Being Intentional: Great Practice for EAL from the USA

Naomi Flynn

In summer 2018, when blogging for NALDIC about the loss of the DfE Proficiency Scales, I briefly referred to my then recent trip to the US to observe teachers in multilingual classrooms in Indianapolis. In July this year I made a second visit, where I observed teachers’ summer school workshops, and have much of interest to report. My most powerful message for all of us is that we need to notice when the good classroom choices we make for EAL learners are incidental, and instead make choices that are intentional; more of this later.

When Brits think of Indiana they probably don’t think that teachers in schools in that state are likely to have minority ethnic or multilingual learners in their classrooms; they’d be wrong. My observations of teaching in Indianapolis have shown me classrooms as heterogeneous or homogeneous as they might be in a city and its suburbs in the UK. Teachers deal with similar feelings of constraint from locally mandated curricula and high stakes testing. However, in several Districts of Indianapolis, senior managers are opting to support the teaching approach espoused by Professor Annela Teemant and her team at the University of Indianapolis, and it is the training for this approach that I attended in July.

Teemant’s work for the past 15 years and more has been in developing a measurably-successful, research-informed pedagogy, and associated training workshops, that match six ‘Enduring Principles of Learning’. These Principles – formerly The Standards for Effective Pedagogy, and created by Roland Tharp and colleagues at University of Hawaii – were devised as a set of inter-related teaching strategies that promote social justice and challenge classroom inequities. They require that teachers co-create meaning and meaningful outcomes, with their pupils, and, as part of this, that they engage in instructional conversations that challenge pupils to think and talk at levels far beyond standard classroom interaction.

Grade 2 Teachers in Indianapolis

In this way the Principles reflect the Vygotskyan, socially-constructive, dialogic approach that we already know works well for EAL; but they also demand that teachers’ select classroom projects and activities that engage with children’s lives well beyond the school gate. Furthermore they require that teachers adopt, intentionally, a critical stance that asks questions, and that encourages their pupils to ask questions, that challenge the status quo.

In order that teachers can make the cultural shift necessary to be successful in operationalising the Principles, they need to think intentionally about their practice.  Take this example from a Kindergarten class where children were working towards the State assessment standard in Science that they should understand changes in the weather between the seasons. The teacher (trained in the Principles) showed the children pictures of a school in Alabama that had only just been hit by a tornado – something that is a common weather problem for Indiana as well. The children noted how badly the Alabama school was damaged by drawing comparisons with their own, intact, classrooms and they set about raising money for their peers in the other state. They made a book with drawings and letters, and a representative from the Alabama school came to visit in order to receive a cheque for the funds the children had raised and to take the book home to the school library. Teaching like this is contextually-rich and socially-engaged in ways that will motivate all learners and challenge their way of thinking about community; and it certainly beats just drawing a picture of a tornado, which could have been a response to the State assessment standard for these 5 – 6 year olds.

Grade 5 Teachers in Indianapolis

Talking with teachers towards the end of their five days of training workshop they were very clear about how their practice would change come the new school year. One second grade (7-8 years) teacher explained that the training had made her aware that her good practice was ‘incidental’ rather than ‘intentional’; by this she meant that she knew what could work well for her linguistically diverse classroom, but that she would focus on being much more consciously selective in her pedagogical choices in order to raise her own and others’ expectations of what her pupils could do. Two High School Assistant Principles agreed with her, and added that to ‘intentionality’ they would look to persuading their staff to use small-group instructional conversations with their students; something not necessarily consistent with standard secondary school practice.

I still have a lot to learn about these Principles’ implications for great EAL teaching, and plan more return trips across the pond in future. I’ve also started trialling them with one school of 98% EAL learners in England, and we’re already happy with the shift in practice and mind-set that they seem to generate. I’ll be presenting with my US colleagues at ECER conference 2019 about our observations of how the Principles play out differently in US and UK classrooms, and if you are interested to know more you can see a snapshot of Professor Teemant’s work at this link.

This won’t be the last posting I make for NALDIC about this exciting way of conceptualising teaching for diverse learners. Do feel free to contact me if you feel inspired and want to talk about them n.flynn@naldic.org.uk  

EALJournal.org is a publication of NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit www.naldic.org.uk to become a member.