This interview features insights from the JTE article, “Collaborating to Address the Challenge of Academic Language” by Trace Lahey. The article is featured in the May/June issue of JTE; you can read the article by visiting this link.
Q1: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?
I have previously engaged in research on various collaborations between students in different schools, as well as school personnel and college personnel collaborating in classrooms. I have also conducted research in the areas of content-area literacy practices and media literacy practices in the disciplines. My current teaching context provided me with the opportunity to combine these interests and design a collaboration between school personnel from our partner schools and my college, including teacher candidates, to learn more about academic language in general, and to co-design some strategies to support students working with academic language in a variety of disciplines.
Another motivation to engage in this study was my desire to support my own students, teacher candidates in a variety of disciplines, with their learning about academic language, an important topic on the edTPA. Many of my students expressed confusion about the topic of academic language, which seemed simultaneously vague and complex. I took up the topic in the student teaching seminar and we addressed academic language in our methods courses also, but it seemed important to spend even more time on this important topic, and I wanted to provide candidates the opportunity to engage in a deep study of the topic with practitioners in schools who were also grappling with academic language.
One important goal in the Teacher Education Program at my institution is to collaborate in meaningful ways with our partner schools. We seek to support student learning in our partner schools and also maintain common ground between what teacher candidates learn in the college classroom and the schools where they engage in clinical experiences. One day a principal from one of our partner schools described the challenge the teachers in her school were having with academic language, particularly when striving to design opportunities to engage students in academic discourse. Because both the schools and college were seeking more understanding of the topic, it made sense for us to work together.
Q2: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?
New York City public schools have grown more ethnically and linguistically diverse in recent years, due to increased immigration from all over the world. Simultaneously, the implementation of recent educational policies that place English Language Learners in general education courses has made the classroom an even more diverse teaching and learning context (Cochran-Smith & Villegas, 2016). These realities present both opportunities and challenges to classroom teachers in city schools. One challenge, related to academic language, is that those of us who work in education, must develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to provide diverse student populations opportunities and tools to work meaningfully with academic language.
Also, all participants in this study were working under the pressure of high-stakes testing in some way. The school personnel were busy striving to meet the New York State Common Core Learning Standards and prepare students for state tests that require students to work successfully with academic language. My students were preparing their edTPA portfolios, which highlight academic language throughout. For all of us there was a strong interest in the topic, because of the well-documented high stakes involved and the well-documented anxiety that occurs for educators around high stakes tests, especially for those of us working in an urban context with diverse learners, many of whom are English Language Learners.
Q3: Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?
In addition to our focus on academic language, I was also interested in the collaboration itself. How might power dynamics, for example, play out, since we worked with student teachers, classroom teachers, administrators and college personnel? I was particularly excited about this collaboration, because no one involved was an “expert.” We would all be learning together. Still, I wondered how participants, given their roles and positions, would interact and influence our work during the study groups. Students teachers were initially tentative and watchful, participating more toward the end of the collaboration, for example. Sometimes school personnel looked to the college to provide concrete answers or even resources such as curricula as they might in a more traditional professional development setting, but that was not the nature of this collaboration, so there was the occasional negotiation. Collaborations like these are crucial for partnering institutions, and it seems very important that college personnel be useful to schools, just as schools are for teacher candidates. Therefore, I think it’s important to be mindful of what each collaborator needs from the others and to take the time to articulate and negotiate these needs. When I worked as a classroom teacher, I sometimes resented outside professional developers, often from academia, presenting PD that was disconnected and disinterested in the knowledge and concerns of the teachers involved. That model is sometimes the expectation for professional learning, though, and I want to work to resist it.
In addition to my college wanting to strengthen our partnerships by engaging in meaningful collaborations with schools, I also wanted to provide our teacher candidates the opportunity to enhance their clinical experiences and see first-hand how in-service teachers and administrators engage in professional learning. I was interested in how teacher candidates, in the context of a study group such as this one, reflected on what they learned about teachers engaging in professional learning. College educators often tell pre-service teachers that it’s important to engage in reflection and professional learning to develop the dispositions necessary to be a strong teacher, but I’m not sure how often or how deeply they get to observe and consider that. The teacher candidates were impressed by the commitment, energy, and insightful contributions made by the teachers engaged in the study. I wish I had more time to think with the candidates about their observations, and how this collaboration with in-service teachers might influence their approaches to professional learning in the future.
Q4: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?
I have always been interested in how teachers invite students to engage creatively and emotionally with content, and how they invite students to express their thinking and learning in a variety of modes that may include academic language or may not. Even though high-stakes testing and learning standards influenced this study, I think we in education need to work hard to resist focusing exclusively on topics that we hope will support high test scores. I don’t want to sacrifice opportunities to invite individual and diverse expressions of knowledge and learning from students; I want us to encourage that. Otherwise the learning experiences become technical, dry, and far removed from our interests and experiences. For all of us, finding a balance between preparing for high-stakes tests and encouraging creative and diverse ways of engaging, seem like important challenges.
Also, in addition to supporting pre-service teachers to work effectively with academic language, teachers also must be supported to develop the knowledge and skills required to teach diverse populations, such as those in New York City schools. The challenge we in my institution are currently working on is figuring out how we can support pre-service teachers to develop an understanding of academic language for sure, but also learn how to invite students to bring their diverse linguistic, cultural, and personal qualities into their classrooms, differentiate curricula, communicate and partner with families and communities, and integrate opportunities to learn about and enact social justice in their future classrooms.
If you would like to connect with Trace Lahey, she can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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