By Jennifer Blitz

Jennifer Blitz is a Senior Program Associate with Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL) at WestEd. Blitz works with state education agencies as well as site and district teams across the country to bring about instructional improvements for English Learners.

The educators at Centennial Middle School in Yuma, Arizona, knew the immense potential of their English Learners but were frustrated by the lack of success they observed with their students’ content knowledge and language development. “The classroom was quiet,” says Karla Jones, a science teacher at Centennial. “I wanted to give students experiences that they could relate to, and I didn’t want to keep seeing my students struggle like they were.”

Thirty-five percent of Centennial students are English Learners, many of whom have been designated as such since they entered U.S. schools in the primary grades. The Centennial staff knew they had to change their instructional approach in order to support their students to achieve their potential.

In the fall of 2022, a team from Centennial joined the Building Excellence for English Learners (BEEL) initiative through the Quality Teaching for English Learners program at WestEd. BEEL is funded by a grant from the Arizona Department of Education. Through the initiative, schools and districts receive professional learning focused on building a shared understanding of effective teaching and learning for English Learners and implementing that learning in classroom instruction.

Teachers first learn how to weave content, language, and analytical practices to engage students in grade-level content area instruction and accelerate learning by helping students develop a conceptual understanding of language and literacy skills simultaneously. Teachers then have the opportunity to work collaboratively with their QTEL coach to plan for and facilitate lessons with their own content, curriculum, and students back at their schools.

Preparing Students to Interact with Complex Texts and Concepts

During a recent professional learning institute, Centennial educators learned to use an Anticipatory Guide task to prepare students to interact with a complex text or concept. During the task, students interact with several teacher-developed statements designed to elicit their opinion on key ideas and controversial topics in order to activate their prior knowledge, focus their attention on the key ideas or themes developed during the lesson, and introduce vocabulary in context. Students use formulaic expressions to guide their discussion, agreeing or disagreeing with the statements and each other based on their own knowledge, opinions, and experiences.

Following the institute, Centennial’s QTEL coach joined the team at their school to plan high-challenge and high-support lessons for English Learners that incorporate the key ideas learned in the professional learning session. The STEM team—Azalea Birriel, Karla Jones, and LuAnn Gillespie (instructional coach)—created an Anticipatory Guide to launch a unit on human genetics. Working collaboratively, they identified key concepts and ideas central to the unit goals and developed statements that students could discuss and share opinions based on their prior knowledge. Some of their statements included:

Parents should be able to choose their child’s genes, or the part of their cells that controls what the child looks like and how they develop.

If you know you are a carrier of the gene for a fatal disease (meaning you have and can pass the gene, but you are not sick yourself), you should not have children.

It’s good to know in advance what diseases you could develop.

Karla Jones implemented the lesson in her 8th grade science classroom as the rest of the team observed and collected data around students’ participation with the tasks the team had designed. They then used their collective observations to debrief, refine, and reteach the lesson and discuss what appeared to work for students and under what conditions.

“This [Anticipatory Guide] task is all about the conversation it generates. Students had no choice but to use the language,” noted Jones. “It made them talk and think about their ideas, feelings, and opinions—it was related to their world,” said Birriel. Centennial teachers have embraced this approach to professional learning and observed the benefits of it in their practice. Jones and Birriel both plan to use the Anticipatory Guide again in future lessons with their students.

Teacher at Centennial Middle School
Karla Jones, 8th grade science teacher, explains the Anticipatory Guide to her students.

Centennial educators are beginning to see an impact on their students as well. “We are seeing this with our data,” says Sonya Green, Principal at Centennial, “in particular for our students at the Emergent and Basic levels of English proficiency. They are demonstrating increases in understanding on their unit tests and reading assessments.” Green says she’s also noticed an increase in students’ willingness to grapple with rigorous content and use increasingly complex language to share their ideas. “When I go in classrooms, I hear students talking about content and using disciplinary language and vocabulary.”

And Centennial teachers report that they’ve seen significant growth in their students’ class participation, conversations, and confidence. “Students are more vocal than they used to be—and more resourceful. They are always looking for different ways to share their thinking in English, even if it’s imperfect,” says Birriel.

Green attributes these achievements to the hard work and dedication of the Centennial staff. She notes that while teachers used to try to follow the procedures in the textbook closely, they now look for the essential conceptual understandings, disciplinary practices, and language that students need to engage with and then plan and facilitate lessons that support students to do so. They still use the curriculum, and now, they integrate what they’ve been learning through BEEL to create tasks that support the simultaneous development of content knowledge and language. “This work has boosted my confidence as well,” says Birriel. “I can create these interactive lessons that aren’t boring for the students…or for me.”

Green and her staff’s willingness to embrace this professional learning and try new things helped foster a productive partnership with WestEd. “Our teachers come back from the trainings so excited, and they can’t wait. I see them using new practices the next day. They go across the hall, and they talk about it, they make adjustments, and they try it again,” says Green. “It has created a cultural effect in our school. The teachers who are participating are talking about what they’ve learned, implementing it in their classrooms, sharing how it’s working, and the teachers that aren’t participating want to learn more.”

And they will have the opportunity to do so. Building Excellence for English Learners will soon be enrolling teams across Arizona for the 2023–24 school year, and Centennial plans to register an additional team. “We didn’t know what to do,” says Green. “We had students that were failing, and now they’re not failing. We couldn’t be any prouder of our students and what they are able to do. And our teachers are proud of what they’re doing. And that speaks volumes.”