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REL Northwest and Oregon School Districts Collaborate to Support English Learners in the Language and Practice of Argumentation

By Tim Blackburn | October 25, 2017

Tim Blackburn
Tim Blackburn works as a senior advisor at Education Northwest on projects focused on English learners, classroom instruction, and equity.

Between 2014 and 2016 REL Northwest partnered with several Oregon school districts to address a specific, high-priority need: building teachersí capacity to teach argumentation skills to English learner students. Argumentation is an essential academic practice that cuts across all content areas and all grade levels. It is an anchor standard in the Common Core State Standards for both English language arts and mathematics and is a central practice in the Next Generation Science Standards. Due to the language demands involved, it can be particularly challenging for English learners.

Teachers in these districts were finding it difficult to address studentsí language needs while also addressing the specific strategies related to argumentation, such as forming a claim and supporting it with reasoning and evidence. Rather than providing professional development to a small group of specialists, district leaders wanted to build the capacity of all teachers to deliver language instruction and argumentation strategies at the same time.

These districts were members of the Oregon Leadership Network Research Alliance, which brought together more than 50 partner organizations from across the education spectrum to inform the design of policies, programs, and practices to promote equity for Oregon students. Several of the districts formed a working group within the alliance to specifically focus on building teacher capacity in this area.

Working in partnership, the REL Northwest research and technical assistance team and the districts decided to create four-day teacher workshops to provide professional development to change classroom practice. The content for the four-day workshops was based on the curriculum of a 2014 massive, open online course (MOOC) called Supporting English Language Learners Under New Standards, developed by Oregon State University in partnership with Stanford University and the Oregon Department of Education.

Using the research-based framework from the MOOC, we created a workshop experience that gave participants the opportunity to take part in action research: Teachers analyzed language samples gathered from their own students as a way of learning new instructional strategies that were tailored to their particular school community. A key difference between the MOOC and the workshops was that we were able to provide a blended-learning approach, which allowed us to scaffold the content for teacher participants during the in-person meetings.

The first iteration of the workshops was more generalized so that teachers could apply the content to their own classrooms regardless of grade level or content area. Over time, the districts wanted to drill down to more specific initiatives. For example, one district asked us to create workshops for co-teachers. Another wanted workshops that focused on argumentation in math. Two other districts wanted to host the workshops for their dual-language teachers, which led us to create a version in Spanish.

In the end, these workshops were a prime example of the work we engage in through the Regional Educational Laboratory program: They were driven by the interests and needs of the stakeholders, developed in collaboration, and tailored to the needs of each school or district community. Most importantly, the participating districts were able to meet their goal: building districtwide capacity to deliver more effective instruction of an essential academic practice.