Strategies for Squeezing Professional Learning into your Day

It’s no secret that teachers are incredibly busy. From planning, assessing, managing classes, and volunteering to support sports teams and other school initiatives, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. And yet, with so many new and exciting approaches to teaching nearly every subject, you may also feel like you are missing out on ways to be more responsive to your students or more efficient in your work.

I remember the excitement of my first 5 years of teaching and wanting to sign up for every professional learning initiative possible, from social justice to anti-bullying and eco-friendly schools. By the end of it all, I was working way later than I wanted to and exhausted from the job. My marking piled up, my to-do list grew exponentially, and Sundays became a ‘prep’ day.  What I was doing was not sustainable.

What I have learned to do since those overwhelming and hectic years is to make my professional learning much more efficient and targeted. I prioritize what I know is important: an area of teaching I don’t feel 100% comfortable in, a goal that my board or school has, or an additional qualification that I need to take my career a step further. It may be a single thing that I focus my learning on, and I scale up or scale back depending on what is happening in my life at the moment. There will be times where all you can focus on is getting through the week or month, and that new book on assessment or pedagogy will have to wait. Educator-selected professional learning is always best – you know what you need, and what aligns with your interests and schedule.

It’s also healthy to remind yourself to honour the time it takes to learn and grow. A new practice or pedagogical skill I learn this year, for example, will make it into my teaching in the following year. Professional learning is a long game, and it takes time to incorporate a new strategy or new way of thinking meaningfully into practice.

Here are a few strategies that I have found very useful for squeezing new professional learning, even in a busy school year.

Watch a Presentation at Your Local or Board

There is something special about attending a live presentation from a guest speaker or expert. Good guest speakers are well versed in the art of communicating complex ideas clearly, know how to get their listeners engaged, and may even bring new perspectives from outside your local context. They will focus on the most important ideas in their area of expertise, and tailor it to the audience. Speaker sessions condense a whole lot of insight into a short period of time, and can be inspiring or even transformative.

Live, in-person workshops can also be high-impact, as you are learning with peers and sharing ideas in addition to receiving new ones. I recall attending a workshop on assessment and Growing Success at my local years ago, and using the knowledge and insights I gained from that one event long after it ended. The opportunity to network is also important: you can make long-lasting professional connections with colleagues from other schools you would not have met otherwise.

When these sessions take place after school, they usually finish by dinner time, and if they are virtual you can tune in while you do other things. The best format for professional learning, however, is always during the school day: it is important to honour the work that you are doing and the valuable time you have after school to prepare, fulfill personal commitments, or simply unwind.

Take Advantage of Audio

Is there a new education-related book you would love to read but simply don’t have the time for? A new practice you want to hear more about? There are so many great podcasts being released by educators that you can tune into using apps you likely already have on your phone. Audiobooks are also a great way to ‘read’ a book while taking a walk or commuting. Check to see if your board subscribes to an app like Destiny Discover: you may already have a professional audio library at your fingertips.

Start a Book Club

Book clubs are an amazing way to ‘divide and conquer’ a larger text. Bring a group of colleagues together, choose a text that relates to an area everyone is interested in, and assign each reader or pair of readers a chapter to ‘present’ at meetings. This way, if reading a whole book is too daunting you can get a sense of which parts are worthwhile. Of course, you can read the whole book if you prefer but when you are only responsible for one chapter the task is much more realistic. Book clubs are a really fun way to connect with colleagues and brainstorm ideas to improve teaching and learning in your school.

Join a Professional Learning Network

While social media certainly has its downsides, one of the great things is that you can follow authors, educators and administrators that share lesson ideas that you may find useful for your own practice. There are dozens of Facebook groups, Twitter threads, Instagram and Tiktok pages where you can see educators being creative and even sharing pedagogical strategies. Not sure where to start? Try searching a hashtag like #etfoeducators or #ontarioteachers that may lead you to some great accounts.

