Empowering English Language Learners: A Three-Part Framework

At my school in Shaw, we teach native speakers of 9 languages. Across the city, about 10% of D.C. students are English language learners (ELLs). That’s more than 7,000 students who qualify for official services to support them learning English. And that figure does not include the large number of kiddos who are proficient in English and who continue to hear or speak another language at home.

Blended and personalized learning models are exciting for ELL students and their teachers because these models potentially create the conditions for students to make rapid progress with their English. To capitalize on being a student in this type of model, ELLs need to be aware of two things:

  1. They are always learning English, whether or not language acquisition is a stated objective for the class as a whole. Learning English is a personal objective that ELLs need to pursue through every single activity.
  2. Certain habits allow ELLs to ensure that they are growing in their English as well as in their content knowledge. If ELLs carry out these learning habits independently, without teacher prompting, they are sure to make progress in English.

Here’s the framework I’ll be using to teach ELLs what they can do to be strong, independent learners when they’re in a blended learning classroom:

  • Control the pace.
  • Collect new words.
  • Come prepared for conferences.

In this post, I’ll share what I teach students about the habit we call “Control the Pace.” Later this week, I will share more details about the other two habits in the framework.

Part 1: Control the pace.

Whether students are at a tech-based station or not, they should adjust the speed at which they’re working to optimize comprehension. Many students already have habits of re-reading when they are trying to understand text on paper. During my summer pilot, I found that students did not automatically apply this strategy to audio or video content—some kiddos did not re-watch or re-listen until I told them outright that they could (and should!).

Going back to listen for the answer to a particular comprehension question or to find details to support a claim is beneficial for all students, but repeated listening is doubly important for students who are learning English. Language acquisition research has shown that repeated listening (in ESL lingo, sometimes called “narrow listening”) enhances comprehension and even motivation.

I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own study of French. One class I’ve taken at the Alliance Française is designed entirely around repeated viewings of the same one to two short news clips per 90-minute class session! I’ll be sharing with my ELLs how much those repeated listening experiences have improved my vocabulary and my comfort with certain grammatical constructions, and I’ll be encouraging all of my students to rewind and re-listen as much as they like.

Check back later this week for more on the framework I use to support ELLs in being strong, independent learners in a blended learning classroom!

Alison Gillmeister, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Shaw Campus


Let Them Go Shopping: How to Redesign a Library

On Wednesday, I introduced my 72 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students to our classroom library. And for the first time in 96 hours, I relaxed.

In the past, my classroom library has been a source of stress for me—an insistently nagging problem that’s usually not quite high enough on the priority list to warrant the inevitable Sisyphean effort required to revamp the system. I’ve brought many of my own childhood books to share with the kids, bought more than a few more, and spent many laborious hours painstakingly tagging all of my books with genre-specific stickers. It was an endeavor rewarded with about 12 minutes of success…and deemed a complete failure when stickers began falling off by the bucketload. Not that they would’ve done much good anyway; I learned the hard way how important library routines and procedures are.

But solid systems in place or not, when I got an unexpected shipment of new books courtesy of Scholastic bonus points from our book fair, I groaned, wondering how many stickers I had left. Not the correct response for an ELA teacher and self-proclaimed lover of all things literary. So I decided to figure out what was going wrong.

And now—I have a classroom library prototype! And initial testing is favorable.

Here’s how it works:

All of our classroom library books have been scanned into Libib (check out our library here!), and the physical books are arranged on the shelves in alphabetical order by author’s last name. The students go “book shopping” online, then go to the physical classroom library when they’re relatively certain of a book (or a few) that they want to try. Then, when they finish a book, they put it into the return box, and trained (12-year-old) librarians return the books to their proper places on the shelves.

Here’s what I’ve found:

  1. The kids like it. A lot. When I asked students why they thought I might have organized our library this way, one responded. “Cause you love us!” True, my friend. True.
  2. The ability to tag one book with multiple genres/categories and for students to search by these tags is invaluable.
  3. A few kids still like to book shop by perusing the physical library.
  4. Book shopping happens significantly more quickly this way, and more kids find a book that they stick with on the first try.
  5. It takes quite a long time to scan upwards of 1,000 books into an online library system, particularly when there are quite a few glitches (not recognizing the barcode, identifying the wrong title, etc.). My solution: I found someone who loves me very much and has similar perfectionist tendencies, and I got them to do it for me. That was a good move.

