the learning extended beyond our spring remote learning. Leadership was distributed.

Equity definitely isn’t a game, but we can make a game plan for it.

Equity, especially during remote learning and especially for English Learners, is a challenge and an opportunity. Make a strong game plan for equity. Plan for team members with diverse expertise to collaborate and develop professional learning that will impact equity for the short and long term. Model for your team just how important equity is to you, and they will reflect its importance in the work they lead.

1 Ross, K. E. L. (2014). Professional development for practicing mathematics teachers: A critical connection to English language learner students in mainstream USA classrooms. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 17(1), 85–100.

2 Reeves, J. R. (2006). Secondary teacher attitudes toward including English-Language Learners in mainstream classrooms. The Journal of Educational Research, 99(3), 131–142.

3 O’Brien, J. (2011). The system is broken and it’s failing these kids: High school social studies teachers’ attitudes towards training for ELLs. Journal of Social Studies Research, 35(1), 22–38.

4 Hazzard, J. (2019). Professional development for the equitable assessment of English learners. (Publication No. 13881232) [Doctoral dissertation, Wilmington University]. ProQuest.

5 Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2012). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. Jossey-Bass.