Aligning Allies:  ESL Teachers Supporting Content Teachers

We are very pleased to feature the work of Victoria Barbato, our guest blogger this month.

“We shouldn't teach great books; we should teach a love of reading. Knowing the contents of a few works of literature is a trivial achievement. Being inclined to go on reading is a great achievement.”     --B.F. Skinner

Teachers are some of the most creative, well-rounded, compassionate people you could ever meet.  They want nothing more than to help their students succeed and they invest countless hours and boundless energy to get the job done.  For this reason, if you ever try to tell a teacher that you have a better way to do her job, you can expect to have an easier time ripping a cub from a mother lion.  I should know; I’m a teacher.

We teachers take immense pride in our work and think through every minute of our day with extreme consideration. What’s more is that teachers who have been in the profession for decades have seen trends in education come and go.  There has been project-based learning, standards-based learning, and inquiry-based learning.  There has been backwards planning, college and career readiness, student-centered approaches, and pathways all mandated to us in the last decade alone.  And each time, there is a bright-eyed, ever optimistic, usually young teacher standing at the front of the room, just waiting to unfurl the solution to all the problems in education that have perplexed scholars for centuries.  In this story, that young, bright-eyed teacher is me.  And in this story, despite my many positive relationships with the very gifted educators at my school, the experience of bringing in something new was no easier than it has been for any other who has gone before me.

In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) employed ESL teachers from across the state of Massachusetts to design content-based ESL units.  The project would include model curriculum units for elementary through high school and would incorporate topics in social studies, science, literature, and history.  Working on this project was one of the best exercises in professional development I have encountered.  After engaging with this work for months, my colleagues and I decided to adapt the template we used with DESE to craft units we were teaching our current students.  It worked incredibly well for us and spurred us toward more effective language instruction.  It wasn’t long before our administration noticed our unit planning strategies and asked us to roll it out to our entire school.  (See more about the project here:

And thus precipitated the first of many moments working with my colleagues to emphasize the importance of integrating targeted language instruction into every component of a unit plan and the accompanying lesson plans.  I was assigned to work with the English department and, although they were receptive to the idea of increasing their attention to ELLs in their mainstream classes, some members were wary of elements of the project.  After months of meetings about this process, I realized that the following methods can help support content teachers in preparing language-based units while maintaining their passion for their content throughout the process.  