Here’s what I wonder:

  1. Will it be worth it in the long run? It’s been successful for two days, but only time will tell…
  2. Was Libib the best choice? I’m paying five bucks a month, and I love the layout, but the circulation system isn’t as intuitive as I’d like.

The bottom line: One week into my first school year as a classroom teacher, I feel pretty happy with our system, and that’s saying quite a bit. It’s kind of delightful to watch kids trying to sneakily read books under their desks while I tell them how we’re going to transition to our next activity.

Samantha Ellerbeck, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Brightwood Campus


A Summer of Innovation, Part 6: 4 Key Takeaways

This summer, I observed six talented CityBridge Foundation Education Innovation Fellows pilot new blended learning models in their classrooms in Washington, D.C. All six Fellows designed and piloted station rotation blended learning models (customized to each classroom’s needs), which utilize three to four student learning centers that provide targeted instruction via different learning modalities. All six Fellows had at least two learning stations that were powered by technology, meaning they consisted of students working on ed tech apps or programs, such as Edmodo, TenMarks, or ST Math.

After a summer of studying these pilots, I’ve summarized four significant takeaways:


1. Small-group instruction is the best for meeting students’ needs.

Although I’m genuinely impressed with how well each Fellow’s pilot worked, particularly in terms of student accountability and engagement, I’m thoroughly convinced that the most effective station was the teacher-led small group station. It’s no coincidence that each Fellow had this as a main blended learning station.

Across schools, subjects and grades, the Fellows masterfully used the small group station to provide their students with personalized and targeted support. During each observation, I purposefully sat inconspicuously near the teacher-led station so I could listen to the Fellows engage each group of students with higher-order and rigorous questions. And since the teachers have data specific to their small groups and the students’ common gaps or misconceptions, they were equipped to address those gaps or modify accordingly.


Takeaway #2: The real magic is relationships.

As a silent spectator, the teacher-led station seemed the most effective and engaging. But don’t take my word for it. Kelley Jones said her students “really seemed to love the model, but even more, they appeared to love being able to connect with their teachers.” This point shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Although this part of the classroom experience is sometimes overlooked, any teacher worth his or her weight in gold will tell you that relationships influence a student’s desire to learn from his or her teacher. That’s why students prefer the teacher-led or small-group instruction station: It allows them to interact with their teacher and fellow classmates in a more intimate and safe learning environment.


Takeaway #3: No one missed whole-class instruction.

Whole-class instruction was missing across all Fellows’ classrooms. And after observing these talented teachers manage their blended learning environments, I couldn’t help but wonder if this traditional method is incompatible with blended or personalized learning models.

The simple answer: Of course not! It’s not structurally incompatible; teachers could carve out time for whole-class instruction if they wanted to. However, if teachers are also expected to analyze student data to differentiate lesson activities and assignments for every student, the question becomes, “How can a teacher effectively perform this task via whole-class instruction, alone?” The other simple answer: They can’t.

This where personalized learning models come in: They allow teachers to redesign time and classroom structure so they can meet each of their students where they are in a sustainable way. 


Takeaway #4: It’s more than just technology-enabled activities.

During my visits this summer, I observed an interesting difference: Each Fellow used an ed tech site as a supplement to learning, not as a stand-alone assignment. (For example, each Fellow allowed students to use certain educational sites, such as TenMarks, that required students to complete a targeted skill level or lesson.) These lessons were reinforced via the small group or teacher-led station. This is an important note to mention.

The education community sometimes assumes that using technology in the classroom will automatically boost student achievement. This assumption causes us to define blended and personalized learning in terms of devices like tablets or laptops. But a classroom filled with technological devices will not magically boost learning. And more importantly, blended and personalized learning is not the same as a technology-enabled classroom.

