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Staring At A Blank Slate:  How Small Boards Can Make A Difference For ELLs

By Kaila O’Callaghan


 

Like many boards across the province of Ontario, the Algoma region, particularly the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada,  has been faced with a rapidly changing demographic and we have recently found ourselves supporting exponential growth in our ELL population across many of the schools throughout the district. Given the changing face of our schools and the unique gifts and needs of this student population, we felt compelled to begin to create programs, policies and procedures that would make learning accessible to everyone. This, of course, was and continues to be a difficult call to action in a small board where ELLs make up a growing, but still relatively small portion of our population. Creating programs and supports with limited resources that need to be  stretched over a wide area can be a creative challenge. 

 

That said, it is possible. Since 2016, our board has implemented a registration procedure that requires initial assessments and family interviews for all incoming ELLs. We’ve worked with all our administrators and teachers of ELLs on their understanding and use of STEPs. We’ve presented our work at Celebrating Linguistic Diversity Conference (twice!) We have two elementary itinerants supporting our ELLs and a grade 6-8 ELD class. One of our high schools offers an ELD program with credit classes for math and English and another provides ESL credits, and our board is actively growing a new international program. It’s been a busy four years! We are by no means finished our work, but we feel like we’re off to a good start.

 

A blank slate can be a real challenge, but it can also be an incredible opportunity, so when I think of boards like ours who are currently in the place we found ourselves a few short years ago, I can recommend some vital steps in starting the journey to shift the culture so that they can provide programs, policies and procedures that recognize and enhance the experience of English Language Learners:

 

1.  Get By With a Little Help From Your Friends…

Network. Network. Network. We would not be anywhere close to where we are without the connections we have made across the province. So many boards and their teachers were instrumental in supporting our learning. A great thing about the ELL community of educators is that it is really quite small and also incredibly welcoming. We visited boards and programs, we asked questions, we borrowed materials and resources, we called everyone, and we invited them to visit us. That blank slate came in handy because it enabled us to build off of the work of other boards, to take what worked and didn’t work for them and to pick and choose the models and resources that made the most sense for our context. Join ERGO, find out who the ELL coordinators are at various boards, learn the contact details of your Ministry Education Officers and add them to your speed dial. 

 

2. Make a Plan, Have a Vision, Start at the Start…

When we first started trying to map out all of the needs of our system in supporting ELLs, we found ourselves overwhelmed at the long to-do list that we eventually came up with, but we sat back, took a breath and decided to start at the start– which happened to be the first thing we do when any new ELL comes to our board – our welcoming process. We began by clearly defining what that would look like for our board and that was vital. For us it involves a clear registration process that includes an assessment team that administers initial assessments, supported by transition to school support prior to any ELL starting at any of our schools. This was vital and  it now means that no ELL enters our system without being recognized, welcomed and being provided the appropriate supports. From there we were able to use this to guide our work with administrators in creating awareness around this population of students, and later, when we moved on to working with classroom teachers, the results of the initial assessments and placement on STEP became a necessary part of our ongoing conversations about instructional supports and modifications for ELLs. 

 

3. Advocate and Collaborate…

At the end of the day, we have only been able to move forward because of the incredibly supportive senior administration team at our board, who each continue to recognize the ways in which English language learners and their needs intersect with all aspects of our system. ELLs are a small piece of their much larger puzzle, so we had to advocate for this particular group of students, for sure. And that advocacy involves the ability to deeply understand what ELLs need to thrive in our education system, how our policies and procedures support that and what barriers stand in the way. We learned about where funding comes from for ELLs. We lived in the English Language Learners Policy document. We asked a lot of questions. We worked with folks in the transportation department and secretarial staff and administrators. We worked with community partners and volunteers and families and of course, classroom teachers. In working with every group, it’s important to be able to articulate why this work matters and what it means. And if you’re in a board where the ELL population has typically been underserved, recognize that it will take time to change mindsets and historically entrenched practices. Be tireless in your advocacy. 

 

Keep In Mind That...

Creating programs, policies and procedures that support the gifts that our English language learner populations bring to our schools can be a daunting task when just starting out because it requires a fundamental shift in many of our historical practices. It requires looking at things differently, questioning the status quo and getting creative with our resources.  But it is so necessary. When we recognize this particular group of students and their unique strengths, gifts and needs, our schools become richer places of learning for all of our students - we open up opportunities to think about how all students learn best, we challenge our old ways of thinking and doing and we begin to create spaces that value multiple ways of seeing the world.

 

What will you do with your blank slate? 

