Conversations with Tim: Collaboration: The power of working together to serve students

From upper left: Tim Boals, Katie Stenz and Andrea Honigsfeld. From lower left: Merideth Trahan and Jon Nordmeyer.
From upper left: Tim Boals, Katie Stenz and Andrea Honigsfeld. From lower left: Merideth Trahan and Jon Nordmeyer.
February 10, 2023

This edition of Conversations with Tim features a discussion between Tim Boals, WIDA founder and director, Andrea Honigsfeld and Jon Nordmeyer. Andrea is a professor in the School of Education and Human Services at Molloy University where she teaches graduate courses on cultural and linguistic diversity, language and literacy development, and equity. Jon is the international programs director at WIDA. Jon guides the research, development and implementation of WIDA resources to support multilingual learners in international schools.

Tim, Andrea and Jon joined Merideth Trahan, WIDA chief of staff, to discuss how collaboration among colleagues can transform student learning and school communities. Plus, they talk about why collaboration has the potential to make your teaching and learning even more fun!

Listening option: Listen to the audio here or continue reading this abridged version of their conversation.

As you read and/or listen to this edition of Conversations with Tim, look for these top takeaways:

  • Collaboration can start with one conversation about one child, one lesson or one strategy. It’s a way of recognizing that academic language learners are in every classroom. Every child is developing academic discourse and academic language proficiency.
  • Collaboration isn’t one more thing to add to your already full plate. Collaboration is your plate! When we plan together, it lowers the burden and amount of work on one person. The lesson that's co-planned can be in every fourth grade classroom.
  • When we collaborate with colleagues, we have someone who can help us unpack situations. It reduces isolation – the emotional, pedagogical and intellectual isolation, and gives us that lifeline to a colleague to co-reflect.
  • When we invite failure, we also invite experimentation, risk taking and vulnerability. When teachers present their authentic, imperfect selves, we're able to share that with students and help them develop those 21st century skills of collaborating.
  • Take an asset-based approach to your own collaboration. Rather than finding things that don't work, like there never being enough time or resources, let's focus on what is there. What are the assets and strengths?

Tim: I'm so excited to have Andrea Honigsfeld and Jon Nordmeyer with us today. We're going to do things a little bit differently this time. We really want to promote a conversation, so rather than the typical questions, we just have a few topics. The first one is to talk about how you got into the field of multilingual learner education.

Andrea: I was born, raised and educated in Hungary. I was a foreign language teacher – that’s what we went by in the 90s when I first started my career in Hungary as a middle school teacher teaching English to Hungarian-speaking students. When I came to the U.S., it was natural for me to become an English as a second language (ESL) teacher again. Being an ESL teacher in New York City public schools was some training ground for me. It was a culture shock and an amazing opportunity to learn about serving students in a very diverse community.

Jon: Both of my parents are retired educators, so I inherited the teaching gene. In university, I studied archaeology, ancient Greek and classical archaeology, and went on a foreign study program to Greece. Unfortunately, there are no ancient Greeks to talk to anymore. So, I learned modern Greek and found that working with different languages and cultures was fascinating. When I graduated, I was a teaching intern and taught AP Computer Science, ancient history and special education, plus middle school ESL. I fell in love with the growth that I was privileged to be part of in the ESL classroom, as well as watching students connect with each other and the content and become part of the school community. So, I got my masters in TESOL. For the last 30 years, I’ve worked with international school communities in Taipei, Istanbul, the Netherlands, Shanghai, and most recently, Bangkok before moving back to the U.S.

Andrea and I have found that our work and lives have connected in multiple ways. Plus, we have a lot in common. So, that's why we started collaborating.

Tim: What a great lead into our first “meaty” topic, which is to tell us about collaboration and what it means for teachers who work with multilingual learners.

Andrea: I was just thinking… Is there any other way to think about serving this very dynamic population? Can any one person claim that? “Oh, I know what to do. I can figure it out all by myself.” Both Jon and I discovered early on in our careers that collaboration, even when there was no specific framework for it, is one possible way to share expertise and the responsibilities and joys of watching our students grow and develop.

Jon: We've both seen that in the last decade, educators are beginning to work together more intentionally by collaborating so that all adults in the building share responsibility for all students. We know that the previous pull-out model of serving multilingual learners resulted in isolation both for teachers and students, and fragmentation and segregation of students in schools. So, we've shifted to more collaboration, which is inclusion, its integration, and it is a much more productive way for students to learn. It also has the incredible benefit of teachers learning from each other. We’ve seen this transform school communities. It’s a more effective way to teach students, but also it is more fun, and it is an embedded form of day-to-day professional learning for teachers.

