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Specialist Spotlight: The Structure and support needed for improving EL instruction with Jenny Wooters from McKinney ISD

Jenny Wooters serves as the Secondary ESL Coordinator in McKinney ISD in Texas.  Previously, she was a Secondary Instructional Specialist in Garland ISD, working in a district with one of the largest populations of ELs in the North Texas area. She is also a former AVID Teacher and currently is an AVID Staff Developer, a program that has shown great success preparing students for college and careers.

Jenny is a dedicated wife to her husband, mother to her 4 children, 2 of whom are current MISD students, and 2 of whom have already graduated from McKinney ISD schools.  Teaching, helping, supporting, and encouraging students and teachers alike, education is near and dear to Jenny’s heart. This is her 14th year in education. Her Twitter handle is @jennyw4ELLs.

How are you using Ellevation Strategies to support your colleagues who have ELs in their classes?

I regularly work with Instructional Coaches (ICs) to prepare training on Ellevation Strategies for their content area teachers. The coaches’ main goal is to help their teachers perfect their craft, and Ellevation activities equip teachers to better meet the needs of all their students. 

We begin our sessions with a simple introduction to the Ellevation activities and show how they can be used in any content area to better support their students. As ICs better understand Ellevation, they see how it strengthens their coaching and they feel more confident supporting their colleagues.

To meet teachers needs, it’s best for an IC to understand where teachers are in the lesson plan cycle, so they can recommend an activity that will lend itself well to the instruction. While teachers can be hesitant to try something new, once they integrate an Ellevation activity, and see the results, they are hooked. To overcome any hesitancy, it’s critical for an IC to build strong relationships with teachers and show how Ellevation activities align with the content being taught. Because Ellevation Activities can be used in all contexts, the implementation process has worked well in our district. For example: A science teacher introducing the water cycle can use Be a Detective to grab the students attention and get them discussing images related to the content. To reinforce various sides of a debate and inspire more speaking in class, a social studies teacher could integrate Pro Con Improv into the student practice portion of a lesson. 

What is your favorite Ellevation instructional activity or one you recommend frequently? Why?

My favorite Ellevation instructional activity is 5 & 2 because it allows students processing time as well as an opportunity to discuss what they are learning. This activity forces teachers to move away from being the "sage on the stage" and provides them with a way to avoid lecturing for most of the class period. ELs need time to process, and collaborate; this activity allows for that to happen.  

I personally used this activity during a PD workshop on the Instructional Framework for our entire district. Normally, PD is “sit and get” and I knew there was a lot of material to cover. My audience was coaches who were not familiar with the lingo and strategies common for those of us in the EL world. Even as fluent English speakers, they needed the time to process the material. Imagine how much more time our ELs need.   

To add more structure and support, I assigned specific teachers to the role of speaking first and provided specific language frames for them to use while communicating with each other.  This experience was powerful because the participants realized how beneficial the processing time was for them. Then it was easy for them to make the connection that our ELs need that processing time even more. They were also able to see how easy it was to integrate 5 and 2 into any lesson. 

What are 3 of your top tips, tricks or techniques that you employ when working with classroom teachers to help them better understand and teach ELs?

When working with a group of teachers, my first point is to share the fact that everyone in the room is educated, but if we all went to Germany or Korea for a year, we would all fail Kindergarten. It’s not that we are dumb, or uneducated, it’s because of the language ability. I then ask them what kind of support do they think they would need to pass a Kindergarten class in another country? This helps them to understand that the supports ELs need are very targeted and specific. Once our ELs become proficient in English, they will be prepared for any academic course. 

Second, I always show teachers the different ways they can navigate through the Ellevation Instructional framework side to find an activity. By providing teachers a pathway to finding what they are looking for, they will be more likely to search for activities. I’ve found that teachers need to be able to search for what they are looking for in a way that is easy for them. If they are only shown one way to find an activity, and the way they know is confusing for them, they will no longer go back to it. Think about it. Have you ever been on a website or platform that was not easy for you to navigate through or to find what you were searching for?  If so, I’m sure you never went back to it. As Ellevation leaders, we need to make sure our teachers are comfortable searching for activities, whether it by content, language domain, or Instructional Best Practice. 

Lastly, I always like to reiterate the importance of using pictures and realia while teaching. If I speak Chinese and you speak French, I would probably have a very difficult time trying to explain condensation to you. But if I just showed you a picture of it, we wouldn’t even need the words. That is how simple, yet powerful, pictures, images and realia can be for a student who is sitting in a classroom, just trying to figure out what the teacher is saying.