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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Strategies for Effective Co-Teaching Arrangements

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 03, 2019 15 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the best advice for co-teaching arrangements (Special Needs, ELLs, etc.)?

Part One featured the commentaries of Elizabeth Stein, Jenny Vo, Becky Corr, Andrea Honigsfeld, and Maria Dove. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Elizabeth, Jenny, and Becky on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s guests are Tan Huynh, Abby Shink, Gloria Lodato Wilson, Joan Blednick, Heather Stinson, Dr. Catherine Beck, and Dr. Heidi Pace.

Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh (@TanELLclassroom) is a career teacher specializing in language acquisition. Tan has taught students from 5th to 12th grade in public schools, private boarding schools, and charter schools. Internationally, Tan has taught in schools in China, Laos, and Vietnam. He shares teaching strategies on his blog, Empowering ELLs, and has provided professional development in places such as China, Thailand, Singapore, Italy, and Canada. Tan’s goal is to support all teachers who are committed to empowering English-learners whether it be in a tweet, a blog post, a book, a training, a course, or over coffee:

In the 2018 Winter Olympics, the U.S.A. team sent 244 athletes to compete in skiing, figure skating, and hockey, to name a few. Regardless of the sport, all the athletes held one singular goal: to win medals for Team U.S.A.

The Olympics is a suitable analogy for co-teaching because each athlete contributes their own strengths to the team. For example, alpine skier Bruce Bynett is more valuable to the American team by competing in the skiing competition than joining the curling team. Likewise, the best co-teaching arrangement occurs when teachers draw from their own expertise.

When I collaborate with content teachers, I offer ways to scaffold the language and identify opportunities for differentiation. The content teacher focuses on what content to teach and thinks about how best to sequence the learning experiences. In this arrangement, we each contribute to students’ learning from our own area of expertise.

It’s a highly effective arrangement because

  • Each teacher can tailor the instruction they’re best at to meet different learners.
  • Students receive both content-related and academic-language support.
  • Small-group instruction can be based on content or academic language.

When I work with Mr. Arno, a middle school science teacher, he focuses on teaching students how to design a lab experiment, how to gather data, and how to interpret the results. Then I’m tagged in to help students describe the lab experiment and communicate their findings using language suitable for science. As we co-teach, Mr. Arno guides students in collecting and analyzing data while I help them communicate their ideas. In this arrangement, the students master content skills while developing academic language. It is the best of both worlds for students and the teachers alike.

Co-teaching is less about what to teach or how to teach; it’s more about what strengths teachers can bring to instruction and learning. In playing to our strengths, collaborating from our areas of expertise, we give children more than one teacher alone can provide.

From Empowering ELLs

Response From Abby Shink

Abby Shink is a K-5 math interventionist at a small rural school in Central Maine. She has been teaching for 10 years, focusing specifically on math for the last four. Abby is currently working on her master’s in teaching mathematics K-8 at Mt. Holyoke College:

Co-teaching sounds like a great idea to many but can be difficult to pull off in a way that is beneficial for all students and teachers. Conflicts of personality, priorities, and pedagogical ideals can make these arrangements difficult. Being proactive, transparent, and flexible can help to ease tensions and keep the collaborative arrangement working for all parties.

Before working together in any classroom, it is really helpful if the staff members who will be teaching together meet to discuss:

  • Goals for their work together. If these goals are measurable, how will you measure them throughout your time together?

  • Norms. Seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how much this helps to eliminate problems before they arise.

  • Shared documents. Where will plans, goals, and norms be kept so that both teachers (or everyone in the co-teaching arrangement) can access them and add to them easily?

  • Regular common planning times that will be used to look at student work, discuss upcoming lessons, determine roles for each staff member during the class period (often these roles can be flexible; it is helpful to revisit them often because they may change day to day).

Once these foundational pieces are in place, maintaining the documents, revisiting goals and norms, and checking in to be sure planning times are being used productively are important. All staff involved should feel like they have a voice and find value in the time being put into the collaborative work.