 


 

Kaila O’Callaghan has been a classroom teacher for over 20 years. Her passion for learning and languages has brought her all around the world. She started her career teaching ELLs in Barranquilla, Colombia before moving on to work with struggling adolescent readers and writers in a vocational school setting. During that time she trained as a Language trainer throughout the United States. In 2010, she completed her MA in Applied Linguistics at University College Cork, Ireland, her dissertation focusing on striving adolescent readers.  She has served as the Secondary Literacy Lead for the Algoma District School Board and is currently the ELL Coordinator for the ADSB. She has presented her work at a number of conferences including OTR, Reading for the Love of It, and Celebrating Linguistic Diversity. She is also a member of the ADSB e-learning team that won the 2016 Ken Spencer Award for Innovation in Teaching and Learning for their work transforming online learning spaces. She’s the proud mother of a curious 8 year-old and wife to a charming Irish man. In her spare time, she travels as much as she can  and soaks up as much music and theatre as possible.

 

 

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ESL/ELD Steering Committee

 

By Naomi Lawerence, YRDSB

 

Why a Steering Committee?

The York Region District School Board (YRDSB) is situated just north of Toronto. We are the third largest school district in Ontario, with over 124,000 students in 180 elementary schools and 33 secondary schools. Students and families in YRDSB speak 119 different languages.  Currently, we have a total of 34,775 students who are acquiring English as an additional language in our Elementary and Secondary schools.

 

Over the years, our school board has put many intentional programs and services in place to support multi-language learners and their families.  Recognizing that change is complex and requires a system-level approach, our board has developed strategies aligned with system priorities and goals that address the needs of our most marginalized and underserved students.  

These priorities and goals are outlined in our Trustees’ Multi-Year Strategic Plan and the Director’s Action Plan (DAP). A shared vision of English language learners as more than “learners of English”, but as capable and competent individuals with many strengths, lived experiences, and intersecting social identities, is at the centre of our educational efforts. The development of the ESL/ELD Steering Committee was timely, in that it supports specific DAP goals related to Equity and Inclusivity by encouraging all stakeholders to:

  • Develop an understanding of how power and privilege operate in schools and workplaces to advantage some and disadvantage others
  • Engage in learning about marginalization and its impact, both historically and currently
  • Use available data including student voice to actively seek information about marginalized students in order to inform school and system level programs and practices
  • Demonstrate understanding of the importance of knowing our learners through Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy (CRRP)
  • Review existing policies, programs and practices in order to identify and address inequities and disrupt barriers to learning

Last school year, in support of system-level data collection, we established the first ESL/ELD Steering Committee in YRDSB in order to better understand the experiences of students and staff.

 

The goal of the ESL/ELD Steering Committee is to provide a formalized, system-level opportunity for multiple voices and stakeholders to notice, name, and interrupt barriers to students’ success and well-being as they continue to acquire English as an additional language.  

 

Through an anti-oppressive lens, the committee has collaborated to provide system direction to support inclusive and equitable learning opportunities for multi-language learners, Kindergarten to Grade 12.   This is an established committee, with rotating membership every two years. The current group has met four times over seven months, and their feedback and collective efficacy have supported the launch of a larger board ESL/ELD System Review, supported by our Research Services department.

 

Considerations for Membership

 

Who might you invite to participate in a  steering committee? 

 

Recognizing the diversity of our geographically large school board, it was critical for us to seek membership from a variety of school communities and stakeholders.  As such, the following groups are represented on the YRDSB ESL/ELD  Steering Committee:

 

School Principals and Educators:  Eight school teams (4 Elementary and 4 Secondary), made up of administrators and educators across our 4 geographic areas. ESL/ELD teachers in these schools are part of the school leadership team. 

 

Superintendents: A minimum of one area Superintendent of Schools and/or the Superintendent of Curriculum & Instructional Services.

 

Federation Partners:  A member of the Elementary Teacher Federation of Ontario and a member of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher Federation.

 

Regional Staff:  Consultants/principals from the ELL team, Inclusive Schools and Community Services, Math, Guidance, Research and Assessment Services, First Nation Metis Inuit team, Reception Centre, School Settlement Services, Special Education, as well as International Education.

