Supporting all Teachers to be Teachers of ELLs

Learner Experience, Learning, Learning Design, PreK-12

We recently had the chance to talk to Joe Luft, executive director of Internationals Network for Public Schools about the network and their approach to supporting ELL students, leaders, and teachers. Internationals Network is an organization supporting a national network of schools and academies for recently arrived immigrants who are English Language Learners (ELLs). The Internationals’ schools are mostly high schools, with one middle school recently added in Virginia. The organization’s mission is “to provide quality education for recently arrived immigrants by growing and sustaining a strong national network of innovative International High Schools, while broadening our impact by sharing proven best practices and influencing policy for English learners on a national scale.”

Q: Tell us a bit more about the Internationals Network for Public Schools and the approach to teaching English Language Learners.

Five core principles guide our approach. Heterogeneity and collaboration – schools and classrooms are heterogeneous and collaborative by design that build on the strengths of each person. Experiential learning – project-based activities that culminate in a product with assessment of students through portfolios that comprise authentic tasks and/or classroom projects developed over a period of time to demonstrate understanding. Language and content integration – strong language skills develop most effectively in context and emerge most naturally in a purposeful, language-rich, interdisciplinary program. Localized autonomy and responsibility – Teachers work together on teams to take collective responsibility for their students’ learning and student outcomes. One learning model for all – the models for adult learning and student learning mirror each other.

All students, including ELL students, are capable of deeper learning and instruction must be tailored to their specific needs. The challenge is how we provide opportunities for ELLs to engage in deeper learning while they are developing language skills, not waiting until they’ve mastered English to provide opportunities to engage in deeper learning. We need to support all teachers in developing the capacity to integrate language and rigorous, meaningful content.

Q: What professional development supports teachers who teach ELL students?

At Internationals Network, we take broad view of professional development. We think about this from asset-based approach, a growth mindset approach. We all need to remember that multi-lingual learners are bringing with them important linguistic and cultural knowledge as well as varied life experiences. Teachers need support to see those things as assets and see ways to validate them and recognize them as a foundation for growth.

The idea of the team approach to professional learning is really important. It’s a model for adult learning in that teachers who have not been trained as ELL teachers are collaboratively developing the expertise to meet the needs of students; we take a highly collaborative project-based learning (PBL) approach in the classroom with students and it mirrors the way we believe teachers learn best as well. Too often, there is a huge disconnect between how we think about adult learning and our students’ learning.

It’s important that all teachers understand some fundamental things about language development. Research says it can take students 5 to 7 years to develop higher levels of academic language. This is influenced by the background of students the degree to which they have had formal education in their native language. ELL students are incredibly heterogenous. In fact, unless we are talking about a class of just one student, all classes are heterogenous.

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Q: What makes your network and approach unique in terms of professional development?

Effective professional development for leaders and teachers has a sustained focus over time. Too often PD leap frogs from one topic to another. If we want adults to experience deeper learning, there has to be a sustained focus and the learners themselves need to have a central voice in how that learning takes place. Teacher leadership is a key component.

We help support school leaders and teachers to develop core groups of teachers at individual schools that can spread their expertise at each individual school. This involves deep training of some groups of teachers. The team model we embrace is that this is the most powerful vehicle for teacher learning.

We know teachers in other countries have more time with other teachers, to share resources, plan curriculum together. People need time to process professional learning and experience doing it with them and help people accelerate their own learning. Groups of teachers can learn together and they also need time to pursue their own learning just like students do.

An important role for our organization is to serve as a hub for schools to learn from each other. We develop new resources as well as surface things that are working for broader dissemination. We highlight practices that others can learn from. A big role for us is sharing things that are working so that schools can adapt since most innovation happens at individual schools. Our network provides a space for schools to learn together.

Q: What is the role of technology in language development and as a tool to support ELL students?

Technology plays an important role in any student’s education. Social media allows people to connect and learn from each other in new ways. Schools use a wide variety of technological tools to learn how to support personalized learning.  In our network, those closest to the work are the best ones to identify, test out, and adopt these tools. I don’t think there’s a “Swiss army knife” technology that works magically for everyone.

While there’s a big push around online curriculum, like with any curriculum materials some of it is good and some of it isn’t. Digitizing traditional content that doesn’t push kids for higher level thinking isn’t necessarily better because it’s digital. Our teachers spend tremendous amounts of time developing, testing, and adapting curriculum since they’re the ones closest to their students.  We need to support them with dedicated time, materials, and coaching.

I think the emphasis has shifted to students as producers of content using technological tools.  Recently, one of our schools opened a new FabLab that provides students with opportunities to use a variety of technological tools – not all digital to do wonderful creative work.  There is some great work going on in our schools in the arts — including filmmaking and other forms of multimedia art.

For a look inside the classrooms of a few different International High Schools, please see the Teaching Channel’s Deeper Learning Video Series.

Two Ways to Share Your Ideas

  1. If interested in contributing your story and ideas to the series, please submit a guest blog in response to one of these prompts and following our guest blogging procedures to [email protected] with the subject line “ELL.”
  2. To share your favorite ELL tool, tip or strategy, please tweet us @Getting_Smart using the hashtag #SupportELL.

This blog is part of the Supporting English Language Learners Series with support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned for the culminating podcast, infographic and publication.

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Bonnie Lathram

Bonnie Lathram

Bonnie Lathram is the Learner Experience Manager at Getting Smart. Follow Bonnie on Twitter, @belathram.

1 Comments

Merrilou Harrison /

The College of Education at Heritage University in Toppenish Washington offers ELL endorsement in all of the Teacher Preparation programs and the Graduate level programs. Helping pre-service teachers come into the classroom with ELL knowledge and skills we believe is a critical foundation. Graduate level teacher leaders and principal leaders need to also know and be able to implement ELL strategies so that there is continued and consistent implementation for all of our students.