Multilingualism is an Asset

AISJ ES inner courtyard for International Mother Language Day 2021

When moving into my new position as K12 Learning Support Coordinator at the American International School of Johannesburg last year, I created a Whats App group called Laura’s EAL Support Team. You know who you are – THANK YOU! I recognized that building a strong support program for our multilingual learners was going to be a significant part of my work and that I couldn’t do it alone. I needed the wisdom of colleagues and friends with more experience to help me think about what to do first and next and what our vision should be for our support program at AISJ.

As I have been digging into that work, the months of March and February were marked by our school celebration of International Mother Language Day and my completion of a WIDA Virtual Institute focusing on the new English Language Development Standards 2020. The Virtual Institute was exactly what I needed to turn the vision for multilingual learners we are refining into concrete action and practice. International Mother Language Day was exactly what our team needed to begin to think more deeply about how to promote Mother Tongue development all year long.

International Mother Language Day

My favorite IMLD activity. Thanks to our HS Librarian for putting together an activity in which you match the first line of the book in the language which it was written to the title and author.

The IMLD celebrations were lovely, even in a mostly virtual environment. It was beautiful to see the flags of all our students flying in the ES courtyard and it made me wonder why they are not there all the time. I loved seeing graffiti walls in multiple languages and world literature challenges in our High School library. The team of us who were organizing the celebrations this year have begun to consider ways to integrate Mother Languages into the fabric of our school culture all year round, not just in February. 

This year, the High School has expanded its School Supported Self Study of home languages to include opportunities for grades 9 and 10 students to continue development of their mother language in preparation for a bilingual IB Diploma if they choose. This and the addition of English Language B has already begun to provide systems for supporting our multilingual learners in High School. How can we grow this across the divisions? I would love to hear from you how you are doing this in your schools. We have so much more to learn.

Scaffolding Up

Scaffolding up – rather than differentiating down – is a pedagogical approach that provides the support necessary for students who are accessing high-challenge content. Scaffolding is not just making things easier; it is a deliberate and responsive approach that builds on the assets of students by engaging teachers and students in a dynamic and reciprocal learning process.

WIDA Virtual Institute (January-March 2021)

At the same time that we were celebrating International Mother Language Day, I was learning about the new WIDA English Language Development Standards 2020. They provide a great structure for considering Language Goals alongside content area goals. The checklists for doing this provided by the institute offer a road map for how our ELL teachers can work with our core teachers at the macro-level during unit planning. As a school, we are currently reviewing our curriculum and revising our unit work as we transfer to the new curriculum mapping system Chalk. As the units are reviewed and revised, a next important step would be for ELL teachers to review the refined units with core teachers to identify the language demands of the unit with the ELD Standards for the core area. This will embed language scaffolds and planning into our units, thus planning for the wider variety of language learners that we find within our school community. I am excited to add this to our work as a school.

The quote above on scaffolding really resonated with me. I have been involved in multiple conversations recently regarding differentiation verses scaffolding. A worry I have currently, based on observations and thinking with colleagues, is that while differentiation is essential, it can dangerously drift towards modification of curriculum if we are not careful. That is inequitable. ALL students have the right to access the grade level curriculum. The use of the ELD Standards offers a clear roadmap for how to scaffold up the language demands of the curriculum.

Co-Teaching and the Collaboration Cycle

As a school, we support the co-teaching model, in practice its success has been mixed. This is partially because of an incomplete understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the co-teachers and unclear protocol as to how co-teachers can work together.

Again, the WIDA institute provided excellent scaffolds, in the form of protocols and checklists, that our co-teachers can use to guide their practice, especially our colleagues with less experience in this are or colleagues that are new to working with each other, even if they have a lot of experience co-teaching.

I will be bringing these protocols to a pair of co-teachers with whom I am currently in a coaching cycle. The work with them will help us to build a model for how we at AISJ understand collaborative teaching practices and the agreements and expectations we can use more broadly. We will start with the following:

  1. Use the WIDA scores to develop learner portraits and can do statements for the class cohort.
  2. Meet at the start of the next unit to identify the relevant ELD Standards to target and plan at the macro-level
  3. Use the co-teaching checklist and protocols to guide planning for in class work together.

After following this process with this pair of teachers, we will reflect and bring it to the wider team for use across the divisions. With time, we will be able to identify language goals for all the units whether there is an ELL co-teaacher in class or not. This will have widespread impact for for our multilingual learners – and all our students who need more explicit teaching of the academic language and grammar demands of our curriculum.

It is exciting to have a clearer path forward. I highly recommend that WIDA Institute if you feel you need more tools our direction in your work supporting multilingual learners. If you are on this journey, I would love to connect with you and add you to my EAL Support group : ) Please reach out.

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