New standards need to embrace English language learners

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As the AFT continues to shape and help teachers implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) of teaching, we are keeping in mind that all students need to succeed in school—including English language learners (ELLs).

For that reason, the AFT invited a diverse group of prominent ELL-focused researchers, advocates and policymakers to a roundtable exchange on June 25 designed to explore the Common Core standards in the context of ELLs: What unique challenges do these students face, and how can their teachers help them meet the standards successfully?

English language learners "cannot be an afterthought," said Dalia Zabala, one of the staff leaders at the session. "We must think about English language learners from the very start." Zabala understands the urgency of inclusion on a personal level: When she came to the United States from Guatemala at age 9, she did not speak a word of English.

That sort of insight and experience is invaluable on the team of AFT staff and, more particularly, AFT members who have helped create the standards, and are now assisting in implementation. Folding in the expertise and interest of the stakeholders at the roundtable will only enrich the process.

Among those in attendance were representatives from the National Association for Bilingual Education, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the National Education Association and other groups deeply committed to the success of diverse populations. The White House sent Gabriel Sandoval, the senior adviser on the Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Diane Staehr Fenner, NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) program coordinator for TESOL (Teachers of English as a Second Language) International, pinpointed specific challenges of teaching the Common Core curriculum to English language learners: among them, defining unknown words in the complex texts that are central to the standards, and providing context when teachers are urged to have students find answers independently. Fenner also pointed out the need for all teachers— not just ELL teachers—to be familiar with the unique needs of students who do not speak English as a first language. The TESOL teaching standards are an appropriate guide for all of them, she said.

Diane August, from the American Institutes for Research, has worked closely with teachers to explore the best ways to address the intersection of ELL and Common Core. Some of the best practices she's uncovered: Start with a "really strong mainstream lesson," like the short story by Kate Chopin teachers in her recent working group chose as an example; explain difficult words and phrases in the margins of the reading; and use a graphic organizer to chart out who's who in more complicated texts.

But as important as these lessons were, August stressed that the process was just as significant: Successes came from "conversations, and a lot of back and forth," she said. "This is collaborative, a real joint effort." Participants at the exchange could see that for themselves in a video of August working with teachers as they hammered out details of teaching language arts at an AFT-sponsored session in Albuquerque, N.M.

Noel Gunther, vice president of Learning and Interactive Media at PBS Station WETA and a leader of Colorín Colorado, also highlighted teacher participation. WETA and the AFT have had a long-standing partnership to bring resources to educators and parents of ELLs through Colorín Colorado, an award-winning website and the most widely accessed online source for instructional information on ELLs. One of the newest collaborations is a project funded by the AFT Innovation Fund. The project consists of creating a series of research-based model lesson plans, in addition to video interviews and footage of teachers discussing the "unpacking" of the Common Core State Standards and how to make them accessible to ELLs. When completed, the detailed lesson plans and videos will be featured on the Colorín Colorado website.

Kenji Hakuta, a leading scholar in the education of English language learners and bilingualism at Stanford University, also drilled down into the Common Core paradigm, describing it as a wave that teachers must learn to ride. Hakuta, a strong advocate for language minority students, helps direct an array of ELL teacher resources, including tools to connect students to Common Core standards.

As the Common Core continues to unfold, there undoubtedly will be more opportunities for educators to share their ideas and talk about implementation.

Share My Lesson, the new digital platform created by the AFT and Britain's TES Connect for U.S. educators, includes resources to guide teachers in implementing the new Common Core State Standards. [Virginia Myers, Giselle Lundy-Ponce]

June 27, 2012