Jolane Roy's 7th grade class, An Wang School; and Deborah Romeo's 8th grade class, Edith N. Rogers School
The following story of a researcher-practitioner partnership is a composite drawn from two sources, one written by researchers Nancy Clair and Carolyn Temple Adger and the other by Deborah Romeo and Jolane Roy, two teachers who participated in the project.
Lowell, Massachusetts, home to approximately 105,000 residents, is a historically significant, linguistically and culturally diverse mill city north of Boston. Of the city's roughly 16,000 public school students, about 65% are English language learners. Between 50% and 80% of the student population is eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
As in many urban districts, high linguistic diversity and poverty coincide with low standardized test scores, and students in Lowell have scored below the state average on all measures of the statewide assessment program. In 1996, the Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University (LAB) and the Lowell Public School District began a joint project on the implementation of learning standards with English language learners. It was a three-year collaboration among the researchers and ESL, bilingual, and content area teachers in four linguistically and culturally diverse middle schools.
Partnering with LAB staff, the teachers began exploring standards implementation that is mindfully inclusive of English language learners (ELLs). They built knowledge and experience with standards and education reform as well as with second language acquisition. An essential aspect of the work involved four teacher-centered professional development strategies: standards analysis, analyzing student work, discussing professional literature, and peer visitation. Practitioners contributed both to planning the project and to analyzing what was being learned. This made it possible for the project to remain directly related to the needs of those involved.
Year 1 of the project brought teachers together to begin an exploration of standards implementation with ELLs, to build foundational knowledge and relationships, and to establish a critical perspective for the work. Teachers read and discussed articles, identified and critiqued instructional strategies that are appropriate for middle school students (e.g., graphic organizers, cooperative learning tasks, group and individual work), and wrote reflections in their journals.
The researchers visited each school monthly to learn about the day-to-day realities and provide an opportunity for teachers to discuss any aspect of classroom life. Classroom visits individualized professional development for the teachers and provided researchers with opportunities to understand the educational setting in detail.
As teachers Romeo and Roy describe it:
During Year 2, the project added opportunities for teachers to be more active in the design and facilitation of professional development. Using a template called the Curriculum Planner, the researchers guided teachers through a process of analyzing standards. Peer visitation was put in place, with all parties agreeing that teachers had much to learn from one another. One teacher reported that she had never been to another school when it was in session. Another said she saw a teacher adapt a familiar vocabulary learning strategy that she would try. The result was teachers' increased confidence regarding standards and ELLs, with many teachers participating in the professional development planning process in their schools.
During the third and final year of the project, Romeo and Roy explain: "We were willing to take the risk of being videotaped because we were committed to the group and the goals of the project. The group quickly became cohesive and trusting, defined by concern for kids and teaching. We expected more from each other, and each of us became a role model for the others. We grew more vocal about our beliefs and classroom practices. We began to believe that we didn't have to apologize for our successes."
Teachers' increased reflection, combined with new research-based knowledge, has resulted in instructional strategies matched to the needs of the current student population in Lowell. Though the project was technically complete after the third year, participants continued their professional growth. They made presentations at conferences, led study groups in their own schools, continued to take graduate classes, taught college classes, achieved National Board Certification, became involved with developing the MCAS test, and contributed to the production of the videos. Several even formed a new study group to continue to do professional reading together. As researchers Clair and Adger put it, "We were there to support the teachers, but the work was theirs."