• by Jack Dieckmann, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2002 • Image of Jack Dieckmann, M.A.

Scenario 1: You are a high school American history teacher who speaks only English. Antonio, one of the English as a second language (ESL) students in your third period class has been in the United States for over a year now, but refuses to speak any English in your classroom. You have spoken to his ESL teacher who tells you that he is capable of responding in English. You have told the student repeatedly that he must speak English in class, but he continues to respond either with silence or in Spanish such that you do not understand what he is saying.

Scenario 2: You are a high school biology teacher who believes in lots of hands-on lab experiences. You have students form teams of four each time you assign them a lab experiment to perform, although you require individual written reports for each experiment at its conclusion. You have noticed that your four ESL students always team together, helping each other through the activity. They seem to do the work well and basically understand what they are doing, but their written reports leave much to be desired.

Scenario 3: You are a middle school English teacher who loves engaging students in conversations about the books and stories they are reading in class. You often have them follow-up these discussions with written essays, think pieces. You have a new student, Rosita, who just arrived from Mexico this month and speaks no English. You have several bilingual, Spanish-speaking students in your room, but all have refused to be the ESL student’s bilingual buddy, helping her by translating your instructions to her from English to Spanish and by translating her responses to you from Spanish to English.

These scenarios are typical of the challenges that middle school and high school teachers face in teaching English language learners. At the secondary level especially, most professional development is content-oriented, with perhaps a session or two devoted to teaching strategies for culturally and linguistically diverse children.

Usually, content generalists and language specialists conduct these “diversity” sessions. As a result, many core content area teachers are left with generic strategies that are not connected to their subjects (e.g., math, science or social studies).
This fragmentation in professional development is in part due to institutional separation of content. Ultimately, many core area teachers are left with the dilemma of knowing their ESL students need help but, apart from translating, not knowing what else to do.
In reality, serving students is far beyond a training session, or even a series of them. It takes more than techniques to transform schools into supportive learning environments where all students thrive academically. Some elements critical to transformation include:

  • high teacher expectations and commitment to the learning of all students;
  • understanding the way diverse students perceive themselves in relation to other students;
  • resource allocations for training and materials;
  • school leadership; and
  • meaningful partnerships with parents and communities.

These elements form the basis of ExCELS, a new Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) project. ExCELS (Educators x Communities = English Language learners’ Success) is an innovative professional development program that creates learning communities of schools, families and communities for English language learners’ academic success. One high school and one middle school in San Antonio are the partner schools in this U.S. Department of Education Title VII program.

Outcomes for Students

The ultimate outcome of professional development is increased student learning. At least 90 percent of English language learners involved in the project for three years or more are expected to increase their English language skills by two or more levels as measured by the Idea Proficiency Test, and 75 percent will meet or exceed the passing standard on the Reading Proficiency Test in English.

By the project’s fifth year, 90 percent will meet or exceed the passing standard in the content areas as measured by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) in reading, writing, math, science and social studies and the end of course tests.

Key Strategies

The academic success of English language learners requires ongoing collaboration and co-construction among teachers, schools, parents, families and communities. ExCELS has five key strategies to meet the project goals:

  • Training for Capacity Building – to prepare teachers to improve content area instruction for students identified as limited English proficient (LEP) and former LEP students.
  • Technical Assistance for Classroom Support – a support system for helping content area teachers meet the instructional needs of LEP and former LEP students.
  • Teacher Mentoring – a support system for mentoring beginning and experienced teachers of LEP students who have little or no training in the instruction of LEP students and are new to the participating campuses.
  • Teacher-Parent Partnerships – a system to bring parents and educators together for planning and implementing student success models.
  • ESL Learning Communities – a sustainable collaborative structure for ESL teachers, content area teachers and administrators to monitor and support the progress of LEP and former LEP students.