Finally, when in doubt, focus on students! All teachers have students in common at their core. Bringing student work to planning meetings, watching videos or listening to clips of students working, or talking about ways to support students in new and dynamic ways can help to bridge the gaps that divide us as teachers. Even when our ideas about how and what to teach can make it difficult to find common ground, anchoring conversations in student work and thinking can take the focus off the what and how of teaching and shift it just a bit to the learning.

Response From Gloria Lodato Wilson & Joan Blednick

Gloria Lodato Wilson, Ph.D. is a professor at Hofstra University and director of the secondary special education programs and author of Co-Planning for Co-Teaching: Time-Saving Routines That Work in Inclusive Classrooms (ASCD Arias).

Joan Blednick, Ed.D., is an adjunct assistant professor at Hofstra University. They co-authored Teaching in Tandem (ASCD) and also provide professional development for co-teachers through their consulting firm, Strategic Training and Research (STAR):

In any inclusive classroom where two teachers are responsible for the learning of all, including typically achieving students, students with special needs, and/or students for which English is a new language (ENL), the best advice is COMMITMENT:

* Co-plan lessons. Without co-planning, there is very little effective co-teaching. Co-planning involves understanding the curriculum and the needs of your students and making the time to co-plan lessons.

* Organize routines. While co-planning can be daunting and time-consuming, there are ways to streamline the process. Take a look at a your co-taught period; what do you routinely do in the class? Do you always review for exams? Do you start the period with a warm-up exercise or a weekly packet? Start by co-planning just one of your common routines.

* Manage groups. Commonly, co-teachers default to a one-teach, one-support model of co-teaching. This whole-class instructional method does little to customize or intensify instruction. Station teaching, dividing the class into multiple teacher-led and independent groups, creates small learning pods where co-teachers can adjust instruction and assess learning. Parallel teaching divides the class in two, with each co-teacher taking a section to deliver instruction.

* Mix it up. The key to great groupings is to keep them flexible. At times, students can be grouped by skill levels, or interest levels, or randomly placed. Both teachers should strive to be adept at working with all students in the class and resist identifying students as “mine” or “yours.”

* Incorporate specialized instruction. A co-taught class should look substantially different by incorporating specially designed instructional techniques which emphasize the big ideas of a topic or concept, scaffold instruction into steps that lead to mastery, incorporate frequent and cumulative review, connect prior knowledge to what is being learned, and conspicuously teach strategies.

* Target and monitor goals. Students with identified learning needs have individualized education programs (IEPs) that specify yearly learning goals, which often get lost in an inclusive classroom. Addressing both learning goals and curriculum goals cannot be achieved when co-teachers rely on whole-group instruction and use the one-teach, one-support model. Incorporating station teaching and an alternative model, where there is a large teacher-led group and a smaller teacher-led group, allows for targeted goal instruction. Co-teachers also need to monitor student progress on the goals by frequently assessing how close the student is to goal mastery with short and directed assessments and charting the progress.

* Make mistakes. Every co-teaching partnership and classroom is different, and it takes considerable commitment and skills for success. Co-teachers need to feel free to take chances to change their instruction. Administrators have an obligation to understand the dynamics and challenges of co-teaching and provide safe support and encouragement.

* Engage students. Co-teachers have a unique opportunity to make learning exciting and active. Through co-planning lessons, co-teachers can create multiple ways for students to interact with learning materials and concepts, multiple ways for students to receive information and to demonstrate that they learned.

* Never be satisfied. Co-teachers who reflect back on the day, acknowledge what worked for some students and what didn’t work for others, and who have honest conversations regarding what they can do to improve learning for all will take their co-teaching efforts to a higher level.

* Take time. Co-teaching is complicated and complex. Differing teacher personalities and styles of teaching, very diverse student-learning needs and behaviors, demanding curriculums, and parent and administrative expectations all are magnified in a co-taught classroom. Co-teachers need to take a breath and start small. Build some success by understanding that more intensified learning can take place when students are in smaller groups and make a commitment to perfecting this type of co-teaching technique. Select a different student each week to focus on his/her successes and challenges. Together, make weekly goals to try a new learning or teaching technique.

Slow and steady wins the race with co-teaching, but with COMMITMENT, success is inevitable.

