In Defense of My Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay

I posted last month on what I see to be the value of the five-paragraph essay. Though I was responding to another author’s post, I thought I was making a fairly innocuous and common-sense point: basically, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A paradigm shift doesn’t mean we should toss out all that was done before and sneer smugly back at the previous generation. The post generated some enthusiastic responses from other teachers, mostly echoing my argument that there is some utility to be found in the five paragraph essay (hereinafter, the 5-PE) before moving on to more complex and authentic formats.

When I heard that there was a rebuttal to my post, and, at that, one written by Nigel Caplan and Luciana de Oliveira, whose names I know and whose work I greatly respect, I was both honored and a bit intimidated. Needless to say, as I read their words, my feelings turned to dismay as I found my ideas so misconstrued. As I revisited my first post, I can see that in the process of editing down from my 2,300-word first draft down to the 1,000 published, some sections were lost and my ideas were a little muddled. Still, I read Caplan and de Oliveira’s response with distress and confusion, seeing my ideas so misunderstood.

Much as I respect the scholarship and authority of Mr. Caplan and Dr. de Oliveira, I feel a responsibility to respond. In this post, I will respond to their argument, clarifying that the 5-PE is entirely compatible with the teaching of genre.

Before I proceed, a bit of detail on the context: It was a post entitled Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay by Brian Sztabnik over at Talks With Teachers that impelled me to write my first post on the topic, “In Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay.” And then the rebuttal to that post was Caplan and de Oliveira’s “Why We Still Won’t Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay,” to which this post is a direct response.

Quote? Unquote.

In Caplan and de Oliveira’s post, they debunk a host of absolute statements: “the exclusive teaching” of the 5-PE, the 5-PE as “the main pedagogical response” to unstructured writing, the “assumption that everything is an essay,” that the 5-PE is a “one-size-fits-all quick fix” for teaching cohesion and coherence. Interspersed among all this I find my own name, leaving the implication these are my strong words and extreme ideas. Yet I have made no such claims. I have not, do not, and would not argue that the 5-PE be taught exclusively, that it is the main or one-size-fits-all response to anything, that everything is an essay. Is anyone anywhere arguing any of those things? I’m not that straw man.

Caplan and de Oliveira argue that it’s “incorrect…to say that rejecting the five-paragraph essay means eschewing all structure.” Elsewhere the point is reiterated, using my (decontextualized) words: they say, “throwing out the ageneric…five-paragraph essay is by no means giving students free reign to write ‘an incoherent mess of free associations and stream-of-consciousness.’” This is a deceptive quotation, my words having been stripped of essential context. The implication is that I have presented readers with an absurdly false dichotomy: Choose the 5-PE or be left with sheer compositional mayhem.

But in the original context it is utterly clear that I am responding to the words of Brian Sztabnik and his rejection of the teaching of format: “Formats confine. They box you in. They limit where you can go.” I was not suggesting that the 5-PE is the only thing between us and the “incoherent mess”; I was suggesting that the entirely unstructured approach Sztabnik seems to advocate can lead to that incoherent mess.

The Value of Contrivance

It seems to be a pet argument among critics of the 5-PE that little published writing actually takes the form of a 5-PE. Sztabnik makes this point, and Caplan and de Oliveira observe that my post is not in 5-PE form. Cute though this may be, it has little bearing on whether to teach the 5-PE. Is anyone arguing that the 5-PE is a form in wide use among professional writers? Who on earth is perpetuating the alleged “fallacy” that “everything is an essay”? Certainly not I.

When Caplan and de Oliveira describe the 5-PE as “contrived,” there is certainly a pejorative ring to the word. But as I said in my original post, the value of the 5-PE resides precisely in its contrivance; it is valuable precisely because, as Caplan and de Oliveira themselves observe, authentic writing is “more complex” and “messy.” Indeed, it is. So complex, in fact, that many learners are unable to discern the structures and patterns that underlie authentic writing. It is a standard and uncontroversial technique in a teacher’s arsenal to simplify for the sake of explanation and awareness-building before exposing students to increasingly complex and authentic language.

