Conversations with Tim: How collaboration serves multilingual students living with significant cognitive disabilities

From upper left: Tim Boals, Katie Stenz and Merideth Trahan. From lower left: Madison Leech, Hannah Haynes and Erika Hall.
From upper left: Tim Boals, Katie Stenz and Merideth Trahan. From lower left: Madison Leech, Hannah Haynes and Erika Hall.
June 8, 2023

In this edition of Conversations with Tim, Tim talks to Madison Leech, dean of students, ESL/ELD specialist, instructional coach and education consultant*, and Erika Hall, an EL teacher. Madison has worked with WIDA on the Advancing ALTELLA project and helped create a toolkit to help educators working with students living with significant cognitive disabilities. Erika works with students in grades K-8 who live with emotional behavioral disorders, autism spectrum disorders and developmental cognitive disabilities.

Tim, Madison and Erika joined Merideth Trahan, WIDA chief of staff, to discuss working with and how to best serve multilingual learners living with significant cognitive disabilities.

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:

  • Multilingual students living with cognitive disabilities can do difficult things. Oftentimes, it can take a year or more to learn how to best help a student, but once you find the best way to serve them you can make great strides in helping that student learn and grow.
  • Collaboration is key. This work is difficult, but both Madison and Erika have a team of educators and experts they work with on a daily basis to help themselves understand all the different needs of individual students.
  • The use of visuals, repetition, routine and representation can all be important strategies to use in the classroom when working with multilingual students living with cognitive disabilities.

Tim: Here we are once again with another Conversations with Tim. And this is an exciting edition, because we have two educators with us today.

Madison Leech is dean of students and an ESL/ELD specialist, as well as an instructional coach and education consultant at John Barclay Elementary School in Warrington, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. We got to know Madison through the Advancing ALTELLA project. And the Advancing ALTELLA project folks say that Madison is just wonderful, and she always wows them with her expertise and wisdom. So, Madison, it's so nice to have you with us today.

Madison: Thanks for having me and thanks for that introduction!

Tim: Erika Hall is an EL teacher at Karner Blue Education Center which serves students in grades K-8, who live with emotional behavioral disorders, autism spectrum disorders and developmental cognitive disabilities and attend classes at the Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District, which has schools across the northeast Minneapolis/St. Paul area. We have partnered with Erika on research projects in her classroom. Erika, everyone who's partnered with you says the same thing: that you wow them with your brilliance. So, we are so excited to have you here today.

Erika: Thanks for having me!

Tim: Tell us about how you got into the field of multilingual learner education — specifically working with multilingual learners living with cognitive disabilities.

Erika: I always knew that I wanted to be an EL teacher. So I was in college, working on my elementary education license. I finished that, taught overseas and then came back to United States, and that's when I started my EL licensure in Nebraska; which brought me to general education EL services, and then eventually my family moved to Minnesota. The opportunity presented itself to work with EL students that live with significant cognitive disabilities and I thought I would take the plunge and go for it, and it has been an awesome journey ever since.

Tim: That is very cool, Erika. How about you, Madison?

Madison: I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, to play music and figure out grad school. My husband and I play in a band together. So that was our reason for moving down there. And while I was there, I went back and forth between whether I was going to specialize in special education or in TESOL, teaching English to speakers of other languages. When I looked at the programs, I had been really thinking about my family's history. My grandfather is a multilingual learner. His parents spoke Italian and Spanish. So, I was revisiting his experience in schools and how he didn't really have programming. He was learning it after school and church, and it kind of solidified my decision to pursue it.

I started teaching in North Carolina, and then I moved back to Central Bucks outside of Philadelphia. As an ELD teacher I kept having these case-by-case scenarios where students needed more than just our typical pull-out program. They needed multiple lenses to look at their educational experience. I didn't go into it knowing that I was going to be working with special education teachers and teachers of students living with significant cognitive disabilities. But then I became involved in the Advancing ALTELLA project. And now, in my role I'm working with special education teams to support, at a district level, students living with significant cognitive disabilities.

Merideth: Our listeners might wonder, since you're in a district outside of Philadelphia, Madison, and you're in Northern Minnesota, Erika, about this very particular population of rural multilingual learners. Oftentimes, people think of these districts having very small numbers. But I wonder if you could talk just a little bit about that in your district.