 

 

Goals of a Steering Committee

The group developed Terms of Reference that outline membership roles, timelines, as well as goals of the committee. Some of our committee goals include:

  • Enhance collaborative relationships with multiple stakeholders and together explore the knowledge, mindsets, behaviours, and skills needed to identify and build upon system strengths and eliminate barriers related to the success of English language learners
  • Build upon the Ministry of Education 2007, ESL/ELD Policies and Procedures for Ontario Elementary and Secondary Schools, Kindergarten to Grade 12, while providing the unique contextualization required to champion the strengths and assets of staff, students, families, and communities in YRDSB
  • Continue to build on school-based approaches to develop aligned system-level structures to supporting multilingual learners, through ongoing reflective practice and dialogue
  • Mobilize research and share evidence of promising practices to support the achievement and well-being of students acquiring English as an additional language (socially, linguistically, academically)
  • Provide recommendations to streamline and enhance current board initiatives and inform ESL/ELD related policy, procedures, structures and/or programs

 

“Think Tank” Discussion Process

 

What are the best ways to maximize the short meeting times with the committee?

 

To address this, we developed a structure to elicit feedback and solution-focused recommendations.  For a portion of every meeting, we divide the committee into smaller groups. Depending on the topic for discussion, sometimes these groupings were “like roles” (e.g., all administrators together, ELL teachers together, etc.), other times they were heterogeneous groupings.

 

Outlined below is a structure that helped us notice what was working in our board, identify barriers, and make recommendations to address these barriers in the form of policy, procedures, practices at the classroom level, school level and system level. 

 

  1. Individual think time is provided prior to moving into smaller groups. A 3-column organizer is provided to each member in order to record their thinking independently in relation to the topic/issue. They bring this organizer to their think tank.

 

 

 

  1. In these groups, we assign a conversation facilitator and a recorder. The facilitator is provided with discussion prompts and ensures that every voice around the circle is heard. They also jot down key points shared by the group on the same 3-column chart paper.  The recorder documents additional details of the conversation in a shared google document that is accessible by the entire steering committee. Below is an example of notes recorded in column 1 of the chart paper organizer.


 

  1. We consolidate the Think Tank with a brief whole-group share back, to ensure that members are able to hear what was discussed in other groups and ask questions. Each small group identifies a spokesperson who will share 1 - 2 key reflections and recommendations from their group. 

 

We recognize that this is complex work and it’s critical to take a system-level approach. Many of the recommendations gathered from our ESL/ELD Steering Committee thus far have been shared with our Board’s Senior Team, Executive Council, and Staffing Committees who require this information to support the development of ESL/ELD programs and policies.  

 

If your board is hoping to re-envision practices related to the academic success and well-being of English language learners and their families in your school board, you may find that establishing an ESL/ELD Steering Committee is a great place to start.

 


Naomi Lawrence has been an ERGO member for several years and greatly appreciates the collective voice and efficacy of this provincial association. She is also grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the ELL team at the York Region District School Board. Feel free to connect with Naomi at naomi.lawrence@yrdsb.ca





 

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By Sky Cressman & Michelle Lang (Waterloo Region DSB)

 

“It was like, I don’t speak English before, you know, and Mrs. Cressman she makes sure I understand. She explain to me to understand. Now this year, it’s very easy for me, the maths, you know, because last year she teach me so much.” 

Abdallah, a student in Sky Cressman’s 2018-2019 MAT1LZ class


 

What We Were Doing Just Wasn’t Working 

(Sky Cressman -secondary Math teacher)

 

I am fortunate to teach at a high school in Waterloo Region rich with diversity. The student body is made up of students from many different backgrounds and cultures, who naturally bring a range of varied first languages. We welcome and celebrate these differences at Eastwood Secondary School. And along with these differences, come very unique student learning needs. It is these needs that have given rise to a terrific literacy program aimed at early literacy development for our English language learners. 

 

Prior to 2017, however, our English Literacy Development (ELD) numeracy program hadn’t yet received the same attention. This was evident in the general lack of necessary resources (concrete math materials, adequate classrooms), as well as inconsistent teacher timetabling. Further, beyond the logistical aspects, the content and pedagogy that were shaping our program were simply unsuitable for our ELD population. We were using the essential-level, grade 9 Ontario math curriculum, even though ELD students have minimal to no formal instruction prior to their arrival. Sure, there was some focus on vocabulary and content-specific language, but the math curriculum itself was addressing content 6 to 8 grade levels beyond the students' understanding. The attempt to deliver this unsuitable curriculum meant that my teaching methodology focussed very much on procedures and algorithmic processes, rather than on foundational understanding. It became clear that students were following my processes but had very little understanding of the math concepts lying beneath. Our numeracy program at this time was failing these kids. We were sending them off without the fundamental math skills necessary for life beyond high school, never mind skills to continue on to higher education. This quickly became an equity issue for me. With the program as it stood, our ELD population did not have access to effective numeracy education that would allow them to further their knowledge and skills toward proficiency.