Attend a Conference or Workshop

While it can take a bit of paperwork to organize going to a conference, attending one can be a wonderful break from your regular routine. Conferences usually have influential keynote speakers, interactive breakout rooms, and are an easy way to network with professionals outside of your board. ETFO hosts amazing conferences and workshops for members throughout the year, and you can find great options in the fields of Edtech and literacy such as Reading for the Love of it. Who knows, maybe you will be inspired to share your own practices as a presenter one year!

Conference funding can typically be accessed through your local and possibly even through your board. Check with the treasurer at your local to find out what is available to members.

What is Translanguaging?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of welcoming Maryam (student’s actual name has been changed), a grade 8 newcomer student from Afghanistan. She had multiple years of interrupted schooling due to the political situation in her home country, and arrived in middle school speaking a very emergent level of English while being fluent and literate in Pashto and Urdu. At the time, I was working as an ESL/ELD teacher in the school, supporting all classes in the school with programming for English Language Learners. Her homeroom teacher raised the inevitable question: how do I program and assess a student with such unique needs?

One of the best ways to accommodate newcomer students with literacy and oral communication skills is to use translanguaging strategies. So what exactly is translanguaging?

Translanguaging, as academic and educator Ofelia Garcia states in EAL Journal, is “the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential.” Translanguaging is all about students using all of their linguistic resources to explore new learning, making connections with prior knowledge, and communicating their knowledge and lived experiences. It is asset-based and honours the rich linguistic resources multilingual learners bring to the classroom.

Sure – there are moments during instruction where accuracy, concision and proficiency in English will be the focus. But translanguaging practices should be encouraged in areas where the work is content-based. Language acquisition is a journey, and learning should always be accessible no matter what part of that journey a student is on.

How Can I use Translanguaging in the Classroom?

Start by creating a translanguaging-friendly learning space by encouraging students’ use of home languages at the start of the year. Take a language survey to find out what students are speaking at home and with friends and relatives, who has literacy skills in a different language, or who is taking heritage language classes. Once you know the linguistic and cultural assets students are bringing to the classroom, you will also be better equipped to be more culturally responsive. Keep multilingual dictionaries in students’ languages in the classroom, or teach a lesson on how to use digital translation tools like Microsoft Translate, Google Translate, or SayHi. Show students how to set multilingual captions on sites like Youtube. While students may find that digital translations are not always accurate, they can help students who are in the earlier steps of English language acquisition to understand new content.

Use multilingual word walls, media, signs, and posters in your school’s or class’s top languages. If you are multilingual, model translanguaging by communicating with students that also speak the same language. Pair same language speaking students strategically in seating plans or group work. Once multilingualism is seen as an asset and a norm in the learning environment, you can start to see translanguaging occur organically in academic and social contexts.

Translanguaging from Instruction to Assessment

Embed translanguaging throughout your teaching cycle, from instruction to assessment. Encourage multilingual language learners (MLs) to take notes in their home language and/or English during class: it is common for newcomer students think that they are only allowed to use English in class, which should never be the case. Offer multilingual content whenever possible, encouraging the use of subtitles when video content is being shared. When labeling diagrams or visuals, MLs can have the option of using multiple languages, which helps to build critical academic vocabulary for content based subjects.

Text sets are another great way to scaffold and differentiate learning in content-based areas like Science, History, or Geography. To create a text set, gather a set of materials related to one area of learning that enable students to engage with the content in different ways. For example, text set might include similarly themed articles at different reading levels, content in languages used by students in the classroom, related diagrams and photos, photos, and links to different sites and videos. Creating text sets can take time – team up with other teachers to create different sets you can use throughout the year or a teaching cycle.

Finally, offer students opportunities to complete summative learning tasks or assignments in the language or languages they feel most confident using in addition to English. When students with more confident in their first language have the opportunity to use it in school, it can be empowering and create an opportunity for families to engage with their child’s learning. If you do not speak the same language as the student, you can ask a colleague who does to help with assessment, or ask the student to complete a secondary task to translate their work using dictionaries and translators. Make sure your rubric and success criteria are adapted to reflect the curriculum expectations and the student’s STEP: keep in mind that their learning goals may be different from that of their non-ELL peers.