Before we teach complex sentences convoluted with embedded clauses, indirect objects, nested prepositional phrases, and pleonastic pronouns, we start with simply, largely contrived, simple present S-V-O sentences. She likes oranges. We have candy. Subject verb object. When we want to help students to see that there are indeed some basic patterns that underlie the convoluted and intimidating relationship between spelling and pronunciation in English, we don’t dive right into throughout, colonel, and entrepreneur; we temporarily set aside authenticity for contrivance, and teach cat, get, hit, not, and gut. Note that none of the sentences in this post are pure, three-word S-V-Os, and only 50 of the 1,600 words follow the C-V-C pattern.

Composition is no different, and the 5-PE is nothing but a starting point for teaching the rudiments of composition above the paragraph level. There are forms to paragraphs and arrangements of paragraphs. There are more and less effective ways to arrange them and to structure writing. In order to effectively participate in written discourse, students must develop a sense for these arrangements. The simple, formulaic, and yes, contrived, 5-PE is a great way to initially introduce some of the types of paragraphs we write and the most basic ways that they can interact with one another. This paragraph introduces a main thesis. These paragraphs support that thesis. These are some words we can use to transition from this kind of paragraph to that kind of paragraph. And cetera.

But let me be entirely, unmisquotably clear: My endorsement of the 5-PE as a device to introduce students to the structure of text is in no way a rejection of any other pedagogical strategies. My argument that contrivance has value in ELT is in no way a rejection of authenticity in ELT. Authenticity is wonderful. The teaching of genre is highly advisable. There is no either/or here. We should teach the both/and. I do and will continue to.

I should hope this goes without saying, but I am also not arguing that the 5-PE should be taught as an end in itself: the outcome of the writing process. It is a stepping stone on the path to well-organized, authentic writing. If anyone out there is suggesting that the 5-PE is any more than that, I will take this opportunity to distance myself from that stance.

Tilting at Monoliths?

Yet Caplan and de Oliveira describe the 5-PE as “monolithic,” and over at his personal blog, Caplan recounts his frustration at students’ attempts to “shoehorn” an authentic assignment into a “pseudo five-paragraph essay.” Here we may have found the source of our divergence. I quite simply have never encountered students who over-rely on the 5-PE in this way. Quite the contrary: the most common issue I encounter is students who are unable to organize and focus their ideas. Teaching context may be quite important here. Caplan and de Oliveira both seem to be teaching in university settings, whereas my experience has been primarily in independent IEPs and adult education. Teachers respond to the needs of our students as we perceive them, and I would surely be singing a different tune if I were repeatedly encountering writing that seemed to evidence the detrimental effects of the 5-PE.

However, before rushing to judgment, I would consider whether the problem is rooted in the 5-PE itself or how it is being taught. I have a hard time believing that the cursory treatment that I give the 5-PE leaves my students with the impression that it is a major authentic format to be used at all costs. Then again, perhaps the 5-PE is monolithicker than I had realized, and perhaps there are those out there teaching it in a drastically different manner than I assumed.

A Genuine Challenge to the 5-PE

There is one point, briefly touched upon by Caplan and de Oliveira, that I was disappointed they did not discuss further. They argue that “the five-paragraph essay does not work as a crutch that students will later discard, it does not teach skills that transfer to ‘real’ academic genres, and it does not even guarantee success on standardized writing tests.” If true, this is the only genuine challenge to the 5-PE I can find in their post. The use of contrivance in ELT assumes that the skills practiced during the contrived exercises transfer into authentic situations. I have so far been unable to access the sources (Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock) that they cite in support of this assertion. But if there is indeed research showing that the skills practiced in 5-PE exercises do not transfer to authentic writing; if there is in fact evidence that the 5-PE, even when used in the limited way I describe above, limits rather than expands students’ writing repertory; if research shows these things, then I will have to reconsider, and we may have to discard the 5-PE.

