REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
For the few years I have been teaching ELL at JFK in Winooski, Vermont, co-teaching with two grade level teachers during math has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my educational career. Learning to teach side-by-side with a classroom teacher, while gaining new content skills and sharing my own expertise of how ELLs develop language, has benefited all the children in our classrooms. Our co-teaching is most effective when we’ve had time to plan together, set our common goals, discuss differentiation, and divide materials creation tasks. Recently hearing an improv comedian on VPR’s Fresh Air, Chris Gethard, explain how working closely with another comedian over time and with lots of practice gave root to an almost telepathic relationship where you could predict what the other person would say way before they said it, I was struck by how true that can be of a co-teacher relationship as well. At least one in which co-planning is a precursor to co-teaching. However, with our busy weekly planning, meeting with math and literacy coaches, special educators, student support and faculty meetings, etc. it can often be a challenge to find common planning time. While my co-teachers and I can quickly get on the same page before a lesson, touch base about student progress after a lesson, and be flexible during a lesson when one of us has an idea for pushing students thinking or dialing it back to reach all learners, there is no substitute for formal shared planning.
The use of Google Docs for lesson development has created a virtual space where time becomes less of a barrier to successful co-teaching. In first grade, the team plans math when I’m unable to attend, but my co-teacher is able to plug lessons into a shared online plan that I have access to. This way, if we don’t have time to meet, I can at least know what is happening each day and add to the plan with accommodations, ideas to adapt lessons for my ELLs, and strategies for accessing key vocabulary. I may also ask questions that my co-teacher can then read and respond to right in the shared plan. When we do have a chance to sit down together, we continue to use this tool, both on our own computers, so that we can jot down changes and ideas as we talk about them and refer back to them before a lesson. The form we use also allows us to highlight math habits of interaction and habits of mind that we want to focus on in each lesson. The top of the lesson plan asks us to identify the big idea in the form of a question. Even if we have only this clarified, we are on our way to more cohesive instruction. This shared lesson planning has fostered an equitable and transparent co-teaching relationship.
At the kindergarten level, my co-teacher and I have begun to move our unique, thematic and play-based units in math onto Google Docs where we can quickly paste links to videos, printables and public records we want to share with the rest of the kindergarten team. When we return to these plans next year, all of our materials and ideas will be in one convenient place. Apps like CamScanner are a great way to get hand written materials into an electronic format for later reference and use. With this app, you can take a picture of a poster, for example, and upload it to Google Drive as a PDF file. This file can then be inserted in the Google Doc lesson plan. In addition, after my co-teacher and I both attended the NNETESOL conference in November, we returned with another idea for our shared lesson planning inspired by Katy Heermann’s presentation “Bridging the Divide - Increasing Collaboration Between Classroom and ELL Teachers” to add a table with “can do” descriptors at different WIDA proficiency standards that is tailored to the content of each unit (NNETESOL 2016). I’ve begun adding these to the kindergarten math units, and plan to add them to the first grade units as well. This can act as a guide for other classroom teachers as they are thinking about how their ELLs can participate and contribute to math lessons. The online lesson planning has been so successful that both of my co-teachers are now using it not only for math, but also to help pass information to me regarding literacy units and meetings I’m unable to attend.
If you haven’t yet started using Google Docs, it might be time to take the plunge.