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Field Trip: English Learners & Restorative Dialogue


As the population of English learners grows across the country, Brazosport ISD in Texas is using restorative practices to support ELs’ growth in language, connect them to differing perspectives, and address behavioral issues.

In this interview with Grace Delgado, the Director of Language Acquisition and Lorin Furlow, the Director of Special Services, they dive into:

  • The concept of oracy
  • How restorative practices can be used to support language development and overcome behavior issues at the same time
  • What it has been like to break out of silos and bring two departments together to help students
  • Impact on school climate

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Full Transcript  

GRACE DELGADO: What we’re seeing across the nation is growth in the English language learner population. We see that this population of students is growing, and we see that the capacity of teachers to service them is not necessarily there.

Today on Field Trip, a look at the unique way that one school district is coming alongside English learners.

LORIN FURLOW: One of our young men in the circle shared with us that the circle format gave him voice and confidence and an avenue to get over his shyness with speaking that he struggled with on a daily basis.

They’re using restorative practices to help EL students develop language skills and connect with each other.

GRACE DELGADO: We have seen a reduction in behavioral problems in the hallways, and a reduction in discipline referrals for these particular students.

We’re going to take a look at what happens when two different departments come together to equip teachers and serve special student populations.

GRACE DELGADO: I would encourage others to create these collaboration spaces, not just in your classrooms, but all the way to central office. Sometimes we get in these silos. I mean, I’m the person in charge of EL, she’s the person in charge of special education. But the reality is that we share students and we have to watch out for all students.

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

Today on Field Trip, we are speaking with Grace Delgado, the Director of Language Acquisition at Brazosport Independent School District in Texas. Also joining us is Lorin Furlow, who is the Director of Special Services. Welcome, Grace and Lorin.


Brazosport is about 50 miles south of Houston. It serves nine different municipalities, some larger, some smaller. Just over 12,000 students attend Brazosport, 1600 of which are English learners.

GRACE DELGADO: So what we’re looking at in Brazosport is ways to help our English learners with language acquisition and gaining that second language.

We’re going to be talking today about some of the work that the two of you are doing together in the realm of restorative practices, specifically with those English learners who may be struggling behaviorally. But before we get into that, I wonder if you could give me just a brief picture of what we’re seeing across country, Grace, with those who are non-native English speakers. What kinds of trends are we seeing?

GRACE DELGADO: Well, what we’re seeing across the nation is growth in the English language learner population. We see that this population of students is growing, and we see that the capacity of teachers to service them is not necessarily there. We are in a shortage for services. That’s very similar to what’s happening in our district for the last six years. Our population of students has been growing at least 1% per year. Six years ago there were under a thousand students in the whole district, and like I mentioned, now we’re at 1600. So we’ve had to be creative in our services, not only for recruiting teachers that can service them, but giving teachers tools to help the kids in their classrooms, because our English learners are everywhere, in every classroom.

Well, Lorin, as Director of Special Services, you do a lot of work with restorative practices. Can you tell me what that looks like at Brazosport?

LORIN FURLOW: Well, it has been a work in progress as restorative practices are very much about the process. We began in 2014, November of 2014, when three of us attended the Institute of Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at the University of Texas, and were really intrigued by this practice to assist students with becoming part of the entire process of ‘how did my behavior affect others in my community, and what can I do as a result of my behaviors to impact my community or right any wrongs that have occurred?’ Three district personnel and myself committed initially to facilitating circles as part of restorative practices at our District Alternative Education Center.

This idea of circles is an important one. Students who exhibit behavioral issues may be brought together. They sit in a circle, one person speaking at a time, everyone else listening.

LORIN FURLOW: Basically, a circle functions under the premise where it is a shared safe place where everyone has equitable voice and takes an opportunity to speak from the heart as well as listen from the heart. There is usually a center piece that sets the tone for the theme of the circle for that day. And if not, there are facilitated questions or pieces of literature or music or poetry, which set the tone for the topic of the circle that day. You start with a beginning question and everyone has the opportunity to pass the talking piece around this circle. The talking piece indicates the person who has an opportunity to speak from the heart and when the talking piece is not in your hand, that is a cue that you should be listening from the heart.