Common sense tells me that these skills are transferable, and in my own experience as a student, this transfer has occurred. I remember learning the 5-PE and increasingly complex variations thereupon, and as I outline these very blog posts, I still utilize those transferred skills. But research trumps common sense and personal anecdotes, so I will need to do some more reading.

5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE

At this point, I have now spent more time writing and reading about the 5-PE than I have actually spent teaching it! My hope is that this debate is instructional and provokes reflection. Please share your own experience and beliefs on the 5-PE in the comments!

from TESOL Blog


Pull-Out vs Push-In ESL Programs in Elementary Schools

After lively discussions on the NJTESOL/NJBE member hotlist and during a Twitter #ELLCHAT, I realized that pull-out ESL vs. having ESL teachers push-in to the general education classroom is still a hot-button issue for practitioners in the field. I invited Monica Schnee, an ESL practitioner in River Edge, a K–6 district in New Jersey, to write a guest blog on this issue.  Monica has gone from teaching exclusively using a pull-out ESL model to mostly coteaching, and I feel that she sees the benefits of each model. Her ESL program is a NJ model program  benefiting all students and practitioners. 

Pull-Out ESL Instruction

Pull-out ESL instruction means that the ESL teacher pulls students out of the general education classroom to work in a small group setting in another room. During pull-out instruction, ELs miss instruction that takes place in the general education classroom. Some ESL teachers pull out mixed-level proficiency groups while others pull out by proficiency level (i.e, newcomers, beginners, intermediate, or advanced students). Some practitioners believe that teaching to meet the needs at each proficiency level is beneficial. Others find that students need that mixed proficiency level to receive comprehensible input +1.

Push-In ESL Instruction

During push-in instruction,  the ESL teacher comes into the general education classroom to support ELs during content-area lessons. The ESL teacher may be supporting ELs during a mini-lesson next to her students while the general education teacher is teaching, or he or she may wait until instruction is completed and then work with ELs in a small group in the classroom.

There are different configurations as to how to group ELs in small groups and where in the general classroom. One popular push-in model is collaborative or co-teaching, where the ESL teacher instructs side by side with the general classroom teacher, at times leading, at times interjecting with specific language pieces, or at times modeling language strategies for all learners. He or she generally calls on ELs so they get a chance to participate in oral discussions while she scaffolds language for them to communicate effectively and move on the language trajectory.

In both cases, coplanning is needed to define the lesson objectives. This can be done by email, short conversations, using google.doc, via text, or sharing a common planning time.

The Debate

Our NJTESOL/NJBE hotlist discussion was very heated, with practitioners at each end of the spectrum. Here are some of the exchanges:

It (push-in ESL) does not work very well; I do not recommend it at all! Students never get a chance to practice speaking nor do they really benefit. You are correct in that they never really develop the grammar skills they need to be successful writers. I know that push-in is the new wave and teaching grammar and reading skills directly are “old fashioned” but there is a reason ESL texts have a scope and sequence, it worked!

POE (Port of Entry) students need to be taught outside the classroom. They are not getting anything out of whole group instruction. I hear your frustration.

I would like to politely disagree with the anti push-in sentiment pervasive in many of these responses. I have done both pull-out and push-in for my ESL students and I can honestly say that both methods work quite well in our district. In fact, I am finding that push-in is every bit as effective/productive as pull-out.

The push-in model is more than providing support; it is planning lessons and teaching parts of the lesson to the whole class, including the non ELLs.

I believe it is crucial for us to be part of general education/content-classroom instruction, whether in a push-in or a coteaching model. In my experience, push-in works amazingly well if properly implemented, particularly in the primary grades. I have found that the key to students’ success is to offer ESL instruction in the classroom and also to pull out ELs at the lower levels of acquisition for an extra ESL period a day to meet the social-instructional and basic academic language needs. I call this a hybrid model of ESL instruction.

