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Why All The Fuss About Collaboration?


ellevation-tulsa-7-1Victor Hugo famously said “there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Within the field of language acquisition, the idea with greatest momentum at the start of 2015 is collaboration. I think it is here to stay.

At the VESA Conference in Richmond last week, several conversations with state officials emphasized the importance of having ESOL teachers provide training and support for classroom teachers. The week prior, at the CALSA conference in Monterey, California, I heard more than one superintendent comment about the shift from “designated ELD time, to ELD all the time.” There is a sense, everywhere, that ESL specialists and classroom teachers must work effectively together to support ELLs, and each other, and that the programmatic lines between content and language are blurring.

There are quite a few interesting papers on why collaboration creates better outcomes for ELLs. Other articles are useful in describing the obstacles to working effectively in a school district (culture, scheduling, resource, etc.) And you can find good resources on different kinds of collaboration models – co-planning, co-teaching, and parallel teaching , to name a few.  In sum, the literature suggests that a collaborative approach to working with ELLs, where ESL specialists and classroom teachers work closely together to scaffold content, integrate academic language, and provide culturally sensitive emotional support, is the best way to help ELLs achieve.

But my question is a little different. Why are people talking about collaboration so much in the first place? What underlies the momentum in the conversation? I think there are at least three reasons:

  1. Shifting Demographics. The growth in the number of ELLs in the United States is now well understood. ELLs represent about 10% of the student population today, and that number is expected to grow to 25% in 10 years. In many states, this is already true – or soon will be. But what most don’t understand is how the psychology of a school district evolves in this context. An important shift happens when a population of students moves from 1/10th of your class to 1/4th. People start thinking differently. 

    As an example, I have spoken with dozens of ELL programs in the last 2 years that have recently moved from school-based programming models, where ELLs were concentrated in a single school in order to provide efficient services, to more integrated models that provide ESL support to students and educators across school sites. That’s what happens when leadership teams realize that ELLs live in every part of their communities – not just in particular sections, assigned to particular schools – and when they come to the conclusion that ELL achievement is fundamental to overall district performance. The result is a renewed emphasis on collaboration between ESL/bilingual specialists and content teachers.

  2. Increased Academic Rigor. Although most of the media these days is focused on how some states and advocacy groups are resisting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the truth is that very few people are talking about replacing the CCSS with weaker standards. So for educators of ELLs, the noise in the press is irrelevant. For ELLs to achieve in the context of higher standards, ELLs must simultaneously learn English while engaging with sophisticated content concepts - no matter what happens to CCSS. The good news? Rigorous content should provide for richer language experiences, thereby accelerating language acquisition. But helping students thrive in this context requires well-trained content teachers, supported by ESL/bilingual specialists. Again, collaboration becomes critical.

  3. Advanced Technology. Last, I think part of the reason we hear educators talk about collaboration with such enthusiasm is because it is so easy to enable with technology. I was reminded of this fact last week, when most of our Ellevation team was snow-bound in Boston, but somehow managed to make decisions and enjoy each other’s company over all-day Google Chat sessions. K-12 educators have similar experiences online with friends and family. It is not surprising, then, that they should expect something similar in their work environment. As an ESL teacher, it should be easy to share instructional strategies with an ELL’s Math teacher. It should be easy for that Math teacher to highlight a concern about the student’s writing. It should be easy for the two of them to discuss an effective intervention. And finally, it should be the expectation of district leadership that classroom teachers and ESL/bilingual specialists can find a way to collaborate in support of their ELLs. Technology changes expectations, and makes collaboration easier to imagine.

Talking about collaboration is a good thing. Watching educators practice it in their schools is even better. We’ll have more to say on the topic of collaboration, and how Ellevation is building software tools to enable it, in a later blog post. In the meantime, check out this free webinar recording where, together with our friend Diane Staehr Fenner, we present strategies for effective collaboration among ESL specialists and classroom teachers.