Co-constructing a Professional Development Program

Coordination and collaboration is crucial to ExCELS. “Co-construction” best defines the ideal process (Hubbard and Mehan, 1999). Co-construction focuses on the institutionalization of an innovation and supports sustainability by: (a) attending to the cultural context of school and community; (b) operating multi-directionally so that key partners within and outside of the educational system have influence; and (c) encouraging community and parent partnerships. Thus, co-construction provides unique opportunities for shared project ownership, cooperation and interdependence, and mutual accountability.

A Taste of Co-construction

At our first presentation at the middle school in January 2002, teachers were given a description of the project, the benefits and the duration. To give a taste of what would ensue, IDRA staff presented a vocabulary strategy, which participating teachers applied in small groups.

The vocabulary strategy is designed to build on prior knowledge and tap into the power of imagery and association to develop the academic English needed to succeed in core content areas, such as math, science, language arts and social studies.
In the work session, many teachers commented that they could use this strategy the very next day. It was clear that they were eager to hone their skills in working with English language learners, but we noted that effective classroom strategies were just one piece of the puzzle.

Instead of prescribing a regimented plan for helping teachers develop students’ academic language, IDRA outlined a broad framework for training, emphasizing the ultimate commitment to improving student outcomes.

To guide them as co-constructors, a survey was conducted that asked: (a) What are you most excited about? (b) What are you most concerned about? (c) What would help you address the concerns you listed? (d) What level of involvement do you see yourself having? (e) What should project staff know about you as a learner? The results were used as a basis for planning ExCELS activities with the learning partnership team that includes school administrators.

Informal Assessment – Continuing to Co-construct

As with any effective teaching and learning situation, assessment is at the core of determining how to proceed. In order to customize a professional development process for the two campuses, IDRA staff spent several weeks at the campuses, informally interviewing teachers and students, and taking an inventory of the instructional practices currently in place.

The purpose was to get a snapshot of the status, identify currently successful approaches, and delineate those areas that could be improved. Our observation protocol, adapted from the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) model, helped us organize the data (Chamot and O’Malley, 1995).

Knowledge Sharing as Co-construction: The First Full Session

In our first professional development meeting in May we brought middle school and high school teachers together. The initial activity required the teachers to identify effective strategies that challenge their students academically and also motivate them and cause them to participate actively in the lessons.

The sharing of successful teaching approaches among the teachers caused some of those who initially could not think of many strategies to get excited about their colleagues’ successes. This positive sharing among peers will continue to be a key element as IDRA facilitates the transformation of the teaching of English language learners and is a key aspect of co-construction.

Administrators as Co-constructors

Both campuses had administrators present, voicing energetic support for strategies that built on students’ prior knowledge, irrespective of language background. The administrator participation communicated “team effort” to the teachers. Administrators will continue to be encouraged to participate at all levels and will be especially supported to validate innovations as teachers increase their success with students in their classes.

Parent’s Role

Simultaneous to the work with teachers, IDRA staff have conducted sessions with parents of English language learners. ExCELS parent sessions are based on a set of affirming principles. Parents are valued as their children’s first teachers. They continue to contribute as: (1) teachers of their own children; (2) resources to the school; (3) decision makers; and (4) leaders in creating excellent schools for all children (Montemayor, 1997).

Thus far, all of the sessions have been delivered in Spanish since all the participants have been Spanish-speaking. Parents are welcomed in their own language and participate in a series of carefully thought out activities that draw on their hopes and dreams for their children and help them to see themselves as vital and valued partners in making those dreams a reality.

Next Steps

Upcoming events for ExCELS include a four-day summer institute for teachers, classroom technical assistance and follow-up coaching, and continued work sessions with parents culminating in a parent-led district conference.

Through each of these activities, the co-constructing process will be used: collaboration, listening, building on assets, valuing the right and role of parents in the education process, and keeping student outcomes as the bottom line.


Chamot, A.U., and J.M. O’Malley. “Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach: CALLA in Arlington, Virginia,” Bilingual Research Journal (1995).

Hubbard, L., and H. Mehan. “Scaling Up an Untracking Program: A Co-Constructed Process,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (1999).

Montemayor, A.M. “The Nurturing of Parent Leadership,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 1997).

Jack Dieckmann, MA, is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2002, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2002 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]