“It only takes a moment, all you need is one partner, you can do this work on your own, it’s hard but you can do these things from the bottom up” – Emily Portle, Racial Equity Teacher Development
“People always object. I listen. I make myself available to talk.” – Jon Jagermann, Brave Space to Talk About Race
Educators and districts around the country have been working to take a hard look at racial equity; from discipline policies and dress codes to school climate and instructional methods, a re-examination of schooling has been underway. Addressing systemic racism is challenging and also controversial. Still, innovative educators have been seeking out ways to positively impact their students and communities. This blog highlights two of the courageous efforts awarded funding through the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation’s annual grant program.
Awarded in 2020-2021 school year, the Brave Space to Talk about Race project and the Racial Justice Teacher Development project were both able to create opportunities for leadership, educators and staff to engage in a closer look at racial equity in their work. These projects are important to highlight, not only because they took on challenging topics but also because they help demonstrate how these efforts can be impactful. What can we learn from these efforts?
Instructional leadership takes on a new meaning
The Racial Justice Teacher Development project took multiple approaches to engaging the whole staff in professional development which would lead to a school wide vision where children on the edges became a central point of focus. The teachers shifted from focusing on the feedback from PTO to looking closer at conversations with parents who weren’t coming to PTO, but it wasn’t a journey that happened overnight – instead it grew over time through an instructional leadership perspective.
This project started by sending a school-based leadership team to attend summits and conferences where they could immerse themselves in learning about race and equity. They established a plan to engage the educators and staff. A cohort of educators planned yearlong strands of racial justice learning for their peers to increase their capacity as teacher leaders, including an equity strand for staff focused on increasing cultural competence and becoming an anti-racist educator. As part of their professional development staff also received The Racial Healing Handbook by Dr. Anneleise Singh and participated in their choice of book studies with a selection of books.
As a result of the professional development in the Racial Justice Teacher Development project, project leaders reported strengthened classroom communities and a decrease in behavior incidents. Through their professional learning efforts, they were able to begin redesigning instructional models and systems at their school toward a student-centered, restorative, inclusive school for all of their student body. Leaders in the school have also developed new ways to address equity in class placement, identification of students with advanced learning needs, and changes to instructional blocks that are more responsive to all students. The equity strands were impactful and will be a continued effort in the future.
Not a “Safe Space,” instead a brave one
Brave Space to Talk About Race is a project in Milwaukee Public Schools created to increase staff member conversations about race. The goals were to help identify actions the district could take to address issues of discipline disproportionality and school climate and to develop antiracist educators who could increase school capacity to maintain and sustain the work of having these conversations.
The project incorporated ways for staff members to engage with these topics through reading groups, by creating book study guides, participating in Jamboard reflections, offering viewings of the documentary “Pushout,” and offering programs for educators who were interested in participating . These included offering a Race Practitioner’s Cohort and planning a three-year program called Courageous Conversations about Race Exploration. In addition, the team worked to integrate action steps into school improvement plans for the coming year. At the end of the year project leaders shared cohort action steps with the district leadership and participating school-based cohorts had action steps to continue these conversations in the next school year.
Challenges along the way
Of course one of the major challenges for both project teams was COVID-19 and its impact on schooling. Some schools taught the first part of the year online and had a phased re-opening in the spring, which made it difficult to sustain professional development. Some schools were entirely virtual. This made book studies more challenging, but also opened up some virtual learning opportunities which can be useful in multi-school or district projects.
Recommendations for educators
Both of these projects took on challenging topics and both offer examples in their approach that could be beneficial to others who are working to improve racial equity.
Getting buy in at all levels by building relationships
Creating norms for conversations
Engaging in reflection on policies and methods
Facilitating conversations around meaningful texts, media and/or events
Allowing people to engage with the project at their own comfort level
Developing action steps for the next year
While the work of racial equity is not easy to do, it can be done by small groups of educators working together. These projects have shown some impactful ways that educators can develop projects that can grow to serve these communities over time, supporting the leadership and staff in an ongoing effort to support racial equity. As Emily stated, the message is: Don’t wait! Start Now!
Learn more about Racial Equity and Teacher Development
Educators are on the front lines in addressing the low levels of student academic language literacy resulting from the phenomena of modern family life: both parents working full time, limited oral language acquisition in the home resulting from the economic pressure on families, and increased student screen time.
Ellen Guettler at Irving school in Bozeman, MT is implementing The Academic Literacy Institute (ALI) to improve the instructional competencies of district teachers via intensive professional development to better serve two identified district populations at risk: low income/low literacy English-only students and English Language Learners(ELLs), for whom English is not their primary language. As such a project has many components, The Academic Literacy Institute (ALI) is a three year project.
What were the goals of the project?
The Academic Literacy Institute (ALI) is a three-year project aimed at improving the instructional competencies of District teachers via professional development to shift the ‘culture of instruction’ to better serve two identified district populations at risk:
low income/low literacy English-only students
English Language Learners (ELLs).
