Teachers Matter in Ed-Tech Partnerships: Q & A with Sarah Ottow from

This interview with Sarah Ottow, founder and lead coach of Confianza, originally appeared on, a free online database of ELL resources uploaded by educators and tagged across WIDA, ELPA21, Common Core, ELL instructional models, SLIFE, and more.  This interview is also available in PDF format here.

Q: In the ELL space, how do we see technology used? Where do we see mismatches, leading teachers to significantly adapt the technology or innovation to fit their own customary practices?

A: Currently I see the power of technology being harnessed in two very different ways in our schools. First, some teachers and some school systems leverage technology as a tool, that is, using devices and software to enhance instruction, assessment, professional learning, and most importantly, to boost student engagement by connecting to the “real world.” In these cases, classrooms are moving towards more 21st century models of teaching and learning where educators--including teachers, support staff and leaders--act as and are perceived as risk-takers and innovators so that students’ creativity, collaboration and growth can also be fostered and celebrated.

The other scenario is where there can be a mismatch between teachers’ skills and the innovation of technology. This can occur in various ways.  I have seen some schools and companies promote “personalized learning” as a one-to-one model where students are lost in massive class sizes with too much screen time and not enough inquiry-based instruction at higher depths of knowledge. Furthermore, across the country, I hear a term more and more in schools these days—“teacher-proof”. What I have come to understand that this means is that an instructional program or technology is designed to be a rote set of directions for a teacher to use with students in order to have fidelity to the program. I can understand the need to adhere to “evidence-based practices” in designing programs. However, what seems to be missed in these kinds of situations, is the chance to get to the root issues of building and sustaining and deepening educator capacity to teach with high quality content. This paradigm also dangerously relies on technology to somehow replace quality teaching.  In these cases, we have now become in danger of losing the craft of teaching. A technology of program that touts to be a “one size fits all” approach or model, is misguided in its very design, and, more often than not, even more so in its implementation.  


Q: Is this to say that the expertise of the teacher matters greatly in personalized learning?

A: Personalized isn’t necessarily something that can be bought. In my view, publishers, including app developers, have a moral responsibility to undo the “industrialization” of education brought forth by the American 20th century schooling model. Neither teachers nor students should be “dutiful technicians”. We have incredible opportunities here to develop and promote flexible tools for teaching and learning; and when I say tools, I mean both in terms of products and educator autonomy. Tools can be internal knowledge, innovation and skills we, as educators, use to personalize schooling for our students to reach their highest potential. In my work, I see many apps and web-based instructional models. Some districts may purchase these materials with the hope or aim that this is the “silver bullet” for their ELL program. Whether a company intends to be “the solution” or a school seeks a program to be “the solution”, both goals here are misguided, in my opinion. There needs to be a balance of quality content--which can be designed by both publishers and educators--and educator practices to make local decisions to differentiate equitably for students.


Q: To meet the demands of a globalizing workforce, there is a movement today to build 21st century skills for students such as critical thinking, collaboration, leadership, social responsibility, and more.  How can and should we envision ELLs in this movement to build 21st century skills?

A: Historically, ELLs have experienced underachievement due to a “within system issue”, not a “within child issue”. In other words, the system has greatly failed our students, not the other way around. ELLs are not proficient in English yet; that is the definition of an English language learner. We call it English language development because learning English is a process that takes years with systematic support and understanding of the nuances of language acquisition. So, without a doubt, ELLs need to have high expectations set for them with differentiated language supports to reach those high expectations.  Not only should we expect ELL students to perform at high levels while they become more and more proficient in English, but we need to provide the necessary human capital development for the vastly underprepared teaching force working with increasingly diverse student populations. Providing equitable outcomes for this subgroup is imperative for our schools, not just because this is the fastest growing subgroup experiencing underachievement (dropouts, over-and under-referral for Special Education services), but because if we are to adhere to our tenets of American democratic schooling, we cannot stand for anything but all of our students being given adequate opportunities to learn.

Because ELLs are taking part in this complex process of language development doesn’t mean that they should be excluded from high complex tasks or that this work is too challenging. In fact, this is the ultimate charge we are faced with in our schools--providing meaningful, language-rich, and relevant instruction where ELLs--and all students--can perform at high levels of engagement and achievement. I see this happening successfully every day in my work supporting schools--well-designed, rigorous content-based language instruction that promotes “joyful and meaningful learning” (that’s what we’re calling in Salem, MA these days!). Unfortunately, I also see the opposite of this kind of high quality universal instruction that disenfranchises students and perpetuates the achievement gap--setting low or unclear expectations, teaching through rote tasks with language taught in isolation from content, and the underlying cause of these practices, in my opinion: a deficit mindset around what culturally and linguistically diverse students can do and misperceiving the gifts they bring our schools.  


Q:  As accountability and reporting procedures for ELLs are undergoing dramatic changes under ESSA, ELL tailored outcomes such as growth based measures will become increasingly more important. In what ways can we expect technology to play in assessing ELLs and capturing data intentionally to support the instruction?

A: Too often, we forget that the main audience of big data is generally not those of us focused at the classroom level. Yes, a “snapshot” of test scores from one moment from one test or set of tests can be useful in terms of looking at the big picture of a student’s achievement or a group of students. However, we unfortunately get caught up in over-emphasizing this data point. We need a more comprehensive and balanced assessment model in our schools, one that emphasized interim and formative assessments to show authentic learning, not just test-taking.  Technology can either help or hinder this issue.  Data management systems can highlight and archive ELL data so that it’s actually part of the conversation where it might have not have been previously. However, without a multidimensional approach to looking beyond big data, we run the risk of not effectively measuring how students grow over time. Data management platforms can help by allowing educators to customize their systems to build in more data points at the classroom level.  


Q: There is currently a massive ELL teacher shortage in this country. What systems level changes need to happen to attract more aspiring teachers to the ELL field and sustain them in the profession?

A: This is a complex problem which warrants complex solutions. First, teaching as a profession in the United States is not valued at a level where it should be. In many other countries, teachers are much more respected, highly trained and well-supported to continuously refine their practice. Furthermore, we have people in positions of power making decisions about educational policy who have not taught or worked in schools which undercuts teacher expertise. So attracting ELL specialists is just part of this larger issue. On top of that, often in our schools, there exists a “silo” of ELL students, teachers and programs that are separated from general education. This creates a wall that often makes teacher collaboration and ELL advocacy more challenging than it has to be. This separation also perpetuates a common idea that ELLs are either “your kids” or “my kids”, as opposed to “our kids.” Much like the history of special education inclusion practices and programming, ELL education needs to more rapidly shift towards a more comprehensive view of universal instruction and collaborative practices. In many schools, we still have a long way to go.  


Q: At LessonPick, we like to say that we are not simply building a tool but also leading a movement to help all teachers better understand their students. How do you see the potential of LessonPick in today’s ecosystem for ELL instruction?

A: As noted above, teachers need to be trained and supported to continuously refine their practice based on the students in front of them at that point in time.  This means that, although tools can be very helpful to teachers in their practice, a single program won’t improve the achievement gap.  It’s about providing the conditions for teachers to practices, celebrate successes and examine student-centered challenges.  LessonPick helps with this by providing a virtual space for educators to connect with each other and learn from each other’s work.  I see the potential for LessonPick to help fill the gap of what high quality instruction can look like for educators across time and space.  I also see LessonPick helping to elevate the role of the teacher by having educators acknowledge their own successes so that others can directly learn from them to benefit their students.

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