So what is a technology-enabled classroom? A classic example is when students  to use a device to complete a “digitized” worksheet—essentially the same worksheet that they might have filled out on paper, but in digital format. A personalized learning classroom, however, leverages education apps and/or programs to tailor instruction based on student data. In other words, blended and personalized learning has little to do with a specific piece of hardware or educational site; it has more to do with how the teacher leverages the learning model to maximize student understanding. Even though technology is an all but necessary classroom resource, we must not interpret ed tech itself as the holy grail of blended or personalized learning.

Thank you for joining me in examining the innovative work that’s happening in classrooms across D.C.! It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Angel Cintron Jr., Contributing Blogger and 2014 Education Innovation Fellow

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The “Set It and Forget It” Mentality

Shifting from “computer time” to a blended learning block

As I enter year two at my school (a first in many ways—I’ve never taught the same subject to the same kids at the same school), there are a great many bright spots.

For starters, as I’ve sat in the hallway during planning time, multiple first graders have looked at me with wide eyes and asked “Are you the principal?” While I am certainly not, starting the year with students thinking that I might be isn’t a bad way to start.

But the true bright spots are in our approach to our ed tech programs—and a big push, from administration, myself, and our teachers—to shift the mindset we have around these powerful and pricey programs.

While it was never outright stated, the mindset nearly all classrooms had around these programs was that they were babysitters at worst and magical programs that you “set and forgot” and would automatically do cool things to help kids learn at best. So this became “computer time”—a loosely defined time for kids to “get on computers” and teachers to…do some other things.

While ed tech programs can indeed pretty magical, and blended learning time can look pretty serene, it actually takes a Really. Great. Teacher to get blended learning off the ground.

Sometimes blended learning is serene, and sometimes it looks like this.

Sometimes blended learning looks serene, and sometimes it looks like this.

That’s why I spent the last week making 17 binders—one for each homeroom of my school—jam-packed with individual student data reports and individualized instruction activities, both broken down by literacy domain (vocabulary, phonics, etc.). These reports and activities are both automatically generated by our reading program, iReady, based on a short diagnostic test students take. This test also generates a playlist of content focusing on the domains that students most need to grow at to be on target for their grade level.

With these binders, and a deeper understanding of iReady, the idea of setting and forgetting anything is all but forgotten. Instead, our blended learning block is a crucial 50 or so minutes for teachers to pull small groups based on their Individualized Learning Binders, and teach them a lesson that they clearly need.

How We Moved in This Direction

Clearly, this wasn’t an overnight transition. The binders alone took a full week to complete, and I’m still badgering teachers to get the last dozen or so iReady diagnostic tests done. Getting there took a variety of levers, a significant one simply being that I now have some experience at my school.

But the biggest influence was having a few hours of face time in front of teachers for some very intentional professional development. Laying out our plan for the year, and then giving teachers time to pull up the program and complete some simple tasks they need to know to make blended learning effective, was invaluable.

In addition, aligning with my principal on our school’s schedule to ensure we had a clearly named and significant amount of time for blended learning to occur was huge. We got a lot of feedback from teachers last year that there simply wasn’t time to execute what we were trying to do.

Finally, I created a pretty beefy vision of what I wanted to see happen—from administration, teachers, families, students, and myself. Having this vision was vital to backwards plan the PD I wanted to see, the time we needed in the schedule, and the legwork I needed to do beforehand.

Obviously, it’s still early. But we have started things easily two months ahead of where we were last year, and at a much higher bar. But as teachers have told me multiple times, “Now I actually know what we’re doing and how to do it!”

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy


Uncomfortable Grownups

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“Things that make grownups uncomfortable are okay if they drive results for kids.”

This little nugget of wisdom from my principal is one of my driving forces this year.

So often, we ask kids to do things because it makes our lives easier. And many of these things are really good things to do: Students writing their name on their homework does make teachers’ lives easier, but it’s also a good life skill. Students raising their hands before they speak makes it easier to manage the class, but it also shows self-control and order.

There are some things, though, that simply can’t be explained away with “it’s good for kids.” It’s those instances where there will be some uncomfortable grownups at my school this year (myself included).

