For Lawrence middle school teacher Kimberly Rodriguez, learning about her students’ personal histories changed her approach in the classroom. Understanding the challenges facing students and their families, many of whom are not native English speakers, helped Rodriguez forge connections with students and open up communication with parents.
Rodriguez used strategies she learned in a pilot project led by Graduate School of Education Assoc. Prof. Michaela Colombo
. A partnership between the GSE, the Lawrence schools and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the project’s goal was to improve classroom instruction for students learning the English language. More than 40 staff members of the Lawrence school district participated in the training and professional development program, with 36 earning a 12-credit certificate from UMass Lowell in teaching English language learners (ELLs).
“It was eye-opening,” Rodriguez says. “I wanted to get a better understanding of my students’ needs. Knowing each student’s story helps me reach them.”
Now, the project, known as Preparing Excellent Teachers of All (English) Language Learners (PETALLs), is expanding, thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The five-year grant will fund additional teacher training and professional development, with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.
“PETALLs addresses the urgent need to improve the education of English language learners,” says Colombo.
As part of the project, the GSE is incorporating ELL training into its curriculum to prepare new teachers. The faculty meets regularly to integrate new methods into graduate education courses, Colombo says. Heidi Perez, an ELL professional from the Lawrence school district, is a liaison to the project and facilitates the meetings along with GSE faculty members.
“This project is a unique partnership,” says Colombo. “GSE faculty members are learning from Lawrence, just as they are learning from us.”
One of the poorest districts in Massachusetts, Lawrence faces steep challenges in its efforts to improve student success. For nearly 75 percent of the district’s 13,000 students, English is not the primary language, according to the DESE.
One component of the PETALLs program is training teachers how to increase family and community engagement with the school. In a course taught by Asst. Prof. Phitsamay Uy
and Perez, Rodriquez and her colleagues learned strategies for breaking down the barriers that kept parents from attending school events. As part of that course, the teachers organized events to bring families into the school, including a memory book celebration in which students created a scrapbook about important events in their lives, and a poetry slam, with parents acting as the judges. Rodriguez also began calling parents on the phone to share positive news about their children.
“There are very few courses that teach teachers how to engage the community and families,” says Uy. “The professional development classes have resulted in great dialog among Lawrence teachers. They are thinking differently about parent involvement.”
Bringing teachers together to discuss common classroom challenges also makes it possible for them to work together on strategies for improvement. Participants were trained to coach other teachers in the district about what they learned in the program.
“I was incredibly impressed with the Lawrence teachers. Their expertise and enthusiasm were so powerful,” says Colombo.
Spring Program Expands
In the spring, an additional 24 Lawrence teachers and approximately 100 paraprofessionals will enter the program. Faculty from the GSE and the Lawrence Public Schools are working together to develop the curriculum. The goal is for the PETALLs program to become a model that can be used by other school districts across the country.
Laurie Hartwick, an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher in Lawrence who participated in the first round of training, says the program made it easier for faculty and staff to collaborate and develop plans to target specific needs in the classroom.
“It’s phenomenal to have that opportunity,” she says.
Hartwick came to campus and spoke to Colombo’s students about her experiences teaching high school students in Lawrence. She described working with teachers to help tailor lessons to students who are still trying to learn English. Relatively small adjustments, like tweaking the words used to give instructions for a test, or having students write a personal story to explain scientific principles like gravity or inertia, can make a big difference, she says. Like Rodriguez, Hartwick says communicating with students and understanding their individual needs is key to helping them learn.
“They might not know how to do homework or have the support at home to do homework,” she says. “You have to find out why and give them strategies to succeed.”