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Collaborative Teaching Benefits Multilingual, Immigrant, and Refugee Students

Jane Charlotte Weiss is an elementary teacher in Portland, Ore., and a Fulbright Distinguished Teaching Fellow in Finland.

By Guest Blogger Jane Charlotte Weiss

How do we design classrooms and education systems that truly reflect the brilliance of our most underrepresented children? How do we create learning communities for the greatest thinkers and most thoughtful people for the world? As an elementary school teacher focused on multilingual, immigrant, and refugee students, I've been asking myself these questions for years and am convinced that there is now more potential than ever to answer these questions in tangible ways.

I see immigration as a collective story, a foundation of our country. And yet with each new wave of immigration to the U.S., a backlash of intolerance and misunderstanding has come with it, often followed by political and education policies that mirror these sentiments in both overt and subtle ways.

A Broken System

The landscape for students in the U.S. categorized as English-learners has been largely dictated by court rulings and federal and state regulations which mandate classification and specialized services for students speaking multiple languages with the goal of ensuring that they have equal access to education. While programs are intended to help students, a growing body of work has also identified numerous ways in which the classification of and services for students labeled as ELs creates a hierarchically tiered education system that parallels many of the social inequalities that exist in our society as a whole

I saw this firsthand during the earliest years of my career as an elementary multilingual specialist in Portland, Ore. My days were spent pulling children out of their classrooms to receive English- language-development (ELD) instruction in small groups. Both their classroom teachers and I found ourselves working hard in isolation. Our students, who spent significant time outside of the classroom, were often the most disengaged and did not seem to be making significant academic or linguistic growth. EL classification is not intended to impact the social status of students, but there is wide recognition that pullout programs and remedial courses often result in social stigmatization and barriers to opportunities within schools. In a recent study, Ilana Umansky at the University of Oregon found that EL classification alone can have a long-lasting negative impact on students' academic achievement starting as young as 2nd grade.

Rewriting the Future

In 2013, the Oregon education department adopted an innovative set of English-language-proficiency standards that align with the Common Core, presenting us with the opportunity to write a new chapter. Across the state, EL specialists like myself were emboldened to work directly alongside classroom teachers and support language development throughout the day using an innovative practice called collaborative teaching or co-teaching.  

I changed schools that year and my new principal thoughtfully allowed me to take a grassroots approach to building a schoolwide collaborative-teaching model, which we based on the work of researcher Michael Fullan and his Six Secrets of Change.These principles were essential in guiding me toward a collective, open-minded, and grassroots approach to co-teaching. In the spring of that first year, I started dropping by teachers' classrooms after school to see if they would be interested to try co-teaching with me. Eight elementary teachers were equally passionate about improving access and opportunities for multilingual students and interested in co-teaching. Together, we looked at ourselves as teacher-researchers and approached the work from an inquiry perspective, asking, "How can we work together so that students grow in their language development and learn rigorous academic content?" We used research from Stanford University's Understanding Language initiative to cultivate excitement and build a shared vision for our collaborative-teaching model. 

Leveraging Collective Wisdom

One crucial yet difficult element of co-teaching is planning together. Without time to collaborate on lessons, effective co-teaching is nearly impossible. Thankfully, our principal allowed me to dedicate one day a week entirely to meeting with classroom teachers during their prep times and after school. We found that this time to reflect upon, prepare for, and refine our lessons often had just as significant an impact on our work with students as the actual co-teaching. It also allowed me to organize several lesson studies so teachers across grade levels could collectively refine our co-teaching approach. Lesson study is an inquiry process in which teachers set a goal for improving their practice, generate a lesson based on research and pedagogical innovation, teach the lesson while being observed by colleagues, and then reflect upon student engagement and learning. A foundational goal of our collaborative-teaching model has always been to recognize and build upon the unique talents and expertise of each individual teacher. By keeping our gaze sharply focused on each student's engagement and progress throughout the day, we have been able to determine which research-based instructional practices are having the greatest impact. The cross-pollination of these instructional approaches among teachers has had a profound impact on students throughout the school; what we have been able to create collectively has become much greater than anything we could have accomplished individually.  

Co-teaching students categorized as ELs is an emerging practice in Oregon, but its potential to improve student outcomes is momentous. Working alongside teachers to analyze student progress and discuss the best ways to teach them has been some of the most profound work I've ever done. In our school district, we often talk about "creating conditions for miracles to occur," when disenfranchised students transcend the opportunity gaps that have traditionally written their story. As we see it, if we want this to happen for our most marginalized learners, we are going to need to work together to leverage our collective wisdom—and this is exactly what teaching and planning collaboratively has accomplished.

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

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