When it comes to names written and hands raised, I think most of us are aligned that it serves some purpose. But having 24 students sitting through the same lesson when it isn’t at their zone of proximal development just doesn’t make sense in 2015.

While we had high hopes last year for blended learning, it ended up looking more like blocks of time for teachers to sit in front of the room, often looking slightly confused as to what they were to do.

It wasn’t that teachers didn’t want to help kids. This wasn’t an issue of willingness. They honestly didn’t know how to pull data from our blended learning programs, and therefore, they didn’t have any meaningful way to differentiate learning. It was colloquially called “computer time.” Oops.

Grownups weren’t uncomfortable, but they definitely were confused.


Although it’s only week two, this year is off to a much clearer start. None of us are true experts at this work just yet, but we have already carved out an hour a day for blended learning. We’ve also dived headfirst into data in a way that finally feels truly meaningful.

In these conversations, there’s some discomfort in change (“What do you mean we’re going to have 12 first graders on targeted reading lessons on computers, six reading independently, four getting a small group re-teach, and three getting a specific intervention?!”), but there’s also a great sense of possibility that we can see dramatic growth from our students this year.

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy


5 Lessons Learned from a First Year in Urban Education

Many of us think that we are good at our jobs. Some of us even think we are great at them. But I have a challenge for you: The next time you think you are good at your job, change almost every single thing about it, increase your difficulty from normal to very hard, and see if you are still as good as you thought you were.

In essence, this is what I did when I left the suburbs and came to work in Southeast Washington, D.C. Here’s what I learned.

Lesson #1: Confidence can be an ally and an enemy.
Figure out your weaknesses, and fail fast.

I thought I was an amazing teacher. I thought I was the kind of teacher that made students want to become a teacher. What I didn’t realize was that I had only taught privileged students in an environment that presented very few challenges. I taught in a palace far away from the problems my current students face every day.

My move to D.C. showed me that not every school was like the one I had taught in or grown up in. While I knew schools had challenges, I showed up to my first day in an urban school unprepared and unequipped for the challenges that I was about to face. My confidence had led me to take on a “great big challenge.” But in the end, it also allowed me to avoid facing the facts about my teaching weaknesses as soon as I should have.

Lesson #2: Get your story straight.                                           
Be yourself. Be genuine. Be real.

“Who is Mr. Ford? Why should I care about anything you have to say to me?” My good friend Alex Brown, also an Education Innovation Fellow, asked me that as we sat in our hotel room during the Fellowship trip to Chicago discussing how our year was going. Alex challenged me to find what was real about myself. He saw something that I had been unable to see.

As a teacher, I had a messaging problem. I didn’t present my real self to my students, and they quickly saw right through it. Our students deserve for us as teachers to be our real selves and to be authentic when we interact with them.

Lesson #3: Check yourself…frequently.
You don’t know what you don’t know.

Alex’s comments also led me to another area of reflection: It was time to confront race. Being a socially conscious person, I thought I understood what white privilege was. But I did not.

This year, I grappled with issues that my life had not previously forced me to face. I saw the different ways that people are looked at and treated; the assumptions that people make about students based on their race and where they come from; the different ways we frame what we teach.

These issues were sometimes very difficult to articulate and discuss, but the conversation they prompted has changed me forever. My first year in D.C. taught me that I need to be conscious of how my reality is not the same as my students’ reality. It also has pushed me to recognize the injustices around me and to work to make our society better in whatever small way I can.

Lesson #4: Times of hardship determine who we are.
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.” —Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa

In a one-week period, I buried my best friend, went to the funeral of a former player, got my car towed, and lost my job. As part of the reconstitution of Ballou Senior High School, I was excessed. I was devastated. I had thrown my entire life into disarray in order to take this leap of faith and move to an urban school, and I fell flat on my face. I was struggling with all of the whys and hows that you could imagine. I wondered if education was still the right place for me.

It is really easy to say that you love something before it gets hard. You don’t have to make as many high-stakes decisions when things are good. When things fall apart, you have to decide how to pick up the pieces.