Their goal is to increase student knowledge of academic vocabulary via explicit vocabulary instruction in Tier 2 critical thinking vocabulary like ‘evaluate /classify / infer’ and Tier 3 content specific vocabulary like ‘perimeter / figurative language / hypothesis.’ This explicit instruction, coupled with the use of language frames, visual aids, and graphic supports, helps low literacy / EL students acquire and comprehend the academic vocabulary they need to be college and career ready.
How were these goals achieved?
ELL staff members,Ellen Guettler and Kathleen Johns trained K-8 ELL teachers on explicit vocabulary development and provided comprehensive data folders on each individual ELL student’s needs, using STAR reading and math data, WIDA ACCESS scores, a writing sample and a summary report from the previous year’s teacher. Teachers were allotted time during the trainings to analyze their ELL student data files in order to plan individualized sheltered supports for academic vocabulary development for their ELL students.
At the trainings, teachers learned about the stages of primary and second language acquisition, explicit vocabulary instructional strategies, and the importance of using graphic organizers to teach Tier 2/3 vocabulary to low literacy students in order to contextualize academic learning.
Teachers were allotted time during the trainings to analyze their ELL student data files in order to plan individualized sheltered supports for academic vocabulary development for their ELL students.
17 (K-12) district teachers attended a two-day WIDA training titled, “Scaffolding Learning Through Language”. Twelve of those teacher participated in a two-hour online follow up with the WIDA workshop facilitator and Ellen Guettler to share their scaffolding implementation strategies.
ELL staff developed 1-1 sheltered instructional supports for teachers districtwide with the development of an online resource page to support teachers in implementing explicit vocabulary development through the use of graphic organizers, Tier 2-word lists, YouTube instructional videos, literature support materials, and strategies to help teachers make the content more comprehensible for the district’s low literacy and EL populations.
In this first year, what progress did they make towards their goals?
The entire first year was about creating an infrastructure to address the numerous existing programmatic holes in serving the district’s ELL students. The following processes and procedures were developed:
An ELL Pathway teacher list is being compiled and computerized so that ELL student placement is formalized at each site to build teacher/site competency in addressing literacy needs of ELL and low language students.
Online professional development supports were developed so that academic English literacy supports (Tier 2/3 vocabulary sheets, graphic organizers, language function charts, etc.) are all available via one website. Professional development instructional videos on effective vocabulary development are also listed.
A VISTA application was submitted and approved to support 3 sustainable ELL program goals:
With the ELL program growing by 50% in the first year of the project and no bilingual materials available, time was consumed by translating forms and supporting ELL families in accessing community resources. To further the VISTA goals, teachers, administrators and area agency leaders met twice at ELL working group meetings to identify the needs in the education and community agency arenas. Issues, goals and next steps were identified. As a result of the UBD work, a lack of explicit phonics instruction districtwide for late arrival or low level EL students were identified as a roadblock to acquisition of academic vocabulary. As a result , a pilot program was planned. The pilot will include all K-3 students in a predominantly ELL Title 1 elementary school, all late arrival ELLs, as well as ELLs scoring 3 or lower on the reading portion of the ACCESS 2.0 exam district wide. The curriculum of the pilot phonics program will be the Imagine Language and Literacyprogram. to address the identified need for explicit phonics instruction and remediation of their K-2 and late arrival ELL students who slip through the cracks and never master the requisite phonics skills to read fluently. With this additional instruction, they hope that students can engage in Tier 2/3 vocabulary development they need to access college and career readiness. With 152 students in the Title III program and only two staff members, the online curriculum will ensure every student receives the phonics instruction they need to proficiently read in English so they can access the core content standards equitably.
How did their project affect the learning of students and/or teachers?
Their project objectives were the catalyst for systematic ELL program improvement via professional development of teachers and infrastructure development. Their mentor continually focused on the conversation of creating program sustainability and on the importance of establishing procedures that ensured that end, regardless of who was at the helm.
The steps they took in the first year moved the ELL program in the right direction. Over 65 district teachers understand the vital importance of vocabulary development and sheltered instructional strategies to ensure ELL and low language students have access to the academic vocabulary they need to be successful in school and beyond. As a result of the PD trainings, district teachers are more receptive to ELL supports and accommodations than ever before. They are much more cognizant of the role that academic English language development plays in the success or failure of a student, because they have a clearer understanding of second language acquisition theory and the role that Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary acquisition plays in student achievement. For the first time in the district’s history many teachers actively referred to the WIDA English Language Proficiency Standards and the “Can Do” Descriptors in their lesson planning. Although there is still much work to do in this area of instruction to maximize Tier 2/3 vocabulary acquisition, the groundwork was laid, and their teachers are receptive to this instructional paradigm shift.
What challenges did they experience and how they are addressing the challenges to improve the project?
Ellen reported, “this project was full of unanticipated challenges and roadblocks. As the adage goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know until you do,” definitely applied in this project.” Due to addressing the need for shifting negative teacher attitudes toward time set aside for professional development in a year when they were piloting a difficult new math curriculum, addressing a 50% increase in EL enrollment overnight, and realizing the myriad of social and procedural issues that were impacting the project implementation and EL achievement in school, they redefined the year 1 goals of the project.