 

Our Context 

(Michelle - Math Learning Service Consultant)

 

In Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) alone, we have approximately 350 secondary English language learners (ELLs) in the English Literacy Development (ELD) program. Although limited in their prior schooling and first language (L1) literacy, these students come to us with a wide variety of background experiences and learning strengths. In their first few years of high school, they will begin to develop English literacy skills in five language courses provided by the Ontario Ministry of Education: ELDA through ELDE1. However, despite a policy that states explicitly that students in ELD programs should receive “additional support...through an intensive program designed to accelerate the student’s acquisition of proficiency in everyday and academic English and the appropriate knowledge and skills of literacy and numeracy (p. 18, emphasis added)”, we have no Ministry-approved courses to specifically address the numeracy learning needs of our students in these programs. 

 

Reaching Critical Mass and Implementing Change

In 2017, the number of students enrolled in ELD math courses reached a critical mass and additional board resources were allocated to address the concerns that many of us were expressing. We made plans to gather data focused on the mathematical understandings our students were coming to us with. Through observations and conversations with students and teachers in the ELD math classrooms, we identified some student learning strengths and needs. Then, using PRIME Number and Operations Diagnostic Tools3, we completed 66 one-on-one interviews with students. This assessment data suggested that most students were within late phase 1 or early phase 2 on the PRIME Number and Operations continua, which is equivalent to about grade 1-2 in the Ontario curriculum. It was time for changes to both the content that teachers were teaching and the methods that they were using to address that content.


 

Changing My Pedagogy

(Sky)

 

By the 2017-2018 school year, we were lucky to have at Eastwood a very unique literacy program well underway for our ELD population. The focus was on small group instruction - guided reading and writing. Although a very different subject area, to observe such a program gave our ELD math teachers an opportunity to see how students who come to us with varied levels of math understanding might have their numeracy needs met all within the same classroom. By flexibly arranging students in small learning groups, according to ability and/or language, students could access material at suitable entry points, and continue to progress at a pace determined by their learning. My personal beliefs of what a secondary ELD math classroom should look like were challenged at this point. I could no longer go back to the teacher-centred, autocratic style of instruction, when I witnessed firsthand how effective the activity-based, small group model could be.




 

Our instruction model was only half of our concern, however. Our MAT1LZ course content was simply too advanced for our students. My son, in grade 3 at the time, brought his math homework home one evening. I realized that many of my students at the time would not have been able to do this primary-level math. And if that was the case, they would have no chance of applying concepts such as money, proportions and geometry to their environments - which really is my goal as a math educator. Yes, the elementary math curriculum is where we needed to begin. And so the back-mapping of our 1L curriculum to the early elementary curriculum began. 

 

With the plans for a big shift in our ELD math program, we recognized quickly that a school team approach would be best. Teachers, guidance counsellors, administrators and board consultants all played a role in carving out the logistics of this program. We considered things like fluid student timetabling to allow students to be moved mid-year between our levelled 1LZ and 2LZ classes. We also planned for the students to take math for the full year, rather than only one semester, to maximize their progress. This also required timetabling consideration. In line with scheduling, teachers of ELD math had to have suitable classrooms, with round tables, conducive to small-group learning. These classrooms would need an inventory of supplies and manipulatives, allowing students to discover math concepts and to illustrate their understanding in a concrete way. And finally, it was important to give thought to the human resources to be devoted to this program. Educational assistants and peer tutors have now been scheduled into our ELD math classrooms, to assist in the work we do within our learning groups.

 

Evidence that Small Group Instruction is Effective 

Over the past two years, we have implemented small group guided instruction in several of our secondary ELD math classes.

 

 

The success of this targeted model of instruction is evident in the students’ engagement with the math, their visual representations of the strategies they use, and their willingness and ability to explain their thinking. Small group guided instruction also allows the teacher to more accurately assess their students’ understanding of the math concepts.

 

“With the old model, I really didn’t know, at the end of the day, how far I had brought them because all students were getting the same material at the same level and I was trying to bring them up to this one single bar no matter where they were starting from. [After implementing small group instruction] this year, I knew what every kid could do in terms of the various concepts under the fraction umbrella, for example, or I knew what they could do with patterning or the operations. I knew exactly where they had started with each of those concepts and also where I had been able to bring them to. That was just really clear in the end, what specific learning expectations that they had met or that they were still in progress of learning and needed more time for next year.”