Best of Both Worlds: A Hybrid Model

A hybrid model requires buy-in from administrators, professional development for classroom and ESL teachers, and the willingness to collaborate and not work in isolation with a closed-door policy. It is easier for us to pull our students out of their general education classroom, to teach in small groups in our rooms with our strategies and materials at our own and their pace. The affective filter may be lower, they take risks using language, and the results may be faster. However, their lives are in the classroom except for the times we pull them out. Supporting our ELs in the general education classroom accomplishes:

English learners benefit when teachers are

  • scaffolding lessons so that they have a chance to shine amongst their classmates and participate in classroom instruction, discussions, projects, and assignments.
  • immersing them in a continuous communicative experience with their monolingual peers in order to acquire English.
  • implementing comprehensible input +1 so they can learn in their own setting.
  • allowing them to stay in the classroom every day so they don’t feel “different” from their peers.

Teachers benefit because they are

  • collaborating in planning lessons that include language, skills, and content goals ELs need to perform successfully.
  • modeling best practices/strategies for ELs and for all learners.
  • demonstrating what makes us language experts and what we can contribute to instruction.
  • working in small groups after the lesson is delivered, just like teachers differentiate throughout the day.
  • scaffolding so ELs can participate at every level of proficiency in accountable talk, academic conversations, and tasks.
  • providing a continuity of instruction that is seamless for the learner.
  • learning what the quality of a monolingual’s speech is like.
  • ensuring that our students’ experiences are valued the same way as those of their monolingual peers.

These are a few reasons why we should move to this hybrid model, combining push-in or coteaching models for all ELs while additionally pulling out newcomers and very low-proficiency students to support them in small group instruction.

In everyday life, we all work in groups with people who have different levels of skills and competencies, language being just one of them. Replicating real life in the classroom is a way to teach life skills to all students.

Monica Schnee has been in the field of education for more than 15 years. She is an educator/ESL coordinator for  River Edge Public Schools in New Jersey.  She also teaches assessment in the second language classroom at a graduate school of education. She collaborated on the Interdisciplinary Unit Exemplars for ELLs and on the Model Curriculum for the NJ Department of Education.  Monica is also a WIDA Certified Trainer, a contributor to the “Supports for ELLs” for the Preschool Implementation Guidelines for the NJDOE Division of Early Childhood, and a past member of the Bilingual Advisory Committee and the NJTESOLNJBE Executive Board.

from TESOL Blog

Turning 50: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Andy CurtisAndy Curtis will present the 2016 Presidential Keynote, titled “Reflecting Forward, Reflecting Back: Looking in the Mirror at 50,” at the TESOL 2016 International Convention & English Language Expo, 8 am, Wednesday, 6 April. 

Turning 50 can be tough! Having done it myself in recent years, I know that, in spite of the taglines of advertising agencies claiming that “50 is the new 40,” the truth is still that “50 is 50”! In both British and American English, the phrase “fifty-fifty” relates to percentages, and means “two equal halves.” So, as we celebrate the first half-century of TESOL International Association, in my TESOL 2016 Presidential Plenary, I’ll be looking back, at where we’ve been and how we got here, and looking forward, to where we might be headed and how we might get there.

In the special commemorative publication celebrating 50 years of the TESOL Association, I wrote that part of turning 50 is the realization that:

At that point, we are, officially, closer to the end of Our Journey than we are to its beginning. For some, that can be a depressing and even morbid thought. But for others, myself included, it is a time for celebrating all that has been achieved in that first half-century. It is also a time for reflecting back over the 18,000 days and the 2,600 weeks that make up 50 of our Gregorian years.

Embedded within a recent U.S. celebrity news story titled “From Cindy Crawford to Adam Sandler: 15 celebrities turning 50 in 2016” is a few minutes of an interview with the famous J.K. Rowling, writer of the Harry Potter books. In the excerpt, Rowling was asked about her upcoming 50th birthday (in July) and how she felt about that. She replied by talking about the fact that her mother died at just 45 years of age, which is one reason she believes that: “You’ve got to celebrate every year you’re here, and in good health, and what’s the alternative to aging? … I’m looking forward to it.” Rowling was also asked questions about what frightens her and what she is proud of, which she replied to by talking about giving the commencement address at Harvard University in 2008. Referring to that, in the interview excerpt, she said: “I’m normally proudest of myself when I’ve done something that frightens me. I believe in courage, which I think is the virtue that ensures all the other virtues (as Winston Churchill said).”