  1. Zoom In and Zoom Out.  First of all, Show the big picture, as well as the day-to-day advantages of the project.  No teacher would ask her peers to work on a project that she knew was futile.  I found it imperative to begin the process by showing an example of a finished unit plan to colleagues so they could see exactly the end goal for the project.  However, the big picture is not always the most important element.  Everyone has seen finished unit plans before but the difference with this project was that the unit plan lent itself intuitively to creating individual lesson plans.  Since the project was skills-based, the skills needed to be built over the course of the unit.  Therefore, after developing the big picture goals, the most helpful part of the process was then looking at the time allotted for transmitting the skills and creating activities and mini-lessons to teach those skills.  It turned out that the real magic was in the day-to-day.  And, since this is where teachers so often crave momentum, it was the most attractive part of the project for skeptics.  One of my close friends from the English department confided in me that she was dubious about the project until she realized that it could actually make her day-to-day lesson planning easier and more fluid.  I recommend highlighting both the zoomed in and zoomed out attributes of a project to colleagues.  There will be different aspects that are appealing to different individuals.
  2.  Prioritize Goals and Assessments.  This is another way to increase engagement among faculty members.  Setting large goals for their units was something that came easily to most people.  Many of my colleagues had been teaching these units for years but had never articulated their thoughts behind the process.  When given time to reflect, most teachers knew exactly what their goals were for each unit.  Often times, tying these goals directly to language skills was challenging but valuable.  For example, a teacher who had taught The Great Gatsby and assigned an essay for her final assignment most likely also taught explicit lessons on the language necessary to write a convincing argument, support claims with evidence, and/or analyze key passages of a text because these are all skills that students need in order to write a compelling essay.  When teachers realized that their current assessments were still valid, that they simply needed to articulate the specific language skills they were teaching in that unit in order for their assessment to tie to their goals, they were relieved.  Starting in a place where teachers felt like they were already successful lightened the weight of the project.
  3.  Identify Transfer Skills.  This is the classic question:  when am I ever going to use this?  I was shocked to discover during this project that teachers ask this question about their content almost as frequently as students.  Many teachers understand that they have to teach certain material because it is part of the city or district curriculum, it will appear on standardized tests throughout students’ academic lives, and because these concepts are considered common sense and thus important to teach.  However, in these units, there was a specific section devoted to articulating exactly how and why students are expected to utilize this material in life beyond high school.  And this is where it becomes important to focus on skills in each unit.  Students may never need to, for example, specifically invert matrices again, but they will need to solve problems in a variety of formats, as well as represent real life scenarios in abstract ways.  As we are building content knowledge, we are also building academic skills and habits that teach students confidence, problem solving, and the language needed to express these thought-processes.  Once teachers verbalized the “why” of it for themselves, they often became more invested in their own projects.
  4.  Reflect on the Task.  Each time a group tries something new there will inevitably be errors and opportunities for improvement.  In our case, after each team finished a unit, they used a tool created by a team of teachers that guided them through reflecting on their unit, specifically focusing on their final assessment.  The tool prompted teachers to ask themselves if the assessment was truly connected to standards, if it was differentiated for access to all students, if directions were clear, if it sufficiently addressed the main goals of the unit, and if the language focus for the unit was enough to allow for success in the assessment.  After asking themselves these questions, teachers reflected upon changes they would make to the assessment if they used it again in the future.  This specific time for reflection created space for in-depth conversation about aspects of the unit and allowed teachers to feel safe as they considered their own practice.
  5.  Communicate.  Facilitating communication within content groups became one of the most important challenges I faced in this project.  We organized our groups by combining content teachers so they could create unit plans that could be used in those content areas in years to come.  However, teachers within the same content do not always share common views on strategies, priorities, or sequence.  It is important to facilitate communication between teammates, even those who seem very well aligned.  Differences on components of the unit such as essential questions or focus language goals can feel like deep philosophical differences.  Ensuring communication about differing philosophies and strategies helps create the best ideas.   Asking teachers to switch their attention to language after years of focusing on content was a tall order.  Fluid communication with the ESL teacher and/or facilitator is imperative as well.  

Finally, this process takes time; time to sink in, time to process, time to reflect and connect.  Teachers who have been working tirelessly for years understand that fads in the profession come and go.  With each new initiative, we are not reinventing the wheel.  Experience and varying expertise need to be welcomed at each new interval of developing our work.  In the end, we are allies in our task to challenge each other and maintain high standards.  The B.F. Skinner quote above expresses that education is not as much about the specific content as it is about teaching the joy in learning and the skills needed to be an excellent learner.  As we align with standards from the WIDA Consortium and through Common Core, perhaps the most rewarding and most challenging alignment is with each other.

Victoria Barbato has taught ESL and ELA in at Brighton High School in BPS for 10 years.  She loves developing student language skills and watching people learn. She is a department leader, participated in ACCESS 2.0 Standards Setting, and wrote for ESE’s Next Generation ESL Curriculum Project. Victoria has a degree in English Education, participated in the BPS Pathway Program for ESL, and has a Master’s degree in English.  She is passionate about teaching students to be self-advocates and working with diverse populations.  Victoria presented about strategies for teaching ELLs at the MATSOL Conference in Spring 2017. She is currently a resident of Boston and is looking forward to working with local students in a new way this summer by working with the BPS Teaching Fellowship.


UPDATE Summer 2018:

Victoria now works for Chelsea Public Schools, MA, as the ELL Instructional Coach for Chelsea High School.  Confianza supports Chelsea Public Schools through our Professional Learning Partnership with this urban district of close to 40% ELL students and 89% of students with home language not English.  In our work supporting both ELL teachers and content teachers with language functions in curriculum, we use the following protocol (see below; the Collaboration Tool link in this protocol can be found on the MA DESE Model Curriculum Unit website).


What do you think?  Have you used a protocol like this for collaboration around language and content?  What other ideas can you share?


























To Further Your Learning:


from Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education MA DESE Model Curriculum Unit website 

from Confianza "Our Kids": The Role of the Language Specialist



See our set of professional learning offering options.









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