How did you establish a relationship with partner Bruce Randolph School?
Barbara: I am faculty here at the UCD School of Ed, in Special Education and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education. I have been working in a partnership with Bruce Randolph Middle and High School since about 2010. I started my relationship with the school through the DPS-UCD Research Collaborative that engaged fourteen researchers from CU Denver with the Assessment, Research and Evaluation Department in DPS. The district commissioned us to write case studies of model schools for English learners in the district. I worked with Alan Davis and Kara Viesca from UCD and Tracy Keenan from DPS and we interviewed teachers, coaches and the administration to showcase the school.
In the process, we just became so impressed with what was happening at the school—a highly collaborative environment, infrastructure for teacher leadership, and really good results for English learners—so I offered my services. Melissa Boyd, the assistant principal, contacted me and in the first year I worked with literacy skills teachers on motivation, and English learners who are struggling with reading and writing. The teachers were really wondering how to authentically engage the students and motivate them to want to achieve. In contrast, if you haven’t really been caught up by the time you get to middle and high school there’s a likelihood that the system is failing you and you become frustrated and disengage.
At the same time, the district was examining the plateau effect of English learners in the district. English learners were becoming long-term ELLs, so Tracy Keenan and I met with the Instructional Team (administration and coaches) at Bruce Randolph to try to figure out why that was happening. And through that work, the principal, Cesar Cedillo, said that was it: we have got to become much more intentional and ramp up our professional development to help our teachers meet the needs of English learners at our school.
Can you describe the current project you are working on?
Barbara: Two of my team members previously worked on a National Professional Development Grant on the Learning Lab model (Brancard & Quinn Williams, 2012). We took that model and we’ve continued to revise it and refine it. It’s an action research model, where we choose a book for the school, with the administration, based on district initiatives, school priorities and teacher input. The overarching topic is on how do we improve practices for English learners? In the first year, we were noticing that teachers were struggling to understand the proficiency levels and WIDA, and that was just coming down the pipe statewide, in Colorado. We adopted a text called Differentiating Instruction and Assessment for English Learners by Faibairn and Jones-Vo. As they read the text throughout the year, we would discuss the teachers’ daily challenges in being able to differentiate for different WIDA levels. They would then come up with a shared focus question within a content team. So they might say, how can I maintain rigor while scaffolding for a level 3 learner? And then from there they would say, what’s my lesson, and how can I explore that question within my lesson? In the Learning Lab model all the teachers take that question and one teacher volunteers to host and do something related to the question in their practice. The other teachers in that content team observe the lesson and take observation data. We come back and debrief, and using evidence-based language, the teachers report what they saw, heard, and noticed in the lesson. From there, we all analyze that data together. We talk about implications for student learning, and implications for teacher learning. And, really, the idea is we’re not going in there to give feedback to the teacher who’s teaching; we’re collecting data to help us deepen our own practice as a teacher. At the end of the cycle the teachers are looking at the implications and so forth, and pick something afterwards that they want to change about their own practice, and implement. They try the new practice, collect some evidence and then report back to the team what they tried and how it went. This leads into the next reading, where we go deeper with each iteration.
How do you expect this approach to influence practice?
Jennifer: I think one of our biggest goals this year is to introduce the idea that everybody, every adult in the building, is a learner. The instructional team (which includes coaches, admin, some department heads), they are
teachers of adults. This is a shift as they haven’t necessarily seen themselves as adult educators before, because they’re all teachers, and of course the ultimate objective is to improve the achievement of the English learners in the school. I see this as a big shift this year, to have them gather evidence of changes that they’re making in their practice, and come back to the instructional team and talk about those changes. This is exactly what the teachers are doing, but they are doing it around their practices with students. We’re embedded in the school, and we’re trying to do things that they want to do, not come and say here’s what you need to do. I think that’s why this model works, because we’re working very hard to identify what the school believes their challenges are, not what we think they are. And that will be different at every school.
What do you feel is most valuable about this type of approach?
