Photo Pam Spycher

Engaging in a Community of Practice for Educational Equity

by Pam Spycher

December 21, 2016

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of co-facilitating two Leading with Learning sessions at the California Department of Education’s 2016 Title III Accountability Leadership Institute (ALI) in San Francisco. My co-facilitators included Maria Maldonado (Associate Superintendent of English Learner Services at the Fresno Unified School District), Vanessa Girard (Director of Multilingual Literacy at the Sacramento City Unified School District), and Danielle Garegnani (Senior Research Associate at WestEd).

Our session, "A Systems Approach to Implementing the CA ELA/ELD Framework and Cultivating Social Justice," shared lessons learned from our U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) grant Leading with Learning . The participants in the session were part of a growing state-wide community of practice deeply committed to educational equity for children and youth who are learning English as an additional language.

4 Daily Essential PracticesLeading with Learning works to establish positive and culturally and linguistically responsive learning environments, which we see as the foundation for all learning. Without this foundation, none of the work we are doing to promote educational equity for our students can grow deep roots, which is why it is one of the four big areas of classroom advocacy for ELs that we focus on in the project.

For example, at ALI, we shared how we use interdisciplinary social studies/ELA/ELD model unit outlines to support teachers to use culturally relevant literature and focus on issues related to identity, community, and advocacy. In professional learning and coaching sessions, we discuss how we can actively choose additive approaches to teaching and continue to develop an asset-based stance toward our students and their families. In addition to clear academic benefits, the use of these approaches, including culturally relevant songs, raps, dance, and the visual arts, creates an inclusive and engaging – and even joyful – learning environment for children and youth of color.

We ground our conversations about positive and culturally responsive teaching in the ELA-ELD Framework, Chapter 9: Access and Equity which is a call to action for all educators: 

In order to create truly equitable classrooms, schools, and districts ... educators should continuously strive for social justice, access, and equity. This requires educators to adopt a stance of inquiry toward their practice and to engage in ongoing, collaborative discussions with their colleagues about challenging issues, including race, culture, language, and equity (p. 916).

At ALI, we also shared some of the approaches and tools we are using to support teachers' and leaders' advocacy work. Maria Maldonado shared the Leading with Learning student discourse and learning inquiry tool that we use - at all levels of the educational ecosystem - to focus on a) student learning environments that are conducive to safe, caring, interactive, and intellectually rich learning (for example, how the room is set up and what's on the walls), and b) what students are doing and saying during teaching and learning tasks.

Teachers use the tool to plan lessons and to identify “look fors” in terms of what students are doing and saying. This tool, and the conversations that spring from its use, have been very productive for moving thinking and actions forward in each of the four big areas. It has been particularly useful for focusing our attention on cultivating positive learning environments in which students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds are viewed as assets, valuable in their own right and rich resources for new learning. About half of the schools we work with have bilingual programs, which we consider to be a shining example of culturally and linguistically responsive environments.

Another aspect of our project that we shared at ALI are the "Keystone Pedagogies” that teachers practice between professional learning sessions. These are high-level pedagogical practices designed for English learners and from which all students benefit. This grounded practice helps teachers to apply their learning and then discuss evidence of student learning at the next session. Many of the keystone pedagogies teachers practice draw students’ attention to language itself and how it works in complex texts.

During our session, Vanessa Girard modeled a keystone pedagogy from our grades 4-6 course, a timeline activity that supports students to discuss text structure and organization, key language features of narrative texts, and "below the surface" and "deeper dive" text-dependent questions in order to understand the themes of a story. Through these discussions about language and meaning, the students prepare to write literary responses where they use textual evidence and the academic language of the text itself to support their claims. To develop these keystone pedagogies, we have drawn extensively from the ELA-ELD Framework (especially the integrated and designated ELD vignettes) and the ELD Standards.

In the last part of our ALI session, we challenged the community of practice in the room (as we have challenged teachers, coaches, principals, and district leaders participating in Leading with Learning) to delve deeply into the ELA-ELD Framework and ELD Standards and to use these resources as both resource guides and key levers for the culturally and linguistically responsive teaching work they are doing in their particular contexts.

I shared that at a recent principals' session, I challenged principals to really use (that is, more than just read and discuss) the ELA-ELD Framework snapshots that focus on critical and culturally responsive teaching. Here are some of the snapshots I challenged them to use:

  • Snapshot 3.7. Learning Two Languages in an Alternative Dual Language Program in Kindergarten
  • Snapshot 5.9 Connecting Photographs and Cultural Backgrounds - Designated ELD Connected to ELA and the Visual Arts in Grade Five
  • Snapshot 6.7. Poets in Society – Spoken Word Poetry and Youth Literacy, Integrated ELA and Performing Arts in Grade Seven
  • Snapshot 7.1. Investigating Language, Culture, and Society: Linguistic Autobiographies, Integrated ELA and ELD in Grade Nine
  • Snapshot 7.10. Debating Challenging Topics: Race, Religion, and Income, Integrated ELA/Literacy, ELD, and Civics in Grade Twelve

We are about to enter the third and final year of our i3 grant, and we are energized and eager to continue our work with our partner districts. The ALI sessions were an opportunity to share how we are engaging in work that has a goal of cultivating practices, policies, and processes that are culturally and linguistically responsive in all of our schools and districts. We are looking forward to continuing to engage with the broader community of practice around these goals so that we can learn together about what it takes to create, sustain, and scale these types of educational experiences.

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Voices From the Field

I am most excited about how everything that we do for kids is focused on making meaning. Those practices that are designed to require collaboration are particularly exciting to me as they also require that we foster a culture of respect for self and others and those conditions that are necessary for a risk-free learning environment. This project has provided new learning for teachers that provided opportunity for an equal playing field as we were learning together—coaches, principals, and teachers—which created a community of learners rather than a community of experts telling teachers what to do.”

– Leading with Learning Coach