The leaders and members, volunteers and staff who have, over the last 50 years, made TESOL International Association the largest, most diverse and most inclusive association of its kind in the world today can also be proud of what we’ve achieved together. It took the courage of many people, some of whom, such as Dr. James Alatis, are sadly no longer with us. Many people have made many sacrifices and served the association with a passion and with professional commitment that has made us who we are today.

It also takes courage to take a long, hard look at ourselves, in the mirror, at the age of 50. As an association, TESOL has been doing this for the last 4 years, starting with the formation of the Governance Review Task Force, back in 2012. The governance restructuring is the largest of its kind undertaken in the history of the association, and it has involved hundreds of people, and thousands of hours of work, over the last 4 years. As a result of all this work, all the feedback given and gathered, we have restructured the organization to be more responsive, more accessible, and ready for the next 50 years.

I hope to see you in Baltimore, in April, at TESOL 2016, where I can thank you personally for all you’ve done for TESOL International Association and for the field of TESOL. In the meantime, please accept my heartfelt thanks here, and I look forward to seeing you soon!

Dr. Andy Curtis is the 50th president of TESOL International Association. He received his MA in applied linguistics and English language teaching, and his PhD in international education, from the University of York in England. From 2007 to 2011, he was the director of the English Language Teaching Unit at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a professor in the Faculty of Education there. Prior to 2007, he was the executive director of the School of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, and a professor at the School for International Training in Vermont, USA. Andy has published numerous articles, book chapters, and books, and been invited to work with teachers in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as North, South, and Central America. He is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as an independent consultant for language teaching organizations worldwide.

from TESOL Blog

ESP Project Leader Profile: Esther Perez Apple

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

In this ESP project leader profile of Esther Perez Apple in Miami, Florida, you will learn about how the communication skills of an ESP project leader include the ability to conduct an effective needs assessment. Esther is founder and principal of Perez Apple & Company, which specializes in business communication. (See Esther is currently the English for occupational purposes (EOP) representative of the TESOL ESPIS, and she also has experience as community manager. She will become chair-elect of the ESPIS at the annual convention in March.

Esther Resize-1

Esther Perez Apple, MA
Founder and Principal, Perez Apple & Company

How would you define leadership?

As a context-driven ESPer and linguist, I think of leadership in terms of its root word leith, meaning to go forth and die, as in battle, or to mobilize an individual or group to dominate or succeed.  The ESP practice I am engaged in with multinational professionals is aimed at helping them to go forth and succeed in the workplace. By raising their communicative competence linguistically, socially and strategically, they are empowered to be better leaders in the pursuit of making a difference for themselves and their families, their organizations, its stakeholders, and the community.

The leadership role I play is informed by carefully analyzing an individual’s position within the organization and by assessing their instructional needs. This can only take place by understanding the unique communication environment of each individual. Consideration of language proficiency levels are combined with questions about the work setting and percentages of time spent communicating in English.  In addition, assessing how much formal vs informal communication is done, how much of it is face2face, video conferencing, on the telephone, or in writing as well as how much is with peers, the public, superiors, or subordinates.  In addition, finding out which communication tasks are required such as presentations, meetings, discussions, and written reports or emails.  Much consideration is given to this communication profile so as to tease out and focus on the elements that will have the greatest impact on communicative competence and desired goals.

Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful?

My works spans industries across the business sector and I most frequently work within a corporate or small business environment where talented and highly educated individuals are being held back by English communication performance gaps.

The owner of an information technology service company contacted me about his Sr. Technical Account Manager.  This individual’s technical skills were deemed superior but his language skills were keeping him from interacting in written and spoken communication and therefore advancing into the management position that was desired by the manager and the company’s owner. The position’s requirements were to interact with potential and current customers, explain services, and develop ongoing relationships with clients both in written and spoken communication.

