April 2019 Featured Educator: Carly Spina

Where do you teach? What grades? How long have you been a teacher? What is your current position and how long have you been in this role?

I currently work in Glenview District 34, a linguistically rich community about 30 minutes north of Chicago. This is my 13th year in linguistically diverse education. I served for five years as an EL teacher for Grades 3, 4, and 5. I have served for six years as a third grade classroom teacher in our Bilingual [Spanish Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE)] program. I’m currently in my second year as an EL/Bilingual Instructional Coach for eight schools, serving K-8 teachers, administrators, students, and families.

Describe your class, school, and district. Please tell me a little about its location, size, and the composition of the student body? What do language services look like in your school?

Our schools have beautiful diversity. Our district has 4,800 students across eight buildings, 823 of whom are active English learners. Our district’s top five languages, aside from English, are Spanish, Korean, Mongolian, Russian, and Polish. We have vast socio-economic diversity within our community; about 25% of our total population is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. We currently have a Transitional Program of Instruction (TPI) program in each building that serves students across content areas and across language proficiency levels through push-in, pull-out, and co-teaching. We also have a Spanish TBE bilingual program that begins in Pre-K, and that will be expanding to our middle schools next year. Our district has moved to a one-way dual language model in K-2, which will carry into our intermediate schools next year.

Why did you choose to become an educator? What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?

My mom taught my sisters and me to find out what our talents were and use them to help others. I’ve always had a passion for children and social justice. I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was young. My parents taught me a strong work ethic. My dad started his own glass company using his hands, his ability to connect with people, and his kindness. He didn’t have a college education and he worked hard to ensure that my sisters and I all went to college. My mother worked in church leadership in several capacities, as a youth minister and as an associate pastor. I watched as she fought for kids beyond the church walls. She taught us to always actively seek out ways to boost up those around us, challenge narratives being told, and push ourselves to consider diverse perspectives.

I love my job because I have a unique role that allows me to work with every adult in our system: teachers, support staff, specialists, administrators, parents, and community members. I love that we have such passionate EL and bilingual teachers who strive to support their students, families, and colleagues. It is so empowering to partner with families who are willing to share their stories and struggles and work with us to support other families in our community.

The best part of my job is when I can be a connector. Sometimes I can connect a family to a community agency for support. Sometimes I can connect a content teacher to a strategy that would help a student access a lesson. Other times I connect a student service team with some considerations to ponder before placing an EL student into a reading intervention.

I think a common frustration in our field is helping everyone understand that our ELs are not deficient; they are linguistically talented! I often say that all learners are language learners—some are just monolingual. This flips the lens and the perspective that some students only have one linguistic toolbox from which to pull, while our linguistically diverse students have the advantage of multiple toolboxes. Our students need time and support and that is the responsibility of every adult in the system. Not being EL-certified is not an excuse. All students are our students. Another common frustration that many of us share is ensuring equity. It is not just a buzzword that we toss around in a meeting or put on a poster. Equity is the responsibility of everyone in a system. We need to consider equity in terms of how we are supporting all learners. Are there gaps? Disproportionalities? Building equitable systems is challenging work, as it may call for individuals to have courageous conversations and make changes.

Teachers who are serving our culturally and linguistically diverse students wear many hats. Oftentimes we are the language specialist in an IEP meeting. We are the instructional coach for colleagues, leading PD on our own time. We are the social-emotional supporter of students who are navigating life in a new country. We are the transportation director for families who need help arranging a carpool for a school event. We are the fierce advocates who must fight for an EL student to be considered for advanced math. We sometimes provide the pencils, the shoes and the shoelaces. We spend nights away from our families attending our students’ soccer games because we want to celebrate their involvement in school or community sports.

Sometimes we do all of these things in one day. Our jobs are exhausting. However, our jobs are the most critical in a system. Our families worked hard to have their students attend our schools. We owe it to them to provide all of the access, opportunity, and promise they deserve.

