“My main parts of my job are coaching teachers to make sure that students have the supports that they need to be able to build a strong literacy foundation, whether they are learning from at school and at home.”
“Being able to provide them with those adaptive online programs that are giving them that immediate feedback, instead of that pencil and paper activity, it’s more engaging for the students. They’re getting that immediate feedback and they can be metacognitive about their thinking, about their reading.”
“How do we make sure that we’re meeting the social and emotional needs of our students? … They come with these different life experiences. And if we don’t hold them up, or at least recognize the struggles that they’ve been through, then they’re not going to be socially and emotionally ready to be able to learn within our classroom environment.”
“As they’re listening to the teacher who is speaking in English, they’re actually being able to read what the teacher is saying in their native language, so kind of like bridge that gap.”
“If we take anything out of this pandemic in our educational society, it should be that if we go back into our classrooms next year and we teach the same way that we were teaching pre-pandemic, then we’re doing our kids and we’re doing education such a disservice.”
“So it’s just not taking that data … It shouldn’t just be collected and sit somewhere. I have to do something with it, I have to constantly be looking at it and looking at the student. But also, more importantly, is the student needs to know that data. What does it mean? What am I doing when I’m working or I’m engaging with these adaptive online programs? And then how is my teacher using that to make sure that I’m making significant progress towards reaching my goals?”
“It’s real-time, right? It can tell me right then and there, if they’re thinking right or if their thinking is not right. And then as a teacher, I can kind step back and take a snapshot.”
“We can say that even though we were in this virtual environment, with all the supports that we provided and put in place for our students, they still grew almost the full academic year with learning, in literacy, by being able to support them with these adaptive online programs.”
“We’re going to have to figure out how we continue to use all these tools with our students who are coming back in person.”
Q: So could you start by telling us a bit about your role within the district and then perhaps sharing some background about your experience teaching English language learners?
A: Absolutely. So currently I’m a school-based teacher leader at Gilbert Spruance Elementary School. And I focus mainly on literacy curriculum from K to eight. So my main parts of my job are coaching teachers to make sure that students have the supports that they need to be able to build a strong literacy foundation, whether they are learning from at school and at home. So throughout my 20 years at the school district of Philadelphia, I started as a teacher. I moved into a specialized position as a reading specialist, and I’m finally finished up as a school-based literacy lead. So I’ve supported the English language learners in many ways. When I first started with the school district, I taught at a bilingual school. And so our students were fluent in both English and in Spanish. So it was just one main language that we had as a secondary support for our students who were learning English.
And so supporting those students would be about bringing in background knowledge. And then as I moved into Spruance Elementary School where our students speak 31 different languages, wow, what a shift that was, really. Because it wasn’t just Spanish that we could support. And our students came from all over the world, not just the central America location. And so, being able to adapt to those students and making sure that how we scaffold our instruction and how we differentiated it for the varied levels of learners, was really going to help those students to excel in their growth, not only in their foundational skills, but learning the English language — the print language, the spoken language, and the written language as well.
Q: And so was it that early experience that you mentioned, before Spruance Gilbert, that led you to become a proponent of virtual instruction for students learning English? Where did that come about?
A: So as a leader at Gilbert Spruance Elementary School, looking at, we have a motto of “Every Kid, Every Day, in Every Class.” And with a third of our students that are English language learners, we had to do something different than we had been doing in the past. So we shifted into this blended learning practice. And we got accepted for a blended learning grant and our students in six to eight, we were one to two with technology. So, wow, that was awesome. And then, so we brought in some adaptive programs to help support the instruction. So students were split, and they rotated around three separate groups to make sure that each student got what they needed. So it was teacher-led instruction, it was independent activities, and then it was an adaptive online-based program. And so, making sure that each student was getting what they needed in this virtual world, before we went to the pandemic piece, right?