A blended learning program was designed to focus on writing, speaking, and communication strategies. An online writing program which supported the face2face program addressed grammar, usage, mechanics, and sentence construction. This was integrated into email writing projects in training sessions that focused on format, word choice, tone, and style.

Business communication strategies were narrowed to focus on the following discourse strategies:

  • Considering option and choices
  • Asking questions and verb inversion
  • Yes/no questions; open-ended questions; probing questions; leading questions; hypothetical questions
  • Seeking clarification and maintaining understanding

In addition, pronunciation skills for keywords used in email and discourse strategies were introduced along with writing and discourse strategies.

This highly motivated individual succeeded in improving his email writing and general command of business discourse.  He received positive feedback from the company’s owner as well as his customers.  He was able to write and speak with a minimum of grammar and usage errors as well as form relationships with customers by using English discourse strategies. Expectations were clear from the beginning that language learning and improvement take place over a period of time with continued practice.

What made this program succeed is the explicit focus on the skills and tasks that needed to be improved which can only be accomplished by an organizational and individual needs assessment. Successful programs emerge by balancing the language needs of the student, his/her goals, expectations of management or stakeholders, and the commitment of the individual and/or company that will benefit from the training.

As I was reading Esther’s profile above, I really liked her focus on providing customer satisfaction in an EOP context. Satisfying multiple stakeholders is a very important aspect of ESP project leadership, and we can gain insights into effective communication from Esther’s profile.

Feel free to provide any comments or questions for Esther below, or contact her directly at her email above!

All the best,


Note: For all of the ESP project leader profiles (and more), go here.

from TESOL Blog

To HOTs or Not? Higher Order Thinking for ELLs

In 1949, Benjamin Bloom posed a taxonomy for demands on cognition—a hierarchy for looking at thinking in terms of the various cognitive processes that people employ for different types of tasks. More than 65 years later, that original taxonomy is still used widely among teachers who strive to create lessons and activities that help their students develop higher order thinking skills, or HOTS.

Sometimes teachers struggle to implement HOTS for ELLs because they have the misconception that ELLs can’t perform at those higher levels of cognition until their English proficiency is more advanced. However, accessing HOTS has more to do with the type of activity presented and how effectively it is scaffolded, and much less to do with how much language proficiency a student has. With the help of visuals, realia, peer interaction, and larger tasks broken down into concrete steps, ELLs can and will perform at all levels of cognition.

Three ways to incorporate HOTS into your lesson plans and activities follow below.

1. Start at the beginning. When you write your lesson objectives, be sure to incorporate a Bloom’s taxonomy action verb. Using verbs such as list, recall, use, create, interpret, apply, and rank will focus both teacher and student attention on the cognitive task at hand, rather than a laundry list of activities to check off as completed. Charts of Bloom’s verbs in English and Spanish are great for classroom posting or to put by your desk as you plan lessons. For use with digital and technology tasks, check out Global Citizen’s digital taxonomy verbs infographic.

2. Design activities to challenge students at the full range of cognitive demands. Using the same verbs in your objectives, be sure students are engaging in activities at multiple levels throughout a lesson. Students can sort pictures to classify items (analysis), evaluate each other’s work using a rubric or checklist (evaluation), or write about concepts in their own words (comprehension). A useful taxonomy wheel from Independent Educational Consultancy in the United Kingdom has the levels, the action verbs, and suggested activities to address each demand on cognition. It also has corresponding personal learning/thinking skills for each demand, as well.

3. Ask questions about a concept at varying demands on cognition. Instead of “yes/no” questions, or “What did you put for exercise #3?”, ask questions that require students to think in various ways. Inquiring about which invention might be the most important to a group of people, or which character a student would like to meet from a story challenges students to evaluate or synthesize key information, rather than simply repeating it. Adding question stems to your repertoire of verbs and activities will also engage students in higher order discussions that are critical for language use.

