Conversations with Educators: Eva Gonzalez Heredia on professional learning to support Spanish language development

February 14, 2024

Lea este artículo en español.

Conversations with Educators, formerly known as Conversations with Tim, is an article series that seeks to bring educators to the table to discuss their work, expertise, advice and more with WIDA founder and director Tim Boals and WIDA chief of staff Merideth Trahan. These conversations explore all sorts of topics in multilingual learner education.

In this edition, we’re joined by Eva Gonzalez Heredia, EL instructional specialist at the Office of Language and Cultural Education (OLCE) at Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Eva has dedicated her career to enhancing curriculum, instruction and assessment strategies to ensure a comprehensive and tailored learning experience for the growing multilingual population.

Eva, Tim and Merideth discuss Eva’s work around curriculum and professional learning, the practical application of the Marco DALE and her advice for other educators.

Read the conversation below, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

As you read this edition of Conversations with Educators, look for these top takeaways:

  1. All teachers are language teachers, and all students are language learners.
  2. The asset-based philosophy is key. All students are bringing assets to the classroom.
  3. Having access to a quality collection of books in other languages is crucial to promoting bilingualism. Such a collection represents the students and their cultures and could work as mirrors in which they see themselves.

Timothy Boals: Welcome to Conversations with Educators. Merideth Trahan and I are fortunate to be chatting with Eva Gonzalez Heredia from Chicago Public Schools at the Office of Language and Cultural Education. She specializes in dual language education. Eva, it is so nice to have you with us this afternoon.

Eva Gonzalez Heredia: Thank you so much.

Tim: To begin, I’d like to learn about your work and your experiences in supporting bilingual education. Specifically dual language education programs. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Eva: I don’t specialize in dual language but in Spanish language development that would be applied to dual language and bilingual education within CPS. As part of my job, I research and work on development and implementation of professional development that is oriented towards Spanish language instruction within the frame of Spanish language development. And the message that we are trying to send in CPS is that all teachers are language teachers, and all students are language learners. Language is the vehicle for learning, therefore a key part of instruction that we need to consider when we’re teaching.

Tim: That’s a big message — all content teachers are language teachers, and all language teachers connect with the content.

Eva: Exactly. It’s the same for students. What we’re also trying for is the context — specific to Spanish and as part of the goal of elevating the Spanish language in general. I grew up in Spain. In my instruction, I didn’t receive anything geared towards developing my language. Teachers didn’t necessarily think that way because it was taken for granted. It was a given. But coming here, you realize that this is a need. At the end of the day, we need to make sure that language is being developed in all the different contexts — not only in the particular context for Spanish language arts or in the language students come with outside the school context. Without that specific focus, language tends to fall off the wagon. And for us, especially where English is so predominant, we need to make a stronger emphasis for Spanish. One of the goals for my work is helping students become citizens of the world, a world where being bilingual is considered a gift, where students can feel proud of their language or comfortable with their skills and perform any type of profession they choose in Spanish. But to do that, we need to consider how we teach the language in all those different contexts.

Tim: Native language skills also have positive transfer effects into learning English and being able to make that move back and forth between jobs which might require Spanish. And of course, lots of jobs are going to require English. We want our students to be prepared for that diverse world they're going to be facing. It’s very important work that you do. Tell us about what you do to support teachers’ curriculum and instruction in your current work within CPS. What you do now or what you have learned along the way.

Eva: We’re currently developing the Spanish language arts curriculum for Skyline. Skyline is a digital curriculum that is accessible for all teachers within CPS. And it’s specific for Spanish. It is a pioneer curriculum that is being created specifically for our students who are simultaneous bilingual students and newcomers, considering different levels of performance of their Spanish. Right now, we’re in the middle of development. I’m involved in all the steps of the process, from the design of the instructional pieces to identifying the standards. We research beyond the Illinois standards. I researched in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain, Colombia. I combined standards to make a more comprehensive list of standards for Spanish language arts. We call those CPS SLA + Standards and we use those for the curriculum. And similarly, for foundational skills, I have done the same process of researching or trying to find a scope and sequence that is true to the Language Features of Spanish. I looked in different countries to find what the best practices are and incorporated them into the design of the curriculum.