And it was so successful. We saw a great progress and learning and accountability and conversations happening at our alternative center that we knew it was something that we wanted to grow bigger. And actually, we were working with a group of students and as we were doing our closing rounds of circles that day, the student who hadn’t shared wide open in previous circles shared that this was going to be his last circle because he was going to be returning to his home campus, and was really going to miss this opportunity. At which time another student then shared, ‘Oh man, you could just get back in trouble and come back to the alternative education center so you could participate in circles!’

And that’s, we knew that this was meaningful for kids and we really needed to facilitate this out across the district.

They met with middle and intermediate school principals, and found staff on the various campuses who were committed to this process, and they began facilitating these circles in schools across the district.

LORIN FURLOW: And now we facilitate restorative practices and circles across the district at all of our secondary campuses, fifth grade and up, and then again on intermittent elementary campuses. Because it can be very unique, the way you implement circle practices at the elementary level. But our general education behavior team assists with facilitating circles across the district now.

You might be wondering what restorative practices have to do with English learners. And that’s why we’re talking with Grace. As Language Acquisition Director, she is tasked with supporting teachers who work with EL students. She said they do have English learners who need special services, and so she and Lorin work with some of the same students.

GRACE DELGADO: That’s how these conversations started in regards to circles. We knew that we needed to provide additional supports of language for our English learners, especially at the secondary level.

We tend to see a lot of behavior issues in secondary just because our kiddos are, you know, they’re teenagers. It’s rough. That’s when they’re finding their peers and finding their place. And if we add to that piece that these kiddos either don’t have great domain of the language, or just arrived here from another country, things can get tricky. They can get lost. They don’t feel secure about speaking the language. They don’t have a good support of friends. And that could turn into behavior issues. That can turn into fights and disagreements in the hallway.

So that’s how we decided to offer specific training to my ESL teachers at the secondary level that have a period of the day specifically to teach kids English, and how to communicate with each other and embed the practice of circles in that classroom to provide the kids not only a safe space and community building, but also to stretch their language when they’re communicating.

And so Grace and Lorin began working together to reach these students.

LORIN FURLOW: One day when we were looking at our literacy skills across both special populations for our special education students and our ELs, we were discussing strategies and tools that increase literacy, and Grace was sharing some recent research she had read about oracy and the practice of speaking and language to support students’ overall literacy development.

As she was explaining the oracy model, it was a huge “Aha” for me, and I started speaking about restorative practices, specifically circle facilitation and how it gave a structured format for teachers who might not be as adept at assisting students with having meaningful conversations back and forth. And that’s kind of how the whole idea was born.

Help me understand what it’s like when someone comes into BISD, doesn’t speak English at all or maybe doesn’t speak it well. Recognizing that every student is different, what do you see with regard to behavior issues?

GRACE DELGADO: The first thing that happens is that we have to address language, because if they walk in, we have what is called a home language survey, and we have to place students in the program. So we go by language first. Depending where they are with their level of proficiency, they may or may not need our ESL class. Students that are newcomers that just arrived or students that have lower levels of proficiency — we go on a scale from beginner to advanced high. So our kids that are in the beginner and intermediate side will be scheduled into an ESL class in addition to their other classes, in addition to English and in addition to math and the rest of the core.

That time is spent learning English and learning to communicate. The behavior issues may or may not come later. What we wanted to do, because we had seen behavioral issues at the secondary level, and we see them not just with ELs, with everybody, is we wanted to build some kind of structure in that class that could help us, like I mentioned, build community so kids would have a safe place to talk to each other. They would have peers that would understand and they could communicate with. They would have an adult that they could go to and speak to if they had any issues in order to avoid any potential issues that may happen at any secondary level school.

Beyond behavior issues, what other challenges does a district face when educating English learners? What kinds of things do you commonly see?

GRACE DELGADO: Well, we see an achievement gap, because especially at the secondary level, our students are expected to perform in assessments, in local assessments and in state assessments, at the same level as non-ELs. So we do see the achievement gaps, because they’re lacking the language, but they’re expected to pass, Algebra and an Algebra test and a biology test and an English test, just like everybody else.