(Sky, during an interview with Michelle in June 2019)

 

Setting Up Small Group Instruction in Your Classroom

Small group guided instruction allows you, as the classroom teacher, to engage your students with the mathematics, track their individual progress, provide authentic and timely assessment, and plan for “just right next steps” to meet each of your students’ learning needs.

 

To set up small group instruction in your classroom:
  • Identify your students’ areas of strength and need in numeracy through observations, conversations, and diagnostic assessment tasks. (We are using the Grade 3-4 Leaps and Bounds4 topic-specific diagnostic tools.)
  • Organize your students into small groups of 3-4 students based on a similar identified numeracy learning need and/or common first language.
  • Find or develop learning tasks that address the identified learning needs for each of your small groups. Include at least one learning task that students can complete individually or with a partner, but independent of you. (We are using a variety of sources for learning tasks, including Leaps and Bounds, MathUP5, and our board’s Sample Long-Range Plans for Mathematics, Grades 1-66.)
  • Create a schedule for small group rotation, whereby one group is learning new content with you, the teacher; another group is reinforcing their learning, ideally with an EA or peer tutor; and one or two other groups are consolidating their learning through independent activities and/or games.
  • Sample Small Group Guided Instruction Schedule:
  • To help you to advocate for allocation of human resources (EA time, access to peer tutors) and of physical resources (concrete materials to support learning, furniture to enable small group instruction) to best support your students’ learning, enlist the support of a team of educators in your building, including your school administrator(s), guidance department head, ESL department head, and math department head, as well as board-level support staff.

 

Conclusion: Our Moral Imperative

Although we are continuing, every day, to learn more about the students we serve in our ELD math courses, what we have learned so far emphasizes for us the value of small group guided instruction for reaching and effectively teaching some of our most vulnerable learners. We have seen that through targeted, small group guided instruction, our students are engaging more deeply with the mathematics, representing their mathematical thinking using a variety of tools and strategies, and gaining competence and confidence in their understanding of mathematics. It is incumbent upon us, then, to embrace this method of teaching within all of our ELD math classes. 

 

The students in our ELD math programs are motivated to learn and aspire to contribute to their communities. Indeed, the Ontario Ministry of Education policy document for ESL and ELD programs mandates that, “In secondary schools, placement in a grade or in specific subjects will depend upon the student’s prior education, background in specific subject areas, and aspirations (p. 21, emphasis added).” 

 

“I want to study about international immigrations. I want to help people, like help refugees.” 

Deborah, a student in Sky’s 2018-2019 MAT1LZ class

 

“I want to study for engineer.” 

Abdallah, a student in Sky’s 2018-2019 MAT1LZ class

 

“I like to be fashion designer...I need math in the fashion design.” 

Emel, a student in Sky’s 2018-2019 MAT1LZ class

 

Let us respond to these students by teaching them mathematics in the ways that we know will best meet their needs as learners and as young people who want to make a difference.

 


 

End Notes:

  • Queen's Printer for Ontario. (2007). Ontario curriculum: grade 9 to 12 - English as a Second Language and English Literacy Development. Toronto.
  • The Ontario Ministry of Education. (2007). English language learners: ESL and ELD programs and services: policies and procedures for Ontario elementary and secondary schools, Kindergarten to Grade 12. Toronto.
  • Small, M. (2005). Prime (professional resources and instruction for mathematics educators): number and operations strand kit. Toronto: Nelson Thomson.
  • Small, M., Cubota-Zarivnij, K., Lin, A., & Borgen, K. (2011). Leaps and bounds toward math understanding 3-4. Toronto: Nelson.
  • Small, M., & Duff, D. (2019). MathUP. Oakville: Rubicon.
  • WRDSB (2018). Sample long-range mathematics plans, Grades 1-6.

 


 

Sky Cressman is a secondary school mathematics teacher with the Waterloo   Region District School Board. She has taught high school math since 2005,   recently adding ELD math to her professional portfolio. She believes that 

everyone is capable of learning math and pursuing higher level studies in the 

subject area, if they are met with a program that is appropriate in both 

curriculum content and instruction. Her personal goal is to have each of her 

students recognize that when these conditions are coupled with hard work and determination, there is no limit to what they can achieve. 


As a Learning Support Services Consultant with over 25 years of experience in the teaching and learning of mathematics, Michelle Lang advocates for and supports both teachers and students in ELD math programs within the Waterloo Region District School Board. She is passionate about ensuring that all students have equitable access to math content and instruction that meets not only their current learning needs, but also their goals for the future.

 

         

 

 

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