by Nancy Motley
I met Alma Juarez and her team for the first time via a Zoom meeting on April 23, 2020, when they allowed me to crash their weekly one-hour PLC (professional learning community) session. I have to tell you, it was the most inspiring 56 minutes I’ve had in a really long time.
Let me give you a little background. Alma is an ESL teacher at Frisco High School, near Dallas, Texas. She and her partner, Mauri Greener, teach and support the English learners on campus, but more importantly, they are fiercely committed to building capacity within their teacher base. They want to help all teachers successfully meet the needs of ELs, too. From the start of the school year, one of the ways they had been doing this was using the Talk, Read, Talk, Write (TRTW) routine. Their students were using this routine to process texts and acquire more English, and other teachers were coming on board as well.
Then COVID-19 arrived. Enter distance learning. Alma’s first thought was “What do we do now?” and it was immediately followed by thousands more questions.
Fast forward four weeks…
What Alma and her team have achieved since distance learning began is remarkable. So noteworthy that Aimee Daddi, the ESL Coordinator for the district, took the time to share the good news with Seidlitz Education. Alma has created online TRTW lessons with amazing linguistic supports, and enough scaffolding that even her students with beginning levels of proficiency in English are experiencing success. I couldn’t wait to talk with her! I wanted to find out exactly how she did this, how it was going, how she was able to overcome challenges related to technology, etc. I reached out to see if I could join their PLC, and they welcomed me with enthusiasm. I planned to gather as much information as possible so that I could share “the details” of how to use TRTW in a remote setting with other teachers (see Part 2, coming next week). What I had not planned for, however, was everything else I would learn by watching this team of four collaborate.
I hope that the lessons I learned from observing them will both resonate with you and inspire you in your efforts to collaborate with colleagues.
Lesson #1: Stay Connected
Alma, Mauri, Aimee, and Lisa Morales (another ESL facilitator for the district) have committed to meeting once a week for an hour-long PLC. Lisa facilitates each of these meetings, and she truly has a gift for bringing people together. When I think of PLCs, I envision an agenda and content goals, grinding out some plans and delegating tasks. What I observed was not that.
What I saw instead was a true community of four colleagues who were doing the very thing we are all trying to do with our students right now: staying connected. They told stories, shared student work, and mostly encouraged each other’s efforts. Undoubtedly, each of them faces significant challenges (Alma has an eight-month-old at home while also teaching remotely!), but none of them is alone. They can each rely on their next upcoming meeting for an outlet, a sounding board, and most of all, a connection.
For those of you who are thinking, “I’d love to stay connected, but I don’t really have a team,” do not worry! We all have access to social media. Facebook groups and Twitter chats abound. I, along with countless others, have become really close with many “perfect strangers” through my PLN, professional learning network, on Twitter. (If you need a starting point, check out #SeidlitzEdChat on Twitter for conversations centering around English Learners.)
Lesson #2: Keep It Simple
Alma is a self-proclaimed “techie.” I, on the other hand, am not. When she began sharing her lesson with me, she mentioned all of these: Google Docs, Google Slides, EdPuzzle, Flipgrid, Loom, and Screencastify. I am familiar with most of those applications, but only skilled with two. As I listened, I thought, “This is a great lesson, but it will only be helpful to “techie” teachers like Alma.” Then I heard her say, “But I realized this was too complicated.” Now I was listening! She explained that in her attempts to “use tech,” she was afraid that she was complicating the learning process for her students. She intentionally simplified everything. Two specific ways she has achieved this are:
- Narrowing the applications down to three (great progress for a “guru” like Alma), and
- Providing her students with a single document each week that gives step-by-step directions for every day, with all links to technology embedded. Her students no longer have to find a website, open an app, or work from several documents. It is all in one place.
For those of you overwhelmed by technology, or by anything else right now, try to keep it simple. Determine one “next step,” and take it. Just like we do for our students, let’s scaffold our own learning, breaking it into small and simple steps.
Lesson #3: Reflect and Revise
When I asked Alma to share what she had been doing, she began with an apology. “Nancy, I’m sorry, it isn’t perfect. It’s just what I’ve been trying to do. There are still a few things I need to fix, but I’m excited to do it.” What a growth mindset! Even though she’s perceived as the expert at online learning, she recognizes that there is still a lot for her to learn. She is striving for excellence and always thinking about and discussing how she can make her lessons, TRTW or otherwise, better.
Most of the team’s online meeting that day centered around what each of them had been doing in the previous week and talking about how it went. In listening to their comments to each other, I noticed a pattern. Almost all feedback fell into two categories: reflection or revision. It sounded like this:
Reflection: “Here is why I think what you are doing is so (helpful, purposeful, successful) for your English learners…”
Revision: “Have you thought about trying…”
It was so powerful to be part of such a “growth focused” conversation among really committed educators. I also realized that focusing on why an activity is helpful supported their ability to keep it simple.
Another way Alma reflects on and revises her teaching is born out of her personal experience. You see, Alma was an English learner herself. As a child she lived in both Mexico and the United States, and she distinctly remembers her challenges learning English. She told us that because of this background, she always tries to “think like an English learner.” As she finishes planning any activity or lesson, she reviews it, specifically looking at it through the eyes of an English learner. She explained that using this lens has really helped her to make small tweaks that often have a big impact on her students’ success.
I titled this blog “Inspired Collaboration,” which at face value might seem rather lofty and possibly even out of reach, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Alma and her team are inspiring to me and to each other mainly because they are authentic, real, and honest. They prioritize staying connected, they strive for simplicity, and they are continually reflecting on their practice. When I complimented Alma on her amazing efforts, she humbly replied, “I’m just a teacher.” If that is true, Alma, I want to be JUST like you!