Tim: Those approaches of the past encouraged an over-emphasis on remediation to the detriment of a more aligned, grade-level curriculum, which is what our students really need.

Andrea: I have a story for you from when I was first an ESL teacher in New York City. By training, I'm a high school teacher. For this new job, I taught kindergarten through third grade, which was my first big learning curve. I learned how to be a good teacher right away because every five minutes you must change things up and be very engaging. I had this one student, to protect her identity, I’ll call her Jessica. Jessica was a first grader. Jessica started to open up about two or three months into the school year, and she was almost destructively chatty. One day – I was in that pull-out system, I was dropping her back off in her classroom, and I stopped in the doorway and told the teacher that Jessica would not stop talking. The classroom teacher looked at me and said, “Jessica who?” And she said her last name and we agreed it was the same Jessica. The classroom teacher said that Jessica never said a word in her classroom. I had this ‘aha!’ moment that Jessica has two personas. She is linguistically participating in the pull-out system, but that doesn't transfer into the classroom. I thought: How could we be more intentional so that Jessica could be successful in two places? What if I did not have to take Jessica out of the classroom? I still remember this moment because it was one of those moments of recognition that something can be or should be done differently.

Jon: Andrea and I have talked a lot about what unlocking some of that potential for our students looks like. Often, moving beyond vocabulary games and challenging students with the grade-level content that they deserve to learn means that we’re inviting students to engage with their home language and all the languages at their disposal. Modeling that for colleagues and giving permission to open up new spaces for student agency and translanguaging is a real benefit of collaboration. One of the things that your story reminded me of is this idea of students going through a silent period. I think we need to reframe that. If we're not allowing students to engage with their full linguistic repertoire and grade-level curriculum, they are silenced. They're segregated from the learning that they deserve. Teachers working together, understanding new approaches and developing new attitudes towards multilingual learners opens those spaces and results in students like Jessica being their full selves in every classroom. It also adds to the teacher's toolbox; all teachers are able to figure out how to support students in the content areas.

Merideth: Educators are under so much stress right now. I imagine that most educators feel like they don’t have the time or space to collaborate. What do you recommend for those educators who know that collaboration is best for everyone, but don’t know where to start?

Jon: Andrea and I often share with teachers that collaboration isn’t one more thing to add to your already full plate. Collaboration is your plate! If we plan together, and we do it efficiently, that lowers the burden and reduces the amount of work because it's more fun, it's more effective and it's generative. The lesson that's co-planned can be in every fourth grade classroom, even if I, as an EAL teacher, can't be in every fourth-grade classroom.

Tim: It requires a different mindset on the part of leadership and teachers in the school. But once you make that mindset shift, it opens a world of possibilities. Andrea, you mentioned having a framework earlier, I mean in the early days of collaboration I don't think teachers had the well-developed frameworks that they can turn to now to help them do this efficiently.

Andrea: First, I want to circle back to Merideth’s question. Even though we want to see that systemic, integrated collaborative model, with full leadership support in place, and a well-developed framework, we also need to recognize that collaboration can start with one conversation. One conversation about one child. One conversation about one lesson, one strategy. One way of recognizing that academic language learners (ALLs) are in every classroom. Every child is developing academic discourse and academic language proficiency. That's a very powerful way to communicate to all teachers from kindergarten to high school math that you're teaching math, but you're also teaching the precise language of mathematics. You can’t just say, “the number on the top” or “the number on the bottom.” You have to talk about fractions in a certain way.

Going back to your comment, Tim, about taking it to that systemic level, I think we have to borrow from special education. They have been decades ahead of us with inclusion and recognizing that students need to belong and be part of the classroom community. There is a framework for collaboration that includes at least four major phases of co-planning, co-teaching, co-assessing and co-reflecting. Jon and I are applying this work to WIDA. I think this is a great moment to mention that Jon and I co-authored Collaboration: Working Together to Serve Multilingual Learners, a WIDA Focus Bulletin.

Tim: We are excited about that WIDA Focus Bulletin and the idea of collaboration. As you mentioned before, it makes the classroom not only more interesting for students, but for teachers. And it provides an opportunity to be more creative. This is a tough time to be a teacher and teachers need more things that they can look forward to. I think this notion of collaboration between and among teachers is something that's very exciting.