So, how do we make sure, as a teacher and as an educator, that I can provide all the students in my room with this instruction? So as a teacher, I’m working with a small group of students, or maybe even a third of the class. Now, what are the rest of the students doing? Being able to provide them with those adaptive online programs that are giving them that immediate feedback, instead of that pencil and paper activity, it’s more engaging for the students. They’re getting that immediate feedback and they can be metacognitive about their thinking, about their reading.
So they can change their answers, they can switch their thinking a little bit. So that’s kind of where we shifted into this virtual instruction for students and making sure that it wasn’t just all pencil and paper, and that we tried to move our students into 21st century learning skills.
Q: And you touched upon this, mentioning that this was prior to COVID and the world going virtual and remote.
A: Yeah, so we had a head start, right? So we had at least somewhere to begin. So if we didn’t know where to begin, we could at least start with using our adaptive programs to help to meet our students’ needs, because our students knew about the programs, they knew how to navigate. And so if we weren’t doing anything, at least we knew in the beginning of the pandemic that our students were having access to this. And we were showing growth, using this blended learning type of model. And then the pandemic comes along and it just throws us into it. And so, if teachers were a little bit reluctant to it, they had no choice but to adapt this style now, based on the learning situation of the last year and a half.
Q: Yeah, absolutely. What are some of the challenges, if there are any, that you’d want to highlight, of teaching in the virtual space?
A: Wow, so there were so many challenges. So our first challenge that we actually had to face was access. Does everybody have equal access to technology? Does every student have a Chromebook? And so, the district worked really hard to make sure in the beginning that each student had access to technology and had access to Chromebooks. And then once we had that computer in the student’s hand, well, do they have access to reliable Wi-Fi? Do they know how to access those hotspots? So, it did take a little bit of time for everybody to navigate, and then making sure that we have all students. How do we make sure that all of our students are showing up every day? And then the next thing was the English language proficiency of our students. So our students really ranged from non-English speakers to completely proficient students.
And so for our non-English speakers, it was not only, how do I navigate the regular school, but now how am I supposed to navigate these lessons when I’m unable to understand the spoken language that the teacher is telling me? In the real school space, at least we could be hand over hand, or we could be modeling and we could showing.
So it took some time for kids to be able to A, log on to the Google Meet. B, be able to share their screen. Some of these technical glitches, that was really hard at first for our students. And then as we continued to move forward, and some of the other difficult challenges were the changes, and so now we were all virtual and then we went to hybrid instruction.
And so we went through a period of about three or four months where we were constantly changing schedules. Okay, this is our schedule for this week, this is our schedule for that week. So the predictability pattern of what kids are used to in the classroom, they didn’t really have. So one of the things that, and then at the end with the state requirements of having their kids take the PSSA testing. There’s a lot of instructional time that was spent on giving the state testing and not instructing our students, is what they really needed. So that was one of the important cases.
And then one of the other challenges, yeah, the last thing, it was just like, how do we make sure that we’re meeting the social and emotional needs of our students? So our students come to us, especially our English language learners, they come to us, but do we think about all the experiences and possible trauma that they’ve had in coming to this country? Or to making their journey into this education? Have they had any formal schooling from where they came from? Was schooling a top priority in the country that they had come from before, or were they just trying to survive? So trying to realize that all of our kids come, so A, they come with different language abilities, and then B, they come with these different life experiences. And if we don’t hold them up, or at least recognize the struggles that they’ve been through, then they’re not going to be socially and emotionally ready to be able to learn within our classroom environment.
Q: You touched upon a couple of names of technology solutions, but I’m going to ask anyway if there’s others? What virtual technology solutions have been or are being implemented to teach English as a new language?
A: So one of the greatest programs that we use is Achieve 3000 with literacy boost, and that helps us with sentence stems. And it also helps the teacher informing our small group instruction and being able to offer each student the same ideas about texts but giving it to them at different levels. We use the Google platform, so Google Meet, Google Classroom, Google Docs, Google Slides, and also the Google Translate became a huge feature for our students.
