I often get asked by teacher candidates and teachers how I got interested in ELL and Technology especially in terms of research and practice. When answering my mind always goes back to a “little red sweater.” There is a “little red sweater” that sits on my bookshelf as a reminder of a class I taught early in my teaching career. It was gift from a young grade 6 boy who I taught in probably the most influential year of my teaching career. At the time I was teaching in an inner city school that was made up of mostly immigrant students. It was during this time of teaching I learned the most about teaching, about meeting the needs of my various ELL students and about using technology to aid in this process. I had language abilities all over the map and often I commented on the “school-house” nature of this teaching context. Basically it was an interesting yet difficult teaching context. During this year, I used technology including learning management systems (Desire 2 Learn), SMART boards, and a variety of other educational technologies to teach my kids. It was not just about technology however. I used a variety of methods in hopes of helping my students to be successful. This work was the beginning of my fascination of ELL students, technologies and best practices.
This “little red sweater” has become symbolic of this experience and a reminder that there is still lots more work to be done in terms of research and practice.
I am finding more and more as I work in my profession of educating teachers that “research and theory” are not connecting with teaching practice. I imagine it as a seesaw. Research and theory on one side of the seesaw and practice on the other side.
Often when we begin the journey of learning to teach (at universities) we are focused solely on the theories and research and not considering how these ideas connect and have implications for teaching practice. In my experiences teaching teacher candidates I have learned that the best way to present an article is to connect a highly dense academic article back to practice and how it can potentially impact a classroom. I always return back to the idea of “why.” Why is this academic article important and significant to teaching?
On the flip side, within school districts, teachers are more concerned when attending conferences and workshops about “what they can take back and use in their classroom tomorrow.” However, the focus is not on the research or theory that makes this particular “teaching tip” important but on getting something tangible to use in the classroom.
My concern with both of these situations is that innovative teaching practice comes back to understanding the research and theories and applying them into a classroom context effectively. Research and theory should guide teaching practice. Teachers should understand why a certain research study has merit in their classroom and apply what is learned into their daily planning. The other concern that emerges is like any other profession, teachers need to be current and up to date with the “new” ideas and research that is occurring. This professional development helps their teaching practice to evolve, change and become more effective.
At an English Language Learners teaching conference right after I finished my masters I was asked to speak about my work on SMART virtual word wall work. I started my presentation out with a focus on the literature review that I had conducted that lead to this concept. After the presentation, I had several teachers comment on how I placed too much emphasis on the theory and I should have just gotten to the “good stuff” faster which was “showing them how to use this in their classroom.” I was disappointed. However, I also understood why these teachers were more interested in the “teaching tip” rather then the theory. Teaching is a tough job and when I was a classroom teacher attending a conference I would have just wanted the presenter to provide me with something practical to bring back and use the next day. However, my question focuses on how do we get teachers more engaged with the academics (research and theory) and encourage these teachers to want to engage in their own inquiries around the material that could transform their teaching practice? How as a teacher educator do I engage teachers in wanting to connect with theory and research? This task will not be an easy one because teachers do not use the term “ivory towers” to connect with universities for no reason.
One of my main concerns in terms of academia is how there is lack of connect with the teaching profession. Sometimes it appears that at universities we are in our “ivory towers.” I read this great innovative research on a daily basis while working on my PhD. I am also aware of all these great scholars and the work they have done in K-12 classrooms, however I have doubts that teachers are reading what I am reading. Academic journals are often inaccessible (both language wise and physically) to teachers. If you look at the program for teachers’ conventions, we don’t often see the names of leading scholars. How can we change this imbalance? How do we get both academics and teachers to be more engaged in each others’ work? It seems like it is simple and something that should be happening but at least from my experience it isn’t always the case.