We're also creating professional learning around the curriculum. Different offices within CPS are collaborating to support the full development of curriculum for teachers’ implementation.

Tim: How are you using various standards to help teachers understand the work of the classroom? Have the Marco ALE, the Spanish language arts framework, or the Marco DALE, the Spanish language development standards framework, been useful tools?

Eva: We have found those tools to be very helpful. We’ve integrated both in a series of professional development offerings for teachers in dual language schools and in well-established transitional bilingual education programs. We're considering the different language areas identified in the Marco ALE and aligning them with the components of the Marco DALE. We’re identifying strategies to help the development of each of the areas within all content areas. That’s the vision of the series of models that we are working on creating. Both resources have also been key to the curriculum's development. The curriculum is being designed for grades K-12 and each grade is organized in units. For each unit, one main Key Language Use is identified as the unit focus. And the goal is to create a balance of Key Language Use that is identified and targeted within and across the units and grade levels. Academic language is mapped out at the unit level so there’s a clear goal of what language it is that we’re trying to develop in alignment with the main unit Key Language Use. But with the Marco DALE, the greatest addition that has been key to the development of the curriculum is the Language Expectations and the Language Functions identified within them.

Tim: Yes, that is true. It’s helpful in creating those goals for Language Expectations within content lessons of all sorts, such as language arts, science, social studies or whatever kids are learning.

Eva: Yes, the curriculum is for Spanish language arts, but the units are aligned to other content areas. They’re either aligned to social studies or science. In that way, we’re always having at least three WIDA Standards Statements we’re targeting per unit.

Tim: That’s what we had in mind when we were developing these. We wanted to give teachers a useful tool to think about language in their environment.

Merideth Trahan: When you’re talking about the development of professional learning for educators, it sounds like currently you’re developing it in house. But whether there or when you’re researching and looking for alternatives, what’s important to you as a leader in the field? What are the qualities of professional learning? What are the modes? What characteristics are you really looking for that you consider to be strong professional learning?

Eva: First, I want professional development to be useful and applicable, something that teachers can take and implement in the classroom. As I design professional development, I try to break it down to best practices and strategies teachers can take and introduce in their instruction.

Also, in terms of how we pace the learning, we always try to first provide the research and support behind the ideas. What evidence do we have to support it? We want to give teachers time to process, reflect and make connections. We want participants to leave the space with a plan for how they can take the learning and share with colleagues and use it in a precise way in the classroom. The work doesn’t end when the learning ends, there is a follow-up. We are always open to continue the discussion. We share our emails and contacts to be accessible and reachable for teachers to continue to provide the support they might need.

Merideth: I was thinking that CPS has so many amazing resources. And some teachers who listen and engage with WIDA come from small districts, so they might not be able to develop their own curriculum. Are there any resources or tools you have found helpful that a smaller district might be able to use?

Eva: I do use WIDA self-paced courses for my own learning and find the courses very helpful. As a district, we encourage our teachers to go to WIDA. I also use the Illinois Resource Center for continuous professional development. And then, beyond attending bilingual conferences, we try to be on top of the latest publications on English learners. For example, in my work I often reference Escamilla, Beeman, Urow and Medina. I am currently working on professional development around el dictado, and there’s also a book that is very useful and inspiring that I would recommend. It’s called Buena ortografia sin esfuerzo con PNL by Daniel Gabarró Berbegal and Conxita Puigarnau García.

Tim: Can I jump in quickly with some context? Merideth, “dictado” is Spanish for dictation. And it’s a technique that is often used in Latin America or Spanish schools. Not used nearly as much in U.S. schools traditionally. Kathy Escamilla has talked about that technique in her writing on biliteracy development. It’s a very useful strategy that can be employed in the classroom.