So one of the things that our students learned how to do, all on their own, surprisingly, was they learned how to turn on the closed captioning within the Google Meets. And then they changed their caption into their own language. So that as they’re listening to the teacher who is speaking in English, they’re actually being able to read what the teacher is saying in their native language, so kind of like bridge that gap. Our kids also, we use i-Ready, SMART Learning Suite online, Jamboard, Desmos, and then Lexia Core5 and PowerUp. So, we were not short on the technology that we had used within this virtual environment, but all of these pieces, not all of them, but some of these pieces we had used pre-virtual environment as well.
Q: Yeah, so that’s good. You had some foundational elements at least. Now, I think you touched upon this earlier, the difference, but maybe there’s more to go into, are there advantages to educational technology over print resources for English language learners?
A: So let’s think about it. This isn’t going away. So if we take anything out of this pandemic in our educational society, it should be that if we go back into our classrooms next year and we teach the same way that we were teaching pre-pandemic, then we’re doing our kids and we’re doing education such a disservice. But let’s think about it. So being able to differentiate our instruction for our students. So how do we do that? We do that by meeting with our kids in small groups, and then these adaptive programs do it without even thinking.
So we take A, the Achieve 3000 takes a text and it breaks it down into multiple levels. And then the kids are getting real-time feedback about their thinking. So it tells them, “Hey, your thinking is right, or no, your thinking’s not right, let’s try that again.” And then if they still don’t get the answer right, then on the third try, it’ll give them the right answer and the reasoning behind it, versus pencil and paper. Okay, I’m going to do my assignment, I’m going to fill in my answers, I’m going to turn it into the teacher. And then maybe a week or two later, she’s going to give me my responses back. But my brain is just like, not even on that. I don’t even remember what I read two weeks ago, let alone where my thinking was when I was trying to answer those questions. So that real-time feedback is great for our kids, as well as our students being able to take the online text and being able to convert it into their language. So this works more for your students who are proficient in both languages.
So there might be a bit of text that they’re not sure of. So they copy it and they paste it into the Google Translate, so that they can read it in their own language. So it’s bridging that gap between academic vocabulary, because they know what it means in their own language. Or if they’re looking for a word or a phrase in their language, they can then convert it back and forth. So, just having those non-pencil and paper activities for students to do and to become engaged in is really going to help accelerate our kids’ growth.
Q: So, next I’m going to ask you about the stages here of targeted instruction and then measurement and monitoring. So let’s start with the targeted instruction. How do you target instruction to meet the needs of each student in a virtual environment?
A: So we’ll start, because it’s not a one size fits all. What’s going to work for one child is not going to work for another child. So we just look at each kid and we assess, we design a program, and then we monitor along the way. So we decide which program is going to work for our students. If our students are still learning the English language and they still need a ton of help around the foundational skills, then they use the Core5 and the PowerUp pathway. Because a lot of there is words study, sentence structure, grammatical. So they’re trying to figure out and navigate the ways of the English language. But our students who are more proficient in the English language and have a foundation of the way that the sentence structure works, they have some phonics, the phonemic awareness and they have a decent foundation of high-frequency words, then they will use the Achieve 3000 program.
And that allows them to then focus on the academic improvement, instead of the foundational literacy piece. So, that’s just where we start. And then we look at it. How are they doing, how are they improving? We look at it monthly, right? So has their Lexile improved? Has their reading level improved? And then once their reading level improves, how are they handling that? Are they able to handle that with proficiency, or do they have to drop back down again? So it’s just not taking that data as a … It shouldn’t just be collected and sit somewhere. I have to do something with it, I have to constantly be looking at it and looking at the student. But also, more importantly, is the student needs to know that data. What does it mean? What am I doing when I’m working or I’m engaging with these adaptive online programs? And then how is my teacher using that to make sure that I’m making significant progress towards reaching my goals?
Q: And that’s that ongoing monitoring, like you said, that’s required, I guess, for adapting and targeting even more effectively.