Response From Heather Stinson

Heather Stinson (CAGS, MED, S/LP-A) received her master’s degree in education of the deaf from Smith College in 2006 and a graduate certificate in children, families, and schools (with a concentration in research methodology) from the University of Massachusetts in 2012. In addition to her many years of experience working with children with hearing loss who communicate using listening and spoken language, Heather has also worked as a preschool classroom teacher. She has presented both locally and nationally on issues related to mainstreaming students with hearing loss and is a contributing author to Odyssey magazine. Heather currently works as an itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech:

As an itinerant teacher of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, my role is to travel to mainstream schools and provide support to students who have hearing loss and communicate using listening and spoken language through the use of assistive technology such as cochlear implants, hearing aids, and Hearing Assistive Technology (HAT, formerly referred to as FM systems). Additional components of my job are to collaborate, communicate with, and provide ongoing support and training for classroom teachers and additional service providers. This comprehensive model ensures that students who are deaf or hard of hearing have optimal access to their education throughout their school day.

Prior to working with students who have hearing loss, I was a general education teacher. I had many experiences with service providers coming into my classroom to consult about students who had different learning needs. Some of those collaborations were successful, and others were frustrating. In my current role, I am aware of how my presence impacts the general education classroom. Each teacher has different goals for each lesson. While the content in all 3rd grade classrooms may be similar, the activities, presentation of materials and information, and expectations will be different in each classroom. My role is not to change how a teacher teaches but to find ways to incorporate the needs of my student into what is already happening. Similarly, rather than making demands, I try to engage each teacher in a conversation by asking questions to gain more information. Classroom teachers need to understand hearing loss, but I need to understand the goals of each lesson in order for my student to fully access the curriculum. When teachers realize that I am there as a support and resource not only for the student but for the adults as well, and that I am not there to criticize or change but rather to implement strategies, I am generally welcomed.

Each school year begins with an in-service where I meet with the school team and go over the basics of hearing loss, my students’ accommodations, the benefits and limitations of the assistive technology, teaching strategies, and any necessary classroom or content modifications. I continually work with my students to build self-advocacy skills and to address the specific goals and objectives in their individual education programs (IEPs). I also help my students and their teachers explain their technology to classmates with typical hearing and encourage continued professional development around issues related to hearing loss. I have my agenda, but I am also aware of the many varied needs in each classroom, and sometimes teachers may not see my students as the neediest or consultation with me as a priority.

Effective partnerships take patience. I try to connect with each teacher that I work with on a personal level each time I visit, even if it is brief. When we are able to see each other as people and not just service providers, there is more buy-in and motivation to collaborate.

Response From Dr. Catherine Beck & Dr. Heidi Pace

Dr. Catherine Beck is the director of schools for Cheatham County schools in Tennessee. She is also the author of Easy and Effective Professional Development and Leading Learning for ELL Students.

Dr. Heidi Pace is a retired superintendent. She currently teaches for Concordia University and Colorado College, USA:

Co-teaching can be an excellent model to strengthen Tier 1 instruction. Having an ELL or special education teacher work in tandem alongside the classroom teacher planning and delivering lessons not only ensures that the lessons include the needed differentiation strategies but also raises the level of expertise for the classroom teacher.

The secret to successful co-teaching is in the planning. Co-teachers must plan together with critical eyes to be able to successfully deliver rich lessons that meet everyone’s needs. Administrators must be sure to create time in the schedule for both the planning and teaching to occur. Professional development is needed for the teachers who will work together as co-teachers. Several considerations must be decided. These include:

  • What model for co-teaching will be used? In other words, how will the two teachers work together during the lesson?

  • Will the general ed. teacher create the lessons and then the co-teacher add the modifications? Or will the two teachers create the lesson together?

  • How do the two teachers best communicate?

  • What will the organization of the classroom look like? Whose classroom is it?

  • How will the division of labor be decided?

  • What will success look like? How will the co-teaching be measured?

Answering these questions ahead of time will set the team up for the highest chances for success. Frontload the professional development and put the time in to ensure a positive experience for all: the co-teachers, students, and the parents.

Thanks to Tan, Abby, Gloria, Joan, Heather, Catherine, and Hedi for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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