Interested in taking a more detailed look at using multiple languages in your teaching? Check out Classroom Assessment in Multiple Languages (2021, Corwin Press)  by Margo Gottlieb for a comprehensive guide. There are so many ways for multilingual students to share their knowledge beyond writing and speaking in English. Once you identify the best strategies for enabling MLs to express their ideas and learning, you will see their growth and confidence flourish.

Why Representation Matters in Your Teaching Practice

Growing in Ontario as a second generation Filipino largely involved learning someone else’s histories and stories – voyageurs, cowboys, settlers, fur traders, and a whole slew of white protagonists. I didn’t know that I was missing any perspectives, and happily read my way through Shakespeare, Salinger and Austen, dreaming of studying English literature in university.

When I started teaching, I dutifully used whatever resources were provided, excitedly poring over the details of England’s glorious wars and conquests. I genuinely believed I was sharing alternative perspectives through ‘multicultural’ or ‘social justice’ texts written by white authors. I firmly subscribed to the idea that creative works of fiction could be viewed separately from an author’s lived experience, and that a text did not need to be questioned if it contained all the elements of ‘good’ storytelling.

Despite my best efforts to serve my diverse group of students, I was ultimately serving up the same perspective and worldview I had been raised with: Euro-centric, Western, and woefully one-sided.

Like many other educators over the last 5-10 years, I felt the need to decolonize my work and critically reflect on my own perspective. And while I am still largely on a journey to understand my own complex relationship with Canada and my family’s cultural ancestry, I am certain that we have the capacity and resources to ensure that the students we teach don’t have to be instilled with a worldview that undermines their own sense of identity by ignoring and devaluing their cultural assets.

Use Culturally Responsive Resources

Representation matters. When you don’t see yourself represented in the media you consume or what you learn in school, you can feel alienated from your own community or surroundings. Seeing yourself and your culture in what you learn is engaging, empowering and exciting.

Teachers today likely have access to the most diverse range of authors and stories in the history of publishing. Black, Indigenous, East Asian, South Asian, Latinx, Southeast Asian and 2SLGBTQ+ authors are writing some incredible books for kids and young adults. And no, you don’t have to read every young adult novel or picture book that hits the shelves of your local bookstore: ask the library resource, support staff or consultant in your school or board to suggest some titles, and divide the reading up with your teaching team. Build literature circles or reading units with the titles that reflect the range of identities of the students in your classroom, co-planning and co-teaching as much as possible to save time and energy.

Beyond language arts, there are so many ways to make your programming more culturally responsive and representative of the students you teach. Incorporate the voices and histories of different communities in your social studies, history, or geography teaching. Make independent research and inquiry a regular practice, scaffolding learning by providing prompts or ideas that encourage learners to discover different perspectives and to consume historical and social discourses critically.

If the class or classes you teach is monocultural, students will still benefit from learning diverse perspectives and narratives. Such texts can dispel stereotypes, enable students to develop a more balanced perspective of society, or spark interest and engagement.

Change Isn’t Easy

Doing the work of disrupting the way you teach is not easy and will certainly not happen overnight. It is easy to get triggered by ideas and perspectives that don’t align with the worldview you have held for much of your life. And it can feel onerous to invest time and energy into changing your program. So start with small changes: a new text or approach to assessment, tweaking your discussion questions to provoke a more critical discussion, or connect with other teachers that are intentionally changing their programming to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive.

The effort you place into making today’s learning environment a more inclusive place will pay off when you see students feeling seen, engaged and connected to the place they learn.

4 Ways to Welcome Students from Refugee Situations

Students that come from refugee situations are a unique group that differ from other newcomer students. Some may have fled their homes due to persecution and war. Others have endured long journeys through different countries, often without a clear destination. Some may have witnessed acts of violence against families and loved ones, or have been victims of abuse and torture. Many have experienced significant lapses in formal education.

Like other newcomer students, students from refugee situations will be experiencing the stressors of adjusting to a new country,  a new school, and learning a new language. Their families may also face systemic barriers like discrimination, Islamophobia and anti-Black racism.