The other challenge we had to address when trying to target these circles situation was teachers. Teachers are not going to want to give up their time to do something that’s non-content related. If I have 50 minutes to teach a class, I’m not going to want to spend it all in a circle communicating with my kids, as much benefit as that may be, because I do have some standards that I have to cover.

Grace said that they turned to literature, and they began to use books to help them out.

GRACE DELGADO: We decided to embed the use of picture books, specifically culturally relevant picture books. So it would help the teachers address some standards from content, and also open the door for conversations in regards of culture and family relations, and any kinds of issues they case may be bringing or having at that moment at home. And that has helped us navigate this year with this project at the secondary level.

Lauren, can you tell me what all this was like, what your work with Grace was like at the beginning as you set out to implement restorative practices? What did you experience at first?

LORIN FURLOW: Well, it was really more of a conversation piece back and forth about the work that I had done with restorative practices and facilitating circles and the lessons that we’ve learned from student voice that fed into the overall project. I can tell you specifically, we had a restorative circle that we were facilitating at one of our high schools, and worked with a group of students throughout the entire second semester. And at the end of the year we were getting individualized feedback from the students, and one of our young men in the circle shared with us independently, without any prompting — we just kind of asked the kids what the circles mean to you — and he was a second language learner, and he shared specifically that the circle format gave him voice and confidence and an avenue to get over his shyness with speaking that he struggled with on a daily basis.

And that is something that we actually weren’t even aware of. We were talking a lot about social emotional awareness and coping with just day in day out interactions, and it never actually crossed our mind that we might be supporting at that time from a second language standpoint. And that was a conversation that Grace and I actually had had early on, when we were developing this framework for using restorative circles for literacy development, that the power in just having a conversation and facilitating a conversation amongst students and practicing that oracy, how powerful it was, and important in giving our students a voice and confidence that they needed.

Were they enthusiastic about this right at the beginning? Or did you really have to gain their trust as time went on?

LORIN FURLOW: I think overall, the framework that Grace worked to set in place by using the literature gave them an opportunity to interact in a safe manner. And probably weren’t even aware of the overall implications of communicating at that point when we started.

GRACE DELGADO: I will say, in one of our schools, we have a really interesting situation. We have a classroom of about eight students. Two of them come from the same country and then everybody else, the other six students, all come from different countries. Half of the kids speak Spanish and the other half speak different languages. They were a little taken aback at the beginning when the first children’s book was opened, because you know, they’re high school kids during the 10th and 11th grade. They’re not babies. But the teacher was able to talk to them and tell them, ‘You know, we will have a conversation about the books, and picture books are good for everybody.’ So when she opened the book and started reading the story…

There’s something really powerful about having a story read to you. It immediately builds community just because we all go back to that cozy place that we like to go to. And so they responded really well to the read aloud. And then they sat in the circle and started having conversations about the book and the story, and making connections to themselves. The beauty about circles is that, because circles have a specific routine to follow, it gives a question and what we can add is a sentence starter sentence frame for students to be able to speak in a complete sentence. So that’s how we’re stretching the language. We’re helping them with some scaffolds so that way they don’t have to come up immediately with a response. We’re giving them some support in the language that they can take with them as they interact with others.

At the beginning, it always takes time to build the routine. But it’s been really powerful to see that group of students interact with each other after a few months. I actually visited not too long ago and was able to actually share, make a connection to one book they had read. And the students are now very nurturing to each other. They’re also very aware of the fact that not everybody speaks the same language. So although they use their native language to communicate sometimes, they’re aware that they have to go back to English use because they have other students and that’s their only common language. So their behavior toward each other has changed a lot and it’s way more nurturing, which is fascinating to observe in teenagers that are 16 and 17, how much they’re taking care of each other just because the teacher has been able to implement that routine religiously. It happens every Friday in that classroom. They have that time to build that community and basically take care of each other. That carries on for the rest of the week.

I wonder if you can picture that individual group of students that you’re talking about right now, and tell me the kinds of things that you heard them say at the beginning of meeting, what it was like maybe the very first day when you all gathered together and the kind of dialogue that happened, and then tell the story of how you saw that gradually change.