A: Yeah, and it’s real-time, right? It can tell me right then and there, if they’re thinking right or if their thinking is not right. And then as a teacher, I can kind step back and take a snapshot and say, “Okay, these four kids just, they’re really not progressing. I’m going to conference with them and I’m going to meet with them one-on-one.” And sometimes that conferencing is, “Hey, I was just being lazy” or it could be, “I’m really just not getting it. Do you think we could spend some extra time?” And then we make sure that we see those students in that small group to make sure that all of our students are growing. And to find out, what’s that difficulty? And some students, it just could be that there’s too much noise happening at home, or that their technology is not stable and their Wi-Fi wasn’t stable, so that we just continue to move from those things.
Q: And was there anything that you found that was surprising about teaching English learners during the pandemic?
A: Wow, they are just so adaptive, right? So they just continue to learn so many things. And then some of the things that we learned was that our students, they grew. Our student population, they really grew. If we looked at their Lexile over time…so we’ve been using these programs for quite some time and over some years. And the school year ending in 2019, we had a overall of 89 Lexile points for our student growth. But in 2021, we had 92 points of Lexile growth. So, that’s about a year’s growth. So we can say that even though we were in this virtual environment, with all the supports that we provided and put in place for our students, they still grew almost the full academic year with learning, in literacy, by being able to support them with these adaptive online programs.
Q: Wow. So how do you suspect students learning English will transition, going back to the classroom full-time in the fall as most, or all, will be? What role will virtual technology play to support the kids?
A: So we’re going to have to figure out how we continue to use all these tools with our students who are coming back in person. So how do we continue to be able to allow our students, A, to have all their computers out and open at the same time? How do we allow them to use all of the features that Google Meet has given us in this virtual environment, to be able to translate the language back and forth, and just to be able to make things more accessible for our students? So we see that by going back to, once we plan on going in, to one-to-one technology. And then making sure that when we group our students, we’re grouping our students by their language proficiency abilities and their academic abilities as well. And just giving them that continued support that they need in the classroom setting. Whether that be in a whole group setting with all of the other students as well, or in a small group pull-out, to continue to give those intensive supports so that their English language proficiency catches up to their non-English language learner peers.
Q: Okay. Well, I know this is just a snapshot of the work, but I appreciate you joining us on the podcast to highlight the program. It sounds like a great model, in a really large and diverse school district that could be looked at and applied to other school districts of varying sizes and populations. So I appreciate you being with us and sharing this, Danielle.
A: Thank you so much. And it’s not an overnight fix, right? So it’s taken quite some time. And so we’ve seen improvement in our students and in their literacy achievement over three years. So it’s like thinking about banking, it’s that compound interest. So we want to invest in our students early on, so that we can compound the amount of reading that they can do. And the more and more they’re able to do, the higher and higher their achievement is.
Q: That’s a good note, so that, as you say, the districts that might be embarking on some such approach, to think of it as, not overnight. It’s going to take some building.
A: Yes, absolutely. And we’ve seen absolute improvement with our students. So we went from, in our first year implementation, our average beginning Lexile score was in the 300s. And then in our third year of implementation, our average Lexile score at the end of the year was 679, so almost 700. So that’s like four reading levels of where our average students, they started at in the beginning and then they ended three years later. So it’s just awesome growth. And it’s that growth over time.
Q: Rewarding, I’m sure to see, for those of you who are heavily invested in it.
A: And I couldn’t do it without the strength of our teachers, the dedication of our administration at my school for allowing to see my vision or allowing to see it work in a different light. And I have a great team of other school-based teacher leaders that work with me, as well as our administration. And we couldn’t do it without our teachers and our students.
Danielle Murray, M.Ed.
Danielle Murray, M.Ed.; National Board Certification EMLRLA: School Based Teacher Leader of Literacy at Spruance Elementary School, School District of Philadelphia. The development of literacy is a continued process for both students and teachers. I currently support teachers and students to grow in the field of literacy. The most impactful growth comes when we reflect on our strengths and weakness and become vulnerable to learn from others.