Jon: In working with a lot of teachers, Andrea and I have recognized this intersection of innovation and exhaustion. For the teachers that stretch themselves to stay engaged and learn new tools collaboration has been a source of energy. It’s reduced isolation that teachers feel in their own classrooms. At the heart of it, I think that every teacher's greatest hope and fear is that someone discovers what happens in their classroom. There are days when it is students firing on all cylinders, and it's wonderful to look across the classroom and have a colleague smile and share that with us. Then, there are other days where it's just an absolute failure, and we just turn off the lights and close the door and say we're not going to talk about that again. When we have a colleague who shared that same situation, we can unpack it and figure out what went wrong. It reduces isolation – the emotional, pedagogical and intellectual isolation, and gives us that lifeline to a colleague to co-reflect.

Tim: That makes me think if you're not making mistakes and failing occasionally, you're probably not trying new things and being innovative. I think it's good for kids to see that, too.

Andrea: That reminds me of a poster I saw in a classroom. It said FAIL, which stood for first attempt in learning. When we invite failure, we also invite experimentation, risk taking and vulnerability.

Jon: And that reminds me of a poster I had in my classroom. It said, “mistakes are opportunities for learning.” My student aide who helped make that poster told me she spelled opportunities wrong, so she put in a carrot and inserted the second “p.” She said she never forgot how to spell that word. Andrea and I love making mistakes. When we're co-facilitating, we're able to take a step back from it and admit that. We’ll say things like, “you know what, I stepped on your toes by ending that activity too early.” In the same way, when teachers are their authentic, imperfect selves and they recognize the fundamental humanity of learning together and making mistakes and improving, we're able to share that with students and students can develop those 21st century skills of collaborating.

Tim: With your framework for collaboration, ESL teachers and bilingual teachers become real partners in learning. It’s such a dynamic environment!

Jon: Andrea, which part of the cycle – co-planning, co-teaching, co-assessing, co-reflecting – is most important?

Andrea: All four elements are important, and you can start at any point. All four phases are intertwined and part of a fluid, dynamic process. I wouldn’t want to highlight any of them as more important. However, we often recommend co-planning as an entry point. Co-planning is directly connected to assessment and data evidence of student learning. Now, we just have to reflect on that. We can’t just immediately go from co-assessment or data and evidence to planning. We need to have collaborative conversations and deep reflections around what we're seeing, patterns of student growth, areas of need, and so forth.

Jon: One of the pandemic projects that we worked on was exploring the yoga of collaboration.  Andrea and I both are yoga practitioners, and so we explored some of the connections between yoga as a practice, philosophy and collaboration. We wrote an article, The Yoga of Collaboration, for Language Magazine on this topic. There are a lot of elements of collaboration that can be brought into sharper focus when we look through the lens of balance, equanimity, flexibility, strength and letting go.

Andrea: Yoga means unity. It was a natural way for us to think about how we try to create a sense of continuity across classrooms, grade levels and content areas. Yoga became a very playful metaphor for us. When we co-present, we include simple yoga asanas, or poses, for our participants to play along with us and develop that muscle memory around the importance of creating a unified, collaborative approach to serving this population.

Jon: I think the integration of language and content also almost becomes unpacked as a Venn diagram. It’s the integration of two things that complement one another. In the same way that when two teachers work together effectively, we not only build on student assets but teacher assets. That complementarity is another aspect of the yoga metaphor. The workshop that we created is called Stretching Your Co-Teaching, which goes beyond the notion of collaboration as just co-teaching. We look at the full collaborative instructional cycle and stretch our thinking about ourselves as individuals, and the capacity we bring to that.

Tim: This is a great metaphor! If you could give our listeners one piece of advice, what would you tell them?

Andrea: Start with what works. Take an asset-based approach to your own collaboration. Rather than finding things that don't work, like there never being enough time or resources, let's focus on what is there. What are the assets and strengths?

Jon: Start with the teachers who want to collaborate in a school – especially new teachers who want to begin collaborating. We realize quickly which doors are open, which doors are closed, which ones are locked. Start with those open doors and build a culture of collaboration that is productive, generative and will get other teachers on board. Another aspect of that is listening to and amplifying our student voices. Students see how we work together, and how we support them, how we effectively collaborate. Invite that student voice into the conversation by asking students, "What are we doing? The two of us working together that supports your learning. What are some things that we could do better?” Empower students to be the protagonists of their own learning by sharing their perspectives.

Tim: Great advice, you two. Thank you both for joining us today and discussing this important topic. As the old saying goes, it does take a village.

About Conversations with Tim

Conversations with Tim, WIDA Founder and Director is a WIDA news article series that features a conversation between WIDA Founder and Director Tim Boals and a colleague or two in the field of multilingual learner education. Together, they discuss the important innovation, research and collaboration taking place today.


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