GRACE DELGADO: At the beginning when the teacher first introduced the idea of circles then, and the picture book, they were rejecting a little bit the idea, I mean, we’re talking about, in that classroom we have six boys and two girls. They’re not babies. They don’t want to talk to each other and they have their own, like I mentioned before, there are two that are from the same country and the others are not. So they already had their biases against each other, didn’t want to interact with each other. They didn’t like each other for whatever reason. And they were sent to that classroom, they didn’t choose to go to the classroom. They were sent to that classroom because they all need to learn English. So it wasn’t an elective by choice; it was given to them. So they were a little bumpy. They did not want to listen. They did not want to interact with each other.

I think the other piece that we have to remember is that having a teacher that is welcoming to the process and that wants to implement it and wants to be that champion for those kids, it’s a key piece. This teacher has this relationship. She talks to them, she doesn’t talk over them. They understand the ‘why,’ the why is necessary to have this time of the day to build the time together, but to build their language. So right now when we go into the classroom and see their interactions with the kids, a lot of the times the circle is happening without the teacher there. The teacher is in the classroom, but the teacher is not leading the circle. The kids are actually having these conversations with each other because it’s a routine, because they know that they listen to the story and there’s a topic they’re going to talk about and they’re going to connect with it. But the teacher doesn’t have to be leading the group anymore. The kids have actually taken the ownership to have the conversations with each other and help each other.

When they are lacking words, they can actually help each other find those words to answer the questions they’re trying to answer.

What kinds of topics are you discussing as you introduce these books?

GRACE DELGADO: A lot of them are related to struggles. Like I mentioned, they’re culturally diverse, so we want to make sure that topics like how names are important in the identity of a person, how food is important as a communication to our culture and our families… we have a wonderful book that talks about perseverance and continuing to move through challenges. So we usually try to talk about the theme of the book, and then we start making connections to the book.

The day that I visited the classroom, I was able to make a connection. It was a book about names. And in this particular story, the character of the story has a very long name and she is asking her father, why is her name so long? And the father tells the child the connection. She has two different members of her family attached to each one of those names. So the kids were having the conversation, and I was able to sit with them and tell them the connections that I have to members of my family that are no longer here just because I have been named after them. So it was really interesting to say, ‘Oh, that’s really cool. Well, my aunt named me such-and-such because they like this person.’ So they were able to make those connections. And the importance of name and identity. So that was one of our topics, for example.

How much time has gone by since you began this work?

GRACE DELGADO: We started back toward the end of September, so about five months.

Okay. I’m curious, over those five months, how are things different as a result of what you’re seeing? And I’m interested in one, the impact it’s having on students individually, but also the impact that it’s having on a school’s climate.

GRACE DELGADO: With these particular students, we have seen a reduction in behavioral problems in the hallways and a reduction in discipline referrals for these particular students. Because like I said, not only do they have friends, they have a safe circle of friends, but they also have… I feel like the power of the teacher in this situation is also a key piece. They have an adult that they can go to as well. So in behaviors we’ve seen positive changes.

We’ve also seen a lot more growth in their language. We actually had an assembly type activity last week, and these students were invited and they were able to not only understand everything that was happening, but they were able to ask very specific questions of the speaker. And they were not afraid to speak in public. They were not afraid to raise their hand and talk in front of other peers, because they felt safe and they’ve been able to practice language.

Lorin, I’d be interested in your perspective too. I would love to just pose the same question to you on, from your vantage point, as someone who began the work of working with restorative practices, what has been your impression as you’ve watched this happen over the past five months or so?

LORIN FURLOW: I’m taken back to a quote that I really want to share with you. It’s from James O’dea from Cultivating Peace. And the quote is that ‘There are many circle formats, but the one central concept is to demonstrate reverence for the truth of another person’s experience.’ And while that rings true across restorative practices, I think it’s especially interesting to see other people’s truths, especially people who are new to the area, new to the country, new to the language. And what they are bringing from their own identity, like Grace was talking about, and their contributions to learning, to each other, to the growth of each other, to overcoming their shyness, to practicing the use of the new language and how it continues to build their identity and their truth moving forward.

