Implementing ‘Language in the Air’: Key Ways a District Elevated English Learner Instruction

By Tim Blackburn
March 2018
A student writing in spanish on a chalkboard while their teacher watches

On a recent visit to Ontario Middle School, I stood at the back of a math class watching 20 students—each wearing a combination of their school colors—connect in conversation using the math terms, definitions and related imagery they are learning.

This memory sticks with me because it was a really cool activity (as you can see in this video from REL Northwest)—and because of the energy the students and teacher brought to the task. It reminded me why we do this work.

In two previous posts, I described the concepts underpinning Ontario School District’s ambitious effort to extend language learning opportunities throughout the school day and the instructional framework they developed in collaboration with Education Northwest. This final installment looks at how the district has managed to implement its “language in the air” approach districtwide.

Setting High Expectations

What I love about Ontario School District is reflected in its motto: O Positive. This is both a rallying cry and a challenge. It represents a districtwide expectation to hold all kids to a high standard and to embrace a growth mindset. At Ontario, the focus is on what students can achieve and how adults can help them achieve it.

The framework for intentional planning practice is an example of Ontario’s high expectations in action. It’s taken deep professional learning and commitment for the district’s teachers, coaches and school leaders to learn the framework—and then train their colleagues to use it.

That kind of commitment can be difficult to sustain across a multiyear, districtwide professional development effort unless there is already a culture in place that not only encourages it but demands it.

Providing Sustained Coaching and Consultation

Ontario’s district leaders knew this ambitious shift wouldn't happen overnight. To have real impact, it would require a sustained effort. As trainers, we knew this as well.

Together, we collaborated on a gradual-release theory of action. During the early stages of implementation, we worked closely with school and district leaders in intensive consultation. This included focused learning walks with school leaders, which helped define implementation plans and ultimately led to the creation of new tools to support teachers.

While students are growing in their language use, we are growing in our ability to teach them language.

As part of this gradual-release approach to professional development, our role is now winding down. We continue to provide each school with as-needed coaching, but the “language in the air” approach is increasingly becoming part of the district culture, which means our assistance is needed less and less. When it comes to coaching and consultation, this is what we mean by sustainability.

One way in which the district has shown its own commitment to sustainability is by implementing an observation protocol that measures how teachers are making the shift for the benefit of their students. This is a collaborative effort between teachers and administrators and it sends a clear message: This is part of our culture now. This is here to stay.

Allowing for Variation

While the instructional framework and observation protocol are now part of district policy, Ontario's leaders also recognized the need for flexibility. To truly take ownership, schools needed the opportunity to determine their own approach to improving language practices.

Based on factors such as prior professional learning, staff strengths, and student needs, each school chose to begin with a specific element of the framework that best suited its needs and culture.

For example, Alameda Elementary School was fired up by the Three Moments scaffolding approach (described in the previous blog post). Alameda’s administrators felt that this lesson design gave them the best opportunity to foster buy-in from the teaching staff because it emphasized the importance of creating access for students.

Meanwhile, Ontario Middle School chose to start with the integration of language and content. Its staff members had already spent significant time exploring the state’s English Language Proficiency Standards, so this seemed like a natural and validating place to start.

Seeing Results

The most compelling part of any training, coaching, or technical assistance effort is seeing the results in action. During a recent round of consultation sessions, which included focused “learning walks,” we were able to gather evidence of how teachers are amplifying student language use. What we saw was clear evidence of intentional planning practice.

[During] the last walk-throughs that we did as a team, I was excited to see that the components of our professional development were being implemented. We saw vocabulary. We saw clear learning goals. We saw students reading, writing and participating. There was not a moment when students were waiting for a prompt. They knew exactly where to go with the lessons. It was really encouraging to see everything being applied. director of federal programs and school improvement at Ontario School District
–Anabel Ortiz-Chavolla

A key to the district’s success has been the willingness of its administrators and staff members to view language as a core equity issue for all students, and especially for those who are learning English as a new language. They understand that for these students, learning English is the difference between access and exclusion, not only while they are in school but for the rest of their lives.

As a consultant, this opportunity to work with Ontario School District has reconfirmed something for me: Culture makes all the difference. The district’s “O Positive” mindset promotes both innovation and the commitment necessary to sustain a long-term initiative such as this one

Positivity is infectious, and it keeps the focus where it needs to be—holding all students to a high standard and helping them get there.