December 2018 Featured Educator: Angela Thoen

This month's featured educators, Angela Thoen, works with Grades 5-6 newcomers in Austin, Minnesota. She was selected because of her collaborative approach to newcomer education and the growth mindset she brings to her school.

Why did you choose to become an educator? How did you come to be involved with ELL teaching? Was that something you always wanted to do or was it something you acquired because of some other experiences you had? What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?

I teach Grades 5-6 English learners at I.J. Holton Intermediate School in Austin, Minnesota. I have been a teacher for 15 years – six years as a middle school/high school Spanish teacher in Wisconsin and the last nine years doing elementary EL here in Minnesota. I have been at my current position for going on four years. When I was in college, I knew I wanted to teach high school Spanish. One of my advisors introduced me to TESOL and I did that coursework, too. I did my student teaching in that, and I got my license at the same time as my Spanish license. 

I became an educator because I have always loved learning and helping people. Plus, there is a lot of creativity in it - every day we do something new. What I love most about my job is the students. Their creativity amazes me, and I learn so much from them about their languages and cultures. One minor frustration I have is that I wish we could get our ACCESS data a lot sooner! I’d love to have those scores to be able to continue to best support the students and staff. Students do not stay at the previous year’s scores for that entire school year.

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?

My newcomer students are from nine countries with eight languages represented. I spend more than half of my school day with them—pullout and co-taught classes. I co-teach fifth-grade science and sixth-grade social studies, supporting students at all levels, including our Special Education ELs (SPED/ELs).

My school building is only five years old and equipped with the latest technology and has numerous creative spaces for learning. We are a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) school of over 800 students, just Grades 5-6. At Holton, 19% of our students are ELs (156 out of 819). Language services in my building include pullout support for our level 1-2 students and co-taught core classes for level 3-4 students. We also support our SPED/ELs through direct teaching and consulting with case managers. All of our students receive grade-level instruction, differentiated for their most current language levels.

We have wonderful teachers and administration who are so supportive of our EL students. My EL team and EL coordinator are so amazing in this work we do—I can’t do what I do without them! We also have success coaches who speak the most common languages in our district. They help foster and strengthen our relationships with our parents and are my go-to people when I need to communicate with parents and set up meetings, as well as answer any cultural questions that I have. We are truly lucky to have them! District wide, we have nearly 1,000 ELs with close to 50 languages represented. For having a population of nearly 24,000 people, diversity is one of Austin’s biggest assets, and I am so proud to work for Austin Public Schools (APS). In my nine years working for APS, I have seen so many positive changes made to benefit and embrace our EL students and families.

Tell us about the process of co-teaching, how you work together with some of the content teachers. Is this a vital part of what you do?

I collaborate daily with co-teachers in planning our content and language objectives. We get common planning time every single day to sit down and work with each other to plan out our lessons, to differentiate them, and set goals, especially to help students use more academic language in their speaking. This work truly allows the content teachers to see how valuable the ACCESS data and the Can Do Descriptors really are in planning meaningful instruction and assessments. They help our co-teaching partners understand what specific language levels are for a student, which helps us plan activities that are at their level.

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?

My approach includes using our state standards, ACCESS data, and other data points, along with the Can Do Descriptors to plan lessons and supports for my students. I accelerate language development by creating multiple authentic activities for all four modalities, using grade-level content with scaffolds, modeling, sentence frames, and visuals. Explicit academic language instruction and multiple opportunities to use these words help foster language development as well.

I have a lot of go-to strategies: Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), Kagan Cooperative Learning, AVID, Whole Brain Teaching, Developmental Designs, Thinking Maps, and using a student’s native language (when possible) to help reinforce vocabulary and concepts they are learning in English. Having good working relationships with my students is what I have found to be the best strategy of all, along with ensuring their most basic needs are met and social and emotional well-being is acknowledged and supported. My goal is for them to feel safe and respected every day at school. But, most of all, I want to them to just love being at our school.

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

I often share stories of when I was learning Spanish at about their same age and how I had success but also made a lot of mistakes and had frustration at times when learning it. But, it is with a growth mindset that I continued to pursue it in college after six years learning it in public school. This is what I hope to instill in them—that with patience and perseverance, they will improve all modalities of English learning. I assure them that my class is a safe place to make mistakes and talk often about the power of that and that I will never give up on them.

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.

I look at the state standards and determine what students need to know, as well as what they need to be able to do with that content. I look especially at the verbs and that allows me to think about which cognitive function we are working on. This lends itself nicely into using the Model Performance Indicators (MPIs). The MPIs are how we differentiate for our ELs.

What methods do you use to assess your students’ language learning? How do you apply the assessments and score reports you get back from ACCESS for ELLs and how do you use that information to help students and reach out to families as well?

To assess my students’ language learning, I use many formative assessments, rubrics (MPIs), and grade-level assessments, along with Score Reports for the ACCESS for ELLs assessment. We use the data in the fall when we have conferences with parents and tell them about our services and our support. We also use that data to configure our groups and our classes in our schedule. We use the Can Do Descriptors, put those out for all the teachers so they have that as a tool. We have instructional coaches in our building who go over the Can Do Descriptors in the fall with all staff, so they know what those are. For staff who need more training or are requesting more training, we have those coaches meet with different teams throughout the year as needed. We also do a lot of staff development, where we’re asked to present or give examples of how to differentiate using the Can Do Descriptors.

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?

First and foremost, the students bring so many assets, not deficits. Their skills in their native languages and their cultures are celebrated and connected to everything we do. In my classroom, there are pictures of my students with their country flags. I incorporate read-alouds into my classroom that reflect stories about young people just like them from the same countries.

Our families bring so many benefits to our school. Their knowledge and ideas are welcomed throughout various parent meetings, groups, and events. Two events that allow me to directly work with our parents are our EL family events—students and families engage in some of our building-wide reading and math strategies through activities and games that they can take home and practice. We use Keep Connected, a program by the SEARCH Institute out of Minneapolis, which allows students and their parents to strengthen their relationships and support each other through the teen years. We have had numerous Spanish-speaking parents participate.

In what ways has WIDA helped you achieve your goals as an educator?

I am so grateful for all of these tools that WIDA has created to allow us to best support our students in their language development. I have attended two WIDA workshops on Formative Language Assessments.

WIDA has helped me achieve my goals with students by looking at their current skill set and allowing me to level them up. The Can Do Descriptors are my starting point and allow me to plan language objectives for grade-level content. All students can do grade-level content. The descriptors help me plan for how they will access it. The Can Do Descriptors Key Uses serve as our main resource in creating MPIs and rubrics to assess their speaking. Using the MPIs, I plan for scaffolds. The Key Uses add more layers to language learning by focusing on specific skills like recounting, explaining, arguing, and discussing. I have found these to be really helpful in supporting teachers and students in my co-taught classes, and especially in science. Real life scientists communicate this way and so should every student!

What would you have to say or what kinds of information would you leave with educators throughout the 40 WIDA states?

I would say, make use of the tools that are available to us and to keep asking questions. I can remember a time when we didn’t have all these wonderful tools. I think we can always improve things. The more we can collaborate together, the more we can create things together to best support our students’ needs and help them improve.