Barbara: We very much see ourselves as a thought partner. I’ve never gone in there with the assumption that I have all the ideas, as much as I’m there to learn. The teachers know that I’m not there to tell them what to do, they know I’m there in partnership with them. That’s what’s exciting, to really be in partnership. I think that’s the wave of the future. I don’t think traditional research is sustainable. I’ve been a part of traditional research, and all those practices go away as soon as all those people who are leading them leave. Or they get modified in such a way that the fidelity is lost. So that’s why I wanted to do something that really came from the teachers–thatthey were designing and developing– because then I know that they’re really going to have more long-term impact.
Jennifer: I think practice-engaged research brings theory to life. I think theory is sometimes confined to these sort of arcane articles that are difficult to understand and put into practice, and to access. But when you’re in the school, and you’re trying to put that theory into practice, you see what the limitations are, what the different rhythms and routines of the schools are, versus what the theory indicates might be possible. Sometimes the realities, on the ground, are so different that you really have to adapt. That’s the idea that can be spread across any sort of project that goes into the school with this sort of action research.
How does this differ from traditional research, now that you are working with a practice site?
Barbara: Teacher buy-in. A more traditional research model, in which there is a set approach to teaching, and support for it, that is brought into the school, versus this model that says “what are your needs?” Let’s explore the literature together, let’s develop the focus questions together, let’s look at how to change your practice together, and that’s based in the literature. It’s all based around teachers’ authentic interests and needs. Rather than a top-down approach, we are building the model with the teachers.
Jennifer: One thing that strikes me is that all of the documents that we collected to do our evaluation of the project are authentic documents that we’ve used to change what we’ve been doing with teachers and to inform our practices with teachers. They’re documents that teachers have used to inform their own practices. So for example, the exit tickets that we asked teachers to fill out after collaborative meetings, after observations, after whole-school PDs; they get those back, to look again, and use them to inform their own practice. We used them to develop activities around what they’ve been trying, what their beliefs are, what’s working and what’s not working. We also use those to evaluate the project. I think that’s really different from traditional research, as far as I know about it.
What are your next questions that stem from the practice-engaged research?
Barbara: We want to continue with this school, but our commitment to the school is to on-board all the content teams, so next year we’ll on-board the final content teams [science, electives, and special education], and then we’re in sustainability mode, meaning how do we equip the school to sustain this model after we’re gone? We’ve created the trainer materials, and we’re refining those this year. I’ve been in conversation to maybe look at a National Professional Development Grant to scale up this work. What we would love to do is have the coaches and some of the teachers and administration at Bruce Randolph become trainers of this model, and do some leadership academies in Colorado to train other schools and faculty to use this model. We see this as a really effective approach for university partnerships, in that any faculty could use this same model around a different topic. It’s not content-specific, and that’s what’s nice about it. We’re refining a process for transforming practice in schools. And it’s also really situated; this model is really informed by transformative learning, which is a theory of adult learning that we’ve been using. So we’re in the process of writing a theoretical paper around this, as well as what’s happened at the school, and working with teachers, writing up some of the things that have changed in their practice, and sharing those with other people.
Jennifer: I think the next step is helping every adult in the school to see themselves as part of this learning cycle. So the next question, I guess, would be, how do we develop a sustainable model around transformative learning for all the adults in the building? We’ve been focusing on teachers, but we want a model for everybody.
What’s next? Any additional projects in the pipeline?
Barbara: My hope is to go on sabbatical next year and have more time to work with a few of the teachers to publish the change in their teaching practice that was inspired by this project. I’ve approached a few of the teachers already to see if they’d like to write up what they’ve been doing and how it’s impacted them for publication. We’re looking at practitioner-oriented outlets. What’s exciting is there’s not a lot of research in middle and high schools around working with English-language learners; there’s a lot more in elementary.
Jennifer: I can see bringing this kind of transformative learning activity to other upward-trending schools. One thing that we’ve learned over the course of this project is this is not a model that is intended to turn around a school, because a turn-around school has so many other kinds of issues. This model works in a school that has an administration that is very coherent and teachers are on the same page about working toward one really big, meaty common goal.
RELATED RESEARCH ARTICLE: Davis, A., Dray, B. J., Mitchell, K., & Keenan, T. (2012). Bruce Randolph high school: A case study of an urban school becoming successful for multilingual learners. Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research, 8, 61-72. AVAILABLE ONLINE.