Eva: It is a key practice that is needed for Spanish language because of the way the language works. It doesn’t rely so much on the memorization of high frequency. The spelling of Spanish is transparent, but you must learn certain rules that apply to understand how to write correctly, which is the tricky part. And there is a need for instruction being designed in a way so that it is effective in terms of students being successful.

Tim: Let me ask you a little bit about assessments in Spanish. At WIDA, we have been talking about this for years. We’re currently talking a lot about the value of formative classroom assessment models that could be flexible. I’m just interested in what you would see as helpful to connect with the Marco DALE, for example. What assessment tools you might have at CPS or what you might like to see WIDA create in the future.

Eva: There is a big ask coming from teachers for a placement tool or placement assessment for the level of proficiency for students in Spanish. They’d like to better identify or know where to fill in the gaps. In our district, we’re encouraging teachers to use the resource Los descriptores Podemos: educación temprana. We do this with two intentions. First, to encourage differentiation in the instruction. And second, because the tool provides information and makes you reflect about language in a way that helps you continue to plan and design the activities you’re going to keep working on as you consider the language goal that you want to achieve for your students. That’s how we are using or encouraging our teachers to assess Spanish language development.

Any data point that you can get for students’ language development is always a good source of information that helps inform your practice. So, if I can encourage you to go ahead and continue working on an assessment in Spanish, it would be very useful.

Tim: Yes! I think the Podemos tool could be an important resource for a broader suite of formative assessment tools in Spanish. It’s really nice to know that you’re finding the Can Do Descriptors in Spanish useful. How do you see yourself using the Marco DALE moving forward? What are some tips and advice you could give educators using the Marco DALE as a tool?

Eva: First, I think that the WIDA philosophy is key. The most important WIDA contribution is the asset-based philosophy. Students are bringing things instead of lacking skills. It’s a great tool to get the orientation and guidance needed for what to look for in the language of your students and where to go next. For the Marco DALE specifically, I really like that the components are organized in a way that moves from a less concrete to more concrete level of detail for language development. I think that within whatever context of instruction educators have, the Marco DALE gives the concept first. Like, what are students doing or going to do in the lesson or within the unit. Second, the academic language. Consider the three dimensions of academic language and make sure that you are explicitly teaching for those. And then the Language Expectations really narrow down what you should be focusing on per grade. It’s a great help.

Tim: Yes. Once you have that specificity with the Language Expectations, you can really create those engaging spaces for dialogue and communication that you’re hoping for in a rich classroom environment.

Eva: Absolutely, oracy always comes first. That’s the language foundation.

Merideth: I’m wondering if you have any other recommendations or ideas for educators who want to promote bilingualism in Spanish?

Eva: Resources are a big need for educators. There's always a need for resources. Unfortunately, it is difficult. Most teachers are on their own trying to find and piece together resources from here or there; ones that have not been specifically designed for their students. It is so hard. I was there for 10 years while I was working as a bilingual teacher in Elgin, Illinois.

I would say that the one thing that all teachers should have access to is a good collection of Spanish language books that have authentic features to support their instruction independent of whatever content they are working on. They should be able to get either non-fiction books or fiction, like children’s literature, that is originally written in Spanish. Those books are often the greatest resource that doesn’t only serve the purpose of giving a student information and encouraging a student to be a lifelong reader, but also a collection that represents the students and their cultures and could work as mirrors in which they see themselves. I’d really encourage teachers to make sure they give students access to quality books in Spanish.

And a next step is for us to continue to advocate for our students, to continue to provide that instruction in Spanish. Make students proud of being Spanish speakers. It’s important to share the idea that bilingualism is a gift and a superpower. Empower your students that way. Hopefully, along the way the more we continue to advocate, the more we will continue to achieve.

Tim: It is great advice. Thank you so much, Eva, for sharing with us this afternoon.

Eva: Thank you!


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