I know that students in the past who have worked with us specifically under restorative practices, not as part of this project, always share… two young ladies that I work with said specifically, ‘You really get to know people through the conversations that happen in circles.’ And that has such a huge impact on the overall climate of the campus. It affects the teachers who are working with these students every day, getting to know their students on a different level. It affects the students, the relationships back and forth, getting to know your peers on a different level. It’s just really powerful.

Is that related, do you think, to the idea of taking someone who initially you might think of as ‘other,’ and starting to see ways in which you’re actually similar, or seeing a more human side?

LORIN FURLOW: Absolutely, changing the language from ‘them,’ ‘they,’ or ‘those’ to ‘us.’

You talked, I believe, about rolling this out to other campuses in your district. Is that correct?

GRACE DELGADO: We’re actually running it in five of our campuses. We have three intermediate schools and two high schools. So we’re running it in one classroom in each high school, and then we have one intermediate that has two classrooms running it. So we have six classrooms running it this year.

As you take a program like this and try to have an impact on more than just one classroom of kids, try to implement it at different schools, try to bring it up to scale, what have been the most important things you’ve learned? And maybe a better way to ask that would be, if you were to start the work over again, what would you be sure to do this time?

GRACE DELGADO: That’s a really good question. I think that because Lorin and I were able to start these conversations last year — so we didn’t roll it when we started having the conversation, we actually waited a year before we rolled it out — we were able to clean a lot of those pieces. I think one of the key pieces I keep going back to is the teacher. We had to make sure that we had the right teachers in those classrooms before we attempted to do anything. In addition to providing the books, I created this running document that has questions to go with each book to help the teachers have a starting point for the conversations. I think as we refine the program, in order to continue we will have more conversations where teachers have more voice in it. Now that we’ve tried a few things, I think bringing the teachers in and tweaking how to roll it out, how to create those routines at the very beginning of the school year, bringing their experiences will be key, because then they can troubleshoot with each other things that they saw in each classroom and we can just make it better.

LORIN FURLOW: My experience with circle practices, and restorative practices specifically, is a lot like what Grace is saying. Helping to teach our teachers to facilitate learning versus direct learning. Being a listener and a supporter versus a responder and director. And that can be a little bit of a different style for most instructional leaders. And so again, just ensuring that you have the right people who are willing to experience the process and the constant revisiting and responding to each one of the students that are participating in their own classrooms and in their own circles.

I think it’s important that we continue to explore, as educational leaders, the idea that we all have something to contribute. Every one of us as instructional leaders, our students have something to contribute, and looking for frameworks such as the language development through using restorative circles. It’s a framework that facilitates the student voice to make that happen. And I think that that’s really important as something that we continue to look at, involving our learners and involving our instructional leaders in conversations.

GRACE DELGADO: And I think the only thing I would add to that is that I would encourage others to create these collaboration spaces, not just in your classrooms, but all the way to central office. I mean the fact that Lauren and I have been collaborating in this project for over a year, sometimes we get in these silos. I mean, I’m the person in charge of EL, she’s the person in charge of special education. But the reality is that we share students and we have to watch out for all students. So we have to sometimes let go of our ego and go ask for help and say, ‘Okay, how can you help me do this, because you are an expert in this area. How can we work together?’ Because at the end of the day, it’s going to benefit students and that’s what we’re here for.

That’s a great place to end. We have been speaking with Grace Delgado, the Director of Language Acquisition and Lorin Furlow who is the Director of Special Services at Brazosport ISD in Texas. Grace and Lorin, I want to thank you again so much for your time today.

GRACE DELGADO: Thank you Ryan.

LORIN FURLOW: Thanks Ryan.

We hope you’re enjoying Field Trip – and if you are, there are two things that I would love for you to do. The first, of course, is to subscribe. We release new stories every two weeks, and I’m really  excited about a few that are in the works right now. You can find us pretty much anywhere you get your podcasts.

The second thing is tell a colleague about Field Trip. Maybe someone you work with would enjoy this episode with Grace and Lorin, or one of the others. Our goal in telling these stories is to spark ideas and conversations in education.

Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, bringing you Frontline Special Ed & Interventions, which helps you support a continuum of services like special education, RTI and MTSS, Section 504, Medicaid Tracking and Claims, Gifted and Talented, and English Learners. For more information, visit

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.