It’s important for teachers to keep in mind that they already possess many teaching skills and strategies that will help these students feel safe and thrive in a new environment.

Let’s explore some ways teachers and staff can welcome and support students from refugee situations.

Learn the Background of the Student

When teachers know the backgrounds of newcomer students in their classes, they can determine appropriate program adaptations, understand their student’s unique circumstances,  and be better prepared to provide trauma-informed pedagogy if required.

What is the best way to get to know a newcomer student? If your board has an intake and initial assessment process, read through the report to get a sense of their background and a snapshot of their language, literacy and numeracy skills.

During class, ask the student to show you the places they have been on a map, or to show photos of their home country or city, using a translation tool if needed.

Invite students’ families to the schools and, if needed, enlist an interpreter to facilitate the meeting. Use the meeting as an opportunity to answer questions the family has about the school and education system in Ontario, and ask questions about their child’s educational background, interests, goals, and what language(s) they speak at home.

Support Learning Across Languages

Newcomer students with refugee backgrounds are often multilingual, arriving in Canada with oral communication and literacy skills in one or more languages. In many cases, these students will have emergent literacy skills due to interruptions in formal schooling.

Multilingual learners (MLs) will need program adaptations that will enable them to learn English, the language of instruction in their classroom, while also maintaining proficiency in the languages they already communicate with.

Providing opportunities for MLs to use the full range of their linguistic skills honours the cultural assets students bring to the school community, enables students to share their prior knowledge and experiences with their peers, and supports literacy development. Teachers can encourage students to ‘translanguage’ or use the full range of their linguistic repertoires by:

  • Informing the class/school community about the importance of home languages.
  • Making students’ languages visible in the classroom.
  • Making room for  home languages as part of the learning process.
  • Embracing languages, dialects and accents.
  • Providing access to multilingual resources.

Tools like Google Translate and Microsoft Translate support translanguaging and can be a lifeline for students who want to work alongside their peers.

Be Trauma Informed

Many students from refugee situations have experienced traumatic events, and that trauma may continue long after they arrive in Canada. Some students show many signs of trauma, some will show few signs, and some will show no signs of trauma at all. It’s important to keep in mind that as a teacher, you are not a therapist or a mental health professional that will treat the trauma symptoms of students.

You can be trauma-informed by becoming aware of the prevalence of trauma among students, what symptoms of trauma might look like, and how trauma can affect them. Creating a safe, supportive and regulated learning environment will be critical to supporting the transition of students with refugee backgrounds into the classroom.

To learn more about the signs that a student may be struggling with adjustment and trauma, and strategies for creating trauma-informed learning environments, please visit this page or check out this resource from the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Use the Steps to English Proficiency (STEP) Continua to Provide Appropriate Program Adaptations

Setting appropriate learning expectations for newcomer students who are emergent speakers of English is essential to supporting their success in school, and is mandated by ministry policy. The ESL or ELD Steps to English Proficiency (STEP) Continua is a Ministry developed resource that is very helpful for assessment and planning purposes.  STEP along with the Ontario Curriculum can be used alongside an initial assessment report (if available) and ongoing observations you have of the student.  Find out in your school and in your board what supports or staff or professional learning there is to guide and support programming for ELLs. Start by:

  • Determine whether the student will be placed on the ESL or ELD STEP Continua using recommendations from the initial assessment report and any other observations you have gathered about the student in class or communicating with the family. When a student in grades 3 or higher has had significant gaps or  interrupted learning, they should be placed on the ELD Continua.
  • Modify grade level curriculum expectations, when needed, using the appropriate STEP Continua. You may modify the depth and breadth of the learning expectation to provide the student with an entry point into the Ontario curriculum.
  • Support the student’s learning further by creating a culturally responsive learning environment and providing accommodations that facilitate English or French language acquisition. For example: use of visuals, translation tools, pairing with a peer that speaks the same language, multilingual instructions.

Your Work as a Teacher Matters

When you create a welcoming, safe and supportive environment for newcomer students, you are not just enhancing the learning environment, but playing a direct role in facilitating the success of some of the most vulnerable learners in the school community.