Although there was a significant focus on teacher professional development and training, Ellen’s mentor quickly shifted the focus of her energies as EL Coordinator to address the infrastructure issues that were preventing her from dedicating the time she needed to the project goals of providing ongoing teacher support of effective vocabulary development strategies in teacher classrooms. By addressing the EL program infrastructure in the first year and part of the next year, Ellen will be better able to meet the time commitment and PD goals of the project, which focus on facilitating teacher engagement and reflection on their instructional processes throughout the year. In this way, teacher competencies in academic language and literacy instruction across content areas will be developed.
To improve the project, in addition to providing face-to-face trainings, Ellen is eager to create screencast trainings that will be accessible 24-7 online. The resources will be available to all district teachers to better meet the professional development needs both in intensive trainings and bite-size chunks for teachers to watch and utilize when they have specific EL questions and instructional needs throughout the year.
Ellen plans to utilize and share with parents the easy-to-access curriculum provided in the Imagine Learning and Literacy program her school is piloting. Ellen plans to continue ELL Family Literacy Nights but with a new focus on family engagement using the Imagine program. The Imagine program, offers a preview of all instructions for the English phonics and academic vocabulary curriculums in 26 different languages. This easy-to-use literacy tool will be supportive in engaging entire families.
As Ellen states, “diving in this project has been a bit like opening Pandora’s Box” due to discovering the layers upon layers of “missing” procedures. With the steps they have taken to address the “missing” procedures and by building a sustainable infrastructure, we at the McCarthy Dressman Education Foundation are excited to see how this project progresses
Adam Kinory at the School of the Future in New York, NY and his colleagues are educators who sought to reconstitute the long dormant New York City Chapter of the New York State English Council and National Council of Teachers of English. The chapter will be open to any teacher, across content areas, that seeks to improve their instruction of reading/writing, with the nucleus of teachers being from their school. The process of forming a chapter, will provide a vision around which teachers at the school can unite, learn to improve their ability to collaborate, while also address inequities in student achievement. By coming together in service of starting a NCTE chapter they hoped to prioritize creating a shared, preferred, vision of the future over of the self-flagellation and critique that too often results in pessimism and disenfranchisement.
They wanted to read a shared text, using protocols, and rotate the role of the facilitator. They sought to create a sense of “equity” amongst teachers and empower them with the tools they needed to take charge of their own professional development.,
Using this core group of educators, They wanted to form an affiliate chapter of the national council of teachers of English (N.C.T.E..)to plan a conference, where participants would have a shared experience of creating something new. Through their new chapter creation, they could adjust social norms and reflect on how equity informs decisions that are made.
What did they accomplish?
The project goals were met and new a project was created.
Using the teachings of Peter Block’s text Community, they rotated the role of the facilitator, and used the protocols of the National School Reform Faculty, and ensured that everyone was “equal” in the control they had over the destiny of the group.
In re-starting the New York City chapter, Adam joined the board by request and attended board meetings regularly. They learned that the United Federation of Teachers (U.F.T) already had an existing New York City affiliate of the N.C.T.E., however the affiliate was dormant. The N.C.T.E wanted to restart the chapter but did not have a point person to do this for them. Adam worked with the representatives of the U.F.T to restart the committee and held two committee meetings.
Shared read became a separate project. Teachers across grades 6-10 met and engaged in a shared read of professional text, and used it to explore how to improve equity in teacher-teacher and teacher-student relationships. In creating equity by conducting a shared read at school, they established a common vocabulary as to the characteristics of an equitable community and have taken steps to integrate those characteristics within their pedagogy. Teachers have reported that their participation has led them to re-conceptualize how to interact with their students, reconsider curriculum, and clarify their own sense of mission and purpose.
What challenges did they come up against?
Trust was the most basic challenge. Building trust was a challenge in reinstating the affiliate committee with the U.F.T. Trust was a challenge that made it uncomfortable to collaborate with people that Adam had not worked with before and to make sure people felt free to talk. Participants did not immediately take to the text of Community.
The committee has less than dozen people from across New York City. They hope to grow the committee over the new few years.
They are considering two specific protocols to utilize within their practice.
They are considering a shared read of Freedom and Accountability at Work by Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block. By having a shared read of this text, participants will have the opportunity to explore how to deal with the anxiety that comes from having choices and control over our own lives and dealing with the denial that those choices exist as such denial often leads to hierarchy as people trade their freedom for certainty. If we accept our anxiety and explore the root of it, we can create equity in our relationships with ourselves and others.
The Second consideration for a shared read is Collaborating with the Enemy, by Adam Kahane. If this shared read is chosen, participants would explore how to build equitiy and agreement even when they fundamentally disagree with the most basic assumptions of those they engage with. They want to move from the broad sense of “equity” by design to choosing and using specific protocols to evolve the way they structure interactions that address the following questions: How do we maintain a stance of equity when interacting with those who seem to diametrically stand in opposition to us? How do we clarify the choices before us so that we do not blame some outside force (other teachers, the principal, parents) for our own disappointments? What does equity look like when we are attuned to our own neurosis?