For a recently updated, truly exhaustive list of Bloom’s taxonomy resources for teachers, check out The Best Resources for Helping Teachers use Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom. Incorporating HOTS into your ESL/EFL lessons can provide healthy and engaging challenges for ELLs and keep classroom practices more interesting for their teachers, too.  Let us know how you incorporate HOTS for learners in different contexts!

from TESOL Blog

Utilizing an Online COP: Family, Community, School

A guest post by Christina Cavage
In this blog, Christina Cavage shares the ideas and outcomes resulting from a 6-week online community of practice among educators in Syracuse, New York, USA.

Over the last year, a groundbreaking project was implemented in Syracuse, New York. With the help of a W. K. Kellogg Foundation Grant, teachers and decision-makers participated in a multiphase project to explore ways to engage ELL families in the school and the community in which they live.

Family, Community, School began in Syracuse by gathering K–3 teachers together from three different schools. In the face-to-face meeting, a needs analysis was conducted to assess the effectiveness of current strategies that bridge the gap between ELL families and the schools. Teachers reported that while programs do exist, they were falling short of what could be done. Teachers worked together to brainstorm ways that could better engage families, with little cost to the schools.  After the brainstorming sessions, faculty participated in a 6-week online community of practice (oCoP).

The oCoP represented a true grass roots effort. Teachers exchanged ideas, developed feasible plans that could be carried out at their schools, and supported one another through establishing collaborative partnerships. Several wonderful ideas grew out of the oCoP that would later be implemented.  These include:

  • Family Mentors/Advocates: ELL families would be paired with a host family to help them acclimate to the community and the school.
  • Literacy Programs for Family Members: Establish adult literacy programs for parents in the evening at the school.
  • Welcome Center: Establish a welcome center for ELL families where they would be greeted by multilingual staff.
  • Family Workshops: Organize workshops for families on local community resources.

Teachers left the oCoP excited and ready to move forward with several of their ideas.  Comments made by participants included:

I have…really enjoyed being a part of this exciting Online Community of Practice! As a teacher, I know that I am a lifelong learner. Being given the opportunity to participate in this type of professional community has been awesome! I look forward to participating in more projects like this in the future.”

“As my colleagues have voiced so eloquently, we have truly appreciated and benefited from this online community. We are very lucky and proud of our resources that our library has already started to compile for all of our students but I feel if we follow thru with grant funding our possibilities to be a resource to our families would be fabulous.”

“Thank you and thank you for this opportunity and if there are any more opportunities to do this again please keep me in mind.”

“I have definitely appreciated being part of a larger community that focuses on ELLs and the whole family. I think the other ideas we are developing, and talking about, for our school are definitely within the realm of possibilities.”

“I wanted to add that one thing I’ve enjoyed about this community is we are starting with the practitioners and not top-down. This could prove a worthy model in many areas of education!”

The next phase of the project involved getting the decision-makers on board. Principals gathered face-to-face in Syracuse in August 2015. They were guided through the development of action plans; developed action plans around the feasible, viable ideas that grew out of the oCoP; and participated in a peer review of those plans. The plans were put into action in late September 2015. The Joy School completed several activities that clearly had an impact on the school community. A small sampling of these activities included:

  • Hosting International Night, and providing transportation for the families: An event where diverse cultures are highlighted through food, arts, and conversation.
  • Highlighting a culture of the month: Each month, a new culture is highlighted through visual displays, and readings in K–3 would be inclusive of the culture.
  • Family field trip to local library: Teachers and administrators took ELL students and families on a tour of the local library.
  • Literacy backpacks for families: Backpacks were created with bilingual and literacy reading materials. These are lent out to families.
  • The establishment of a lending library: Literacy books for adults and young learners are housed in a special section of the library for ELL families to borrow.

Overall, with a little brainstorming, collaboration, and dedication, engaging families is possible!

ChristinaCavageChristina Cavage is currently a professor of ESL at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).  Prior to joining SCAD, she served as the department chair of ESL and modern languages at Atlantic Community College in New Jersey.  She is the author of several textbooks, including Next Generation Grammar, and a regular presenter at local, regional, and international TESOL conferences.  In addition to her teaching and writing, Ms. Cavage served as the facilitator for TESOL’s Kellogg Grant, Parts II and III.

from TESOL Blog