In a state where 2 in 5 public school students speak languages other than English at home, teachers need more collaborative and hands-on professional development to help bring California’s English learners to proficiency in English, educators and parents agreed during an EdSource roundtable on Thursday.

Teachers on the panel shared experiences of recent professional development they received that made a difference.

This summer, Marina Berry took part in a three-week program meant to accelerate the language proficiency of long-term English learners in fourth to eighth grade while providing a structured, supportive professional development opportunity for educators. The program was designed by the San Joaquin County Office of Education, where Berry teaches, and provided extensive collaboration opportunities.

“We need to be able to have time to collaborate, actually do it, get feedback, talk amongst our peers, and be able to tweak,” said Berry, a first grade teacher in the Lodi Unified School District who was an English learner herself as a child.

The program’s curriculum is based on California’s English language development standards, which are supposed to guide teachers on how to help students who speak a language other than English at home to build English proficiency.

“I was astonished to see the growth, not just my own, but the growth of the 14 students I had in my classroom,” Berry said.

Such programs are crucial when considering that 70% of teachers nationwide said they didn’t feel fully prepared to meet the needs of English language learners, according to a survey conducted by the English Learners Success Forum, a collaboration of researchers, teachers, district leaders and funders.

Elvira G. Armas, the director of the Center for Equity for English Learners and Affiliated Faculty in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, shared an example from Oxnard School District, which has an English learner master plan that helps guide educators. The plan extends beyond teachers to include counselors, administrators and other school leaders.

The plan, said Armas, indicates that there are three key components in reaching coherence when teaching English learners: It must be focused and intentional in giving attention across subject areas taught in the classroom, it must include reflection and coaching for educators, and it must measure impact to allow for thinking about continuous improvement.

Crucial in the success of English learners is communication between parents, teachers and districts, said Laura Barbosa, the parent of an English language learner in the first grade.

“A key part of that is using language that parents will understand,” said Barbosa, who is the vice president of the District English Learner Advisory Committee for the San Leandro Unified School District. “A lot of the notifications and official letters are in academic language, and we need conversational language because a lot of parents don’t understand English to begin with and then the terms being used when it’s translated, they also don’t understand.”

Nicole Thompson, a fourth grade teacher in Pajaro Valley Unified School District located in Watsonville, said she also attended a series of training sessions last year that helped her feel more prepared during her fifth year of teaching.

The series focused on improving math instruction for multilingual learners, a term that refers to all students who speak a language other than English at home. It was organized by the nonprofit organization TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project and Stanford University’s center for Understanding Language.

“My biggest takeaway from that training was that we, as educators, should always keep really high expectations for our students, no matter their language level, no matter the subject matter,” said Thompson.

Several other panelists emphasized that a developing English language proficiency does not indicate a lack of knowledge in other subject areas.

Natalie Tran arrived in the U.S. knowing three languages: Vietnamese, Cantonese she learned from living in refugee camps in Hong Kong and English she learned in refugee camps in the Philippines.

As a child in Houston, she would regularly be pulled out of her classroom to be taught English based on flashcards that she was asked to repeat and memorize.

“One thing that stood out to me from that experience is that I think the teachers that I had at the time assumed that I didn’t know math or any other content areas because my English proficiency was still developing,” said Tran, a professor of education and director of the National Resource Center for Asian Languages at California State University, Fullerton.

During the roundtable, Tran emphasized the importance of not only supporting multilingual educators but also providing professional development for monolingual educators.

“All of our teachers work with emergent, bilingual students,” said Tran. “Teachers, in general, should examine the students’ backgrounds, their experiences, and how to best connect that to students’ learning experiences.”

When asked what districts and schools could do more of, Armas summarized the spirit of the panelists:

“Celebrate the cultural and linguistic gifts that our communities bring to our school context and support ourselves as educators to be able to make sure that we’re unwrapping the potential for all of our students so that we make our multilingual and English learners visible.”

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