We Learn and Grow Juntos

By Kelly Caplan

Engagement and collaboration within a community of practice, TESOL International Association’s (2023) Principle 6, is essential for teachers of multilingual learners. While texts can provide pedagogical strategies for working with these students, there is significant value and insight that can only be garnered through collaboration. To further my understanding and knowledge of ESL education, I attended the ITBE Fall Virtual Workshop: Teaching with Passion, Learning with Purpose.

This year’s keynote speaker was Kia Johnson, a doctoral candidate for Educational Leadership in Social Justice. In her session, Empowering Multilingual Learners, Johnson described her advocacy journey throughout her career in education. A parallel to my own experience this past year, Johnson’s work as a paraprofessional helping multilingual learners inspired her to pursue her teaching degree.

Johnson expanded upon her role as an advocate at the student, classroom, school, state, and national levels. Within each role, Johnson focused on how to “make sure their voices are heard.” “Their” in this context referred to the multilingual students and the EL Program personnel. While most advocacy work focuses on the educational rights of the students, it is equally important to ensure teachers have the knowledge and support necessary to educate these students. As Garibay-Mulatieri and Vonderlack-Navarro (2020) note, educators’ level of preparedness to leverage the linguistic and cultural strengths of multilingual learners has a direct impact on the future of education in Illinois. The number of students classified as ELs is continually increasing; thus, changes must be made to align the education of multilinguals with the best practices that are supported by current research. Moreover, Garcia and Kleifgen (2018) highlight the “cognitive and creative advantages of bilingualism,” which can only be harnessed when teachers support students' use of their home language within the classroom (p. 52).

When I think about implementing change, I feel daunted and overwhelmed. I don’t know where to begin or how to ensure my actions make a difference. Johnson advises focusing on ways to work toward and implement small changes because each step is a powerful movement toward equity. When I think about the word advocate, I only see it through the lens of an educator; however, Johnson shared her experience as an advocate for her parents’ medical treatment for cancer. There are other systems where inequities exist, such as the healthcare system. I wonder if any of those inequities stem from the inadequate education ethnic groups have received. Groups may not know their rights or feel they can impart change. Thus, we must champion their cause by becoming an ally that can bring a voice to the plights they face.

Following Johnson’s keynote speech, I attended Maria Barragan’s session: Relationships First. Barragan began by reviewing the three categories of student behavior that prevent learning from happening: flight, fight, and freeze. While the manifestations of each are different, all three categories disrupt the learning process. Barragan asserts that “when students are not in the learning mode, learning will not happen.” To combat the behaviors, Barragan stressed the importance of creating a “nurturing environment that supports a culture for learning in the classroom.”

To begin, teachers must build relationships with their students to create a classroom environment of respect and rapport. Barragan suggested that teachers dedicate a small amount of time in the class period for everyone to share about their day, which would affirm the importance of each student’s role within the classroom. Barragan indicated that when students know they matter, that “inspires them to become better at what they do and more confident in who they are.” While this activity is a great starting point, more must be done at the instructional level.

To build student confidence and affirm a student’s bilingual/multilingual identity, teachers must take a translanguaging stance. We must understand and harness the unitary language repertoire that multilingual learners possess and make space within the classroom for the students' ways of knowing as they learn and grow (Garcia & Kleifgen, 2018, p. 81). Instructional activities that include students’ home language and cultural practices accentuate their value within the classroom. Barragan notes that “every teacher is a leader because our students are learning from us." Thus, our translanguaging pedagogy and strategies are a gateway to teaching our students how to appreciate diversity, which Gay (2010) asserts is integral to thriving in a global society.

Patricia Fiene and Bob Lobpries' session centered around creating objective rubrics for the assessment of ESL writing. Rubrics must include criteria, rating scales, and indicators. Fiene asserted that the levels of the indicators must be parallel; for example, every description level for the usage of “hook” must include this keyword. Fiene cautioned that when teachers did not use a rubric, grades could become subjective because of our innate tendency to “go toward whatever is our pet peeve.” Thinking about rubrics, I reflected on the discrepancy in how emergent bilinguals are assessed from state to state (Garcia & Kleifgen, 2018, p. 9). Until students are given the same assessment and measured according to the same abilities, we will never have an accurate count of the emergent bilingual population, nor will we ensure all multilingual learners receive the language support they need.

