The Nitty Gritty: Digging Into the Specifications

“Well, we thought we nailed down a focus area, but, instead, we decided to shift gears.” – Assistant