One morning while giving a reading test to her 3rd and 4th graders, Nicole Girouard noticed that one of her students, new to learning English, was struggling with questions that used words with multiple meanings—such as how “table” can mean a place you eat, but also a chart with numbers.
Quite a few test questions used words that can mean more than one thing. “All the kids were picking the wrong meaning, because they only picked the meaning that they knew existed,” says Girouard, who teaches at Chandler Magnet School in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Thanks to the support of the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) in Boston, Girouard began delving more deeply into the topic, conducting “action research” about which strategies work best to teach multiple-meaning words. CCE trains educators how to identify a problem, devise and implement a strategy to address it, collect data, determine what impact the strategy had, and revise instruction accordingly. The teachers repeat this cycle until they develop solutions that work.
In recent years, CCE has focused on helping several Massachusetts school districts rethink how to teach English language learners through its Teacher Leadership Network. This shift came about in part in response to a 2010 civil rights compliance review, in which the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division concluded that Massachusetts had failed to adequately educate students with limited English proficiency.
CCE works with all teachers in a school, not just ELL specialists, because everyone teaches ELL students at least part of the day, explains Sarah Ottow, director of CCE’s English language learning program. Ottow compares the approach to inclusion in special education, because it emphasizes integrating English language learners into standard classrooms and all school activities to the greatest extent possible.
The focus on action research is reflective of CCE’s broader, teacher-driven commitment to professional development. Teachers play an active part in identifying problems and designing solutions the address the specific needs of their students, rather than just passively listening to a talk from an outside expert.
In Girouard’s case, she read humorous books like How Much Can a Bare Bear Bear? and grouped her students in pairs. The children chose a word from the book and each drew a picture and wrote about a different way to use the word. Soon she found her students enthusiastically sharing examples of homonyms just for fun. After the instruction, student scores on an assessment of the skill jumped about 60 to 70 percent.
CCE is working with teachers like Girouard to create online PD modules to share their research findings with other teachers. These modules include videos of teachers teaching or talking about their research, samples of teacher-published research, and examples of student work.
“I got to choose the problem I was concerned about,” says Girouard. “In other professional development, you sit in a classroom and they give you suggestions on what to do, but there is no chance for you to try out your new learning and see how it works. This allowed us to learn about strategies, actually implement them in our classroom, and reflect on how as a group, and as a single teacher, we could make those strategies stronger and apply what we learned to actually make the learning stick.”