Madison: Sure, when I was in North Carolina there were about 80 students. When I moved to Central Bucks I never thought I was going to get a job with an ESL certificate, because while growing up in the area there were a few students here and there, but the program wasn't developed. So, I moved to an elementary school. Our first year we had 37 students. And now we have about 170 active ELs. So, we're seeing that this population is dynamic and it's not a one-size-fits-all education curriculum program. When people are thinking about support it's a few students in the back of the room at a time. I think now that we're widening our lens, with the help of WIDA, with the help of all this additional programming, it's helping us see that this is kind of a universal lens that we need to look at all education through.

Tim: Well, that is so true, Madison, and so many communities have experienced exactly what you've seen. How about your context, Erika?

Erika: When I was in Omaha teaching EL in a general education setting in my elementary school alone, we had upwards of 140 EL students. And then here, in the Setting Four in Minnesota, the numbers are a little bit lower; simply because a class size is about six students here, due to the nature of the needs of the students. My number of students can fluctuate anywhere between 17 to 25 depending on who's transitioning back to their home districts.

Tim: I think that's typical, especially when you're dealing with students living with cognitive disabilities, that you have those lower numbers to allow you to have that individualized attention. In your experience, teaching multilingual learners living with cognitive disabilities, Erika, what strategies work best for you and your students? And what are some of the challenges that you see these students facing?

Erika: I cannot speak highly enough about the use of visuals. We use Boardmaker here in my district. I have learned so much from the autism specialist that works at my building about prompt hierarchy and how to use visuals with the student. That is probably one of the biggest crossovers between EL services and special education — is just a high use of pictures and visuals through the students' day.

Another significant strategy is schedules and routines, and making sure that you stick with those and pairing them with a visual. Repetition, sometimes doing the same lesson several times, is what the student needs; and that's an okay strategy to use in special education. And then, finally, representation — making sure that students can see themselves in the literature or the picture books that we are using. There is a remarkable difference when you represent their home culture and how the student looks, and you can see the student light up. You can see their engagement increase.

Tim: Great tips. How about you, Madison? Any strategies to add to Erika's pretty good list there.

Madison: Yeah, that's a great list. Going along with that, just really focusing on an asset-based mindset. A lot of the approaches with these students can get into this spiral of “they can't.” But when we focus on what they can do, the WIDA Can Do Philosophy, that's your plug right there.

The windows and mirrors are important. The representation of the content is important and including the families as a piece of that is important as well. We'll talk about collaboration a little bit later, but I think that's a huge strategy that benefits all educators and students alike.

Tim: Well actually Madison, that’s my next question. Tell us how you collaborate with your colleagues to best support multilingual students living with cognitive disabilities. Collaboration is something that we're very supportive of at WIDA, and the research certainly is supporting what you're saying.

Madison: Absolutely. When we first read about the history of language teaching in the United States and how it was approached, it was English only. We were focusing on how students were limited English proficient and that the students didn’t have things to bring to the table. When we started collaborating for the Advancing ALTELLA project, we wanted to find a way to translate some of this incredible research and these strategies into something that was useful for all teachers to work together. So, we started creating something that we called a student language builder. That involved the educational team, key stakeholders, finding out what the student is motivated by and some of the family history and pulling all those pieces together to create a comprehensive plan for the student. And then translating that to what it looks like day-to-day. What does co-teaching look like with this student? How can we divvy up these roles and responsibilities to make sure that the student is supported in all facets? How can we support each other to make sure that's happening?

Tim: Great advice. Erika, what's your experience with collaboration?

Erika: We're currently building the language program for our district. It's very new. It's probably only four or five years old. We're in the process of building individual language plans, and so that involves incorporating every single member of the IEP team and giving input to what the student specifically needs at a building level. We collaborate with speech and language pathologists. They are amazing, and they have been doing language teaching far longer in that setting than any EL teacher has. They've been a great resource in understanding what the language difference is and what the language disability is and how the language is being processed by a student.

Specifically, I have students who are hyperlexic, which means that they are memorizing tons of words but lacking the comprehension piece. I have other students who are language processors. They're learning language in large chunks, and we need to break that down into individual meaning. I've just learned so much from my speech and language pathologists at my building. I share an office with them, so we are constantly collaborating on lesson plans, and we do small groups together, co-teaching.

Another great resource is physical therapists. Does the student need pressure? Do they need large, gross motor movement breaks? There are lots of pieces and layers for each student. It's important to tap into the expertise of every single person on the IEP team, because everybody has a different insight into that student. I think it's just important to have a constant ongoing conversation of collaboration. The collaboration piece used to scare me. It used to be like, “Oh, my gosh! I have to set up all these meetings. I must have this collaboration planning time. Will you get that in your day?” But you can have conversations throughout your entire day with educators, and with all of the different related services in your building. That's what it looks like, we just have these ongoing conversations about students and about what's working best. We've just seen a lot of success with that model of collaboration. 