I chose to learn. I made more mistakes than I can count last year, but I learned and got better from every single one. I am ten times the teacher I was before I came to DC. To once again quote Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa, “It’s not about how hard you hit—it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Lesson #5: Remember why it is that you do what you do.
“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” —Steve Jobs

Teaching is my passion. It makes me feel alive. It is the hardest thing that I have ever done and it continues to be on a regular basis. Even with—and sometimes because of—those challenges, I am proud to call myself a teacher. Teaching is what I am meant to do. It is has me excited to get out of bed every morning. It has me ready to pull long hours for not a lot of pay in order to make sure my students get the best that they can.

Another friend and Education Innovation Fellow, Claire Finn, told me last school year to “do whatever [I] had to in order to protect [my] love of teaching.” She told me that my love of teaching was more important than any one school or any one position. Most of us who teach choose this profession because it is more than just a job to us. It is what wakes us up early in the morning with a new lesson plan idea. It is what keeps us up, tossing and turning, before the first day of the new school year. It is what gives us the strength to bring our best to our students every day, even when the challenges both we and our students face are immense.

Remember why you do what you do. I teach because on the best days it doesn’t feel like work. And on the worst, I can go home, kick off my shoes, loosen my tie, and say, “What can I do better tomorrow?”

Nick Ford, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
DC SEED School


From Teacher to Leader: Lessons from a Competency-Based Classroom

I’ve just finished my first week of the 2015–2016 school year—which was also my first week as an assistant principal at E.L. Haynes Public Charter High School. For the past seven years I have been a high school math teacher (both at E.L. Haynes and in Boston), and prior to starting the first week of school, I had no idea what to expect. And honestly, on Monday, I felt a little lost: My week was dominated by dress code questions, parent conversations, and schedule changes. It was overwhelmingly different than welcoming 125 new students to my classroom. Although my practice wasn’t perfect when I was a classroom teacher, I was in a rhythm, and I knew exactly how I wanted to improve. I wanted to foster an environment where students felt comfortable and challenged, motivated and inspired, and most of all, where every student could access high school math.

My experience in the Education Innovation Fellowship has granted me the opportunity to travel to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago to see innovative schools that are devoting time, human capital, and energy to student learning in new ways. I joined the Fellowship when I was a teacher, and I took everything I learned back to E.L. Haynes to build upon the competency-based model I had begun establishing in my classroom.

This competency-based model came to be two years ago when a colleague and I realized that our practices were not adapting quickly enough to serve the wide range of students entering our Algebra 2 classes. We challenged ourselves to address the learning needs of every student—which ranged from 2nd to 12th grade math proficiency levels.

Our planning and teaching went through a huge transformation. We devoted time up front to planning units and classroom time working one-on-one and with small groups as facilitators and coaches. We encouraged students to move at their own pace and required them to master every standard before moving on to the next. Our results were positive: Students mastered more Algebra 2 content over the course of a year than ever before, test scores reflected that mastery, and most of all, students’ confidence grew. We had students who had never experienced success in a math classroom volunteering to participate in discussions and working alongside partners to solve problems.

Then, just when our model was off the ground, I had the amazing opportunity to move into my current full-time leadership position. I have an entirely new set of challenges to face head-on, and if week one has shown me anything, it’s that I will have to work harder than ever. But thinking about entering the second half of my Education Innovation Fellowship at the same time as I am learning my new role is inspiring.

Even though I am no longer in the classroom, I am thinking about how I can continue to bring my passion for and confidence in competency-based learning to my work. The E.L. Haynes community is committed to providing the best education to students in the city—and that ultimately, that was the aim of my classroom work.

When I left Chicago with my Education Innovation Fellowship colleagues, I was overwhelmed by the schools we saw—not just because of the teaching, technology, or even school buildings, but mostly by the engagement everywhere we went. Students not only loved coming to school, but they also loved learning. The schools had fostered such a culture of learning that staff and students had completely bought in. I am still grappling with the impact I want to have in my new role, but—inspired by Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley—some courage might just be my next step: “That combination of thought and action defines creative confidence: the ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out.”

Emily Hueber, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
E.L. Haynes High School