What is your approach towards supporting language learning in your classroom and school? What techniques/strategies have you found to be most effective in teaching language learners? Are certain WIDA tools helpful?

My approach is to always start with knowing our learners. What are their passions and interests? What are their assets and abilities? I always begin with grade-level standards and align ELD standards to scaffold learning. My favorite strategies include student-led Total Physical Response (TPR) where students are taught a word in context and then must develop a gesture or movement they believe represents the word, Talk Read Talk Write structures where students are engaging with all four domains of language, and Language Experience Approach (LEA) writing that begins with a shared experience.

My favorite WIDA tool is the Can Do Name Charts. EL Teachers in my district worked hard at creating these for their monolingual colleagues to help them understand their students’ linguistic abilities. This is far more helpful than just listing a composite ACCESS for ELLs score, because it goes more in depth to provide information for each domain of language along with some brief Can Do Descriptors. I also love the WIDA Focus Bulletins. I often use these when facilitating meetings around EL student achievement! Finally, the Interpretive Rubrics for Speaking and Writing are a great systems check for my students when I’m monitoring progress. I can easily lay these over any content assignment so I can check for linguistic growth.

How do you encourage students to learn? How do you accelerate their language development and ensure their equitable access to content learning?

Too often we hear of stories of educators (either intentionally or unintentionally) lowering the bar for our ELs. High expectations are for every learner. I accelerate student learning by identifying rich, diverse texts. There have been countless studies that speak to boosts in achievement when students can connect to the characters and stories presented in a text. Students also learn best when they are with their peers. There is a time and place for pull-out instruction to support our students, but I’m an advocate for inclusive practices that build capacity for all teachers to develop lessons with all students in mind.

How do you determine which language standard(s) to focus on in a lesson? Describe your planning process to address the needs of your students. How do you manage to collaborate with content area teachers?

I start by identifying my content objective or learning target. I then look at ways my students will need to engage in language to interact with the content objective. How will they be utilizing the four domains of language in this lesson? What specific vocabulary or sentence structures will be necessary to express their learning? After identifying my language targets, I then look at the lesson and determine what scaffolds and comprehensible input strategies will be needed to support student learning.

Collaborating with content area teachers can be challenging due to lack of time. By using technology strategically, we can free up more of our time. Google Docs or Schoology can help each specialist contribute to lesson planning by incorporating oral language prompts and activities, sentence stems and frames, and other opportunities to incorporate comprehensible input strategies.

What benefits of strength do language learners bring to your classroom and school? What benefits do their families bring to schools or the surrounding community?

Language learners bring so much to our community. Every student has a different experience they can bring into the classroom. I love seeing how teachers create spaces that are linguistically inclusive. Inviting home language usage into our classrooms and schools is critical, and it’s easier than most people think. There is often a fear from teachers about asking students to converse or write in their home language—teachers often ask me how they’ll know if their students are on task. My answer is always to trust the students. If students see that we trust them, our relationships are strengthened and they’ll begin to utilize their linguistic abilities as the assets they are! Doing this also builds respect of all and for all when we elevate the status of other languages in our schools and classrooms.

What methods or tools do you use to assess your students' language learning?

I love using technology to track gains in oral language development. Our students utilize Seesaw (a student-driven digital portfolio), but anyone can archive videos or audio recordings of students engaging in a discussion or responding to a self-reflection prompt on an assignment, for example. It’s amazing to compare writing samples from the beginning of a trimester to the end of the trimester.

How has WIDA helped you achieve your goals as an educator?

WIDA has helped me achieve my goals by equipping me with tools, research, and a forum to work with and learn from other educators. I always have a go-to resource (whether it’s the Standards, the Can Do Descriptors, a Focus Bulletin, a case study, etc.) that I can share with administrators, teachers, specialists, support staff, or even parents. In this role as an EL/Bilingual Coach, I have often pulled out the Essential Actions guide when determining a focus for a school or system. WIDA has given me the tools, resources, and confidence I need to make larger, programmatic recommendations alongside my director and colleagues.