Tim: We've been saying for years, multilingual learners bring such diverse backgrounds. But then, of course, when you add living with a disability and other unique situations, it really points to your professionalism that you are able to juggle so many different students with different needs. So, I commend you for the work that you do. If you could give our listeners a piece of advice, what would you tell them? Madison, do you want to start this time?

Madison: I think for any teacher starting out it’s very easy to feel like an island of one if you are an ESL or ELD teacher, and it can be very overwhelming. The best thing that I can offer as a piece of advice to any teacher is to collaborate. Teaching is a heavy lift and if you do it all by yourself all of the time, you're going to lose your passion for it. I don't care if you've been teaching for 35 years or 5. You will learn something from another professional in the room, and you will benefit that student by having them in that learning environment. So, continue to collaborate and challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and look to the classroom across the hall.

Tim: Erika, how about you?

Erika: I love that, Madison. I wish someone had told me that my first year as an EL teacher, because it’s true, you feel like an island sometimes. My advice is that multilingual learners living with cognitive disabilities can do hard things. Take an asset-based approach with them. It might take more time, but your belief in the student is huge, and you will have an immense impact on them if you are just showing that you believe that they can do the things that you're asking them to. We’ve seen multiple instances where we've had team meetings, and we've had to change our mindset about a student. And very shortly after, the student starts doing amazing in their classroom and with their behaviors.

Tim: That is so important, Erika. Thank you for saying that. Every student deserves to be challenged to the greatest extent possible, and that students living with cognitive disabilities can do much more than we've traditionally given them credit for. So, it's so good to hear that from you as a practitioner who's out there on the front lines.

Merideth, you've been quiet, listening so attentively. Tell me, what is the question on your mind or something you'd like to ask?

Merideth: I was thinking about this phrase of “dually identified” where children are language learners, and they're bringing talents. And a student living with a cognitive disability brings talents with them. So, I wonder if either of you could give an example of this dually identified idea, so that our audience can grasp this sort of interaction — you know, one plus one equals more than 2 with these children.

Madison: Sometimes it takes years for us to figure out how to best support that student formally. Sometimes you have a student who's coming in with interrupted education. They might not necessarily have the literacy skills in their first language, and then there might be that possibility of a learning disability on top of it. We're thinking about this as how do we best meet the needs of this child at this given moment and then how do we help them grow. We can anchor ourselves in the WIDA ELD Standards Framework to do that for language building.

Erika: Yeah, I would agree with that. They come with several layers, and so it takes at least a full year to really get to know the student. But once we get to know them, it is very, very exciting and fun to see what they know and what they can do. I have several students with very particular interests. They can tell you about all the different kinds of cars that people drive. I learn so much from my students every day. It's fascinating to see how their brains process language. And it's really exciting. Every day is a new day at my school, and I’m always learning new things about what our students can do and what they know.

Tim: It's really about uncovering the gifts that students bring with them.

Madison: That's a great way of putting it.

Tim: I think what makes the teaching profession so exciting is being able to do that. Madison, I know you've been very active in Advancing ALTELLA. We mentioned that at the beginning. Anything that you're excited about with that work, and looking forward to seeing?

Madison: Yes, I have been working with Laurene Christensen, Katie Stenz and Vitaliy Shyyan on a number of projects for Advancing ALTELLA. I think the most encouraging thing for us is when we're presenting our student language builder. For example, educators are coming up to us after the presentation and saying, “you know I didn't know how to articulate the frustration or the feeling of just being lost in supporting a student.” We've given them some footing or a framework to work with. For a lot of teachers, especially over the past few years, it's been really hard to find your footing and find what you love about your students and your role. But I think that our work is trying to find a way for teachers to meet the needs of their students, but also support them along the way by helping them with the framework and guidelines.

Tim: That is an exciting note to wrap up with. We have things out there that are being built by wonderful people like you. And they will be available to help teachers in the future through this project. That is very exciting. I just want to thank you both, Madison and Erika, for joining us and thank you so much for the work that you do.

* Since this interview took place Madison Leech accepted a new position as Vice Principal at John Barclay Elementary.

About Conversations with Tim

Conversations with Tim is a WIDA news article series that features a conversation between WIDA Founder and Director Tim Boals, Chief of Staff Merideth Trahan, 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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