Rubrics are beneficial for instructors and students. Fiene explained that rubrics provide a framework for equitable grading and show the link between student learning outcomes and assessment. Students receive meaningful feedback they can use to identify their strengths and weaknesses while seeing their growth over time. The three rubric types—holistic, analytic, and checklist—are beneficial when used appropriately. Fiene supports using checklist rubrics for peer assessments as a tool to promote collaboration within the classroom. Holistic rubrics are best used by teachers when they consider a student’s entire body of work through translanguaging assessments (Garcia & Kleifgen, 2018, p. 82). Student progress is measured along the dynamic bilingualism track, which research has shown is not linear in growth (Garcia & Kleifgen, 2018, p. 58).

Gina Johnson and Alyssa Silva-Rafi’s session, Teaching with Passion, provided an overview of the Dear Colleague Letter: English Language Learners, 2015. Johnson began with an overview of today’s climate, highlighting the increased anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, the teacher shortage, and the influx of students who need English language instruction. As Sanchez (2017) notes, about ten percent of public school students are learning to speak English. This statistic underscores the importance of learning how to educate emergent bilinguals and advocate for their equitable education. However, there are many compliance issues at the district and state levels. Until educators know all of the rights of multilingual learners, they cannot properly advocate for change.

I was shocked when Silva stated that schools must assess potential English proficiency within 30 days of enrollment. While I know my workplace is in compliance, many of the other workshop participants voiced that their school was not. The letter details the requirements for staffing and support of an EL Program, by “highly qualified teachers and trained administrators who can evaluate ESL teachers.” Thinking about the discussion postings of my peers, I recall some mentioning that their schools do not have any EL teachers or dedicated EL support.

Another component of the letter is equitable access to curricular activities. Research has shown that “advanced English is not required to engage ELLs in advanced thinking,” as supported by the mandates in the Dear Colleague Letter (Colorin Colorado, n.d.). Johnson stressed that multilingual learners are entitled to the same grade-level curriculum that their grade-level peers receive. To ensure multilingual learners are provided equitable access to learning, teachers must scaffold their lessons and provide differentiated instruction.

My experiences at the workshop helped me grow as a future educator. I identified my strengths in my knowledge base and identified areas for growth. Being "surrounded" by like-minded individuals (virtually) reminded me that I am not in this battle alone. We are all working juntos (together) to provide an equitable education for our multilingual learners.  

Barragan, M. (2023, October 14). Relationships First: Academic and Social-Emotional Success in The Classroom [Session 1]. ITBE Fall Virtual Workshop: Teaching with Passion, Learning with Purpose. Zoom Webinar.

Colorin Colorado (n.d.). What is the Difference between Social and Academic English?. Colorin Colorado. https://www.colorincolorado.org/article/what-difference-between-social-and-academic-english

Fiene, P. & Lobpries, B. (2023, October 14). ESL Writing: Rubric as Assessment and Learning Tools [Session 2]. ITBE Fall Virtual Workshop: Teaching with Passion, Learning with Purpose. Zoom Webinar.

Garcia, O., & Kleifgen, J.A. (2018). Educating Emergent Bilinguals. Teachers College Press.

Garibay-Mulatieri, K & Vonderlack-Navarro, R. (2020). Illinois English Learners Handbook. https://elhandbook.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/elhandbook_final.pdf

Gay, E. (Producer). (2010). Establishing a New Vision. [Video/DVD] Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. https://video.alexanderstreet.com/watch/establishing-a-new-vision

Johnson, G. & Silva-Rafi, A. (2023, October 14). Teaching With Passion: Ensuring Equal Opportunities for Multilingual Learners [Session 3]. ITBE Fall Virtual Workshop: Teaching with Passion, Learning with Purpose. Zoom Webinar.

Johnson, K. (2023, October 14). Empowering Multilingual Learners: Advocating for Equitable Language Acquisition Programs with Passion and Purpose [Keynote address]. ITBE Fall Virtual Workshop: Teaching with Passion, Learning with Purpose. Zoom Webinar.

Sanchez, C. (2017, February 23). English Language Learners: How Your State Is Doing. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/02/23/512451228/5-million-english-language-learners-a-vast-pool-of-talent-at-risk

TESOL International Association. (2023). Principle 6 Engage and Collaborate Within A Community Of Practice. https://www.the6principles.org/the-principles/principle-6/#.
Kelly Caplan is a graduate student at National Louis University pursuing her Master of Arts in Teaching with endorsements in ESL and Mathematics.
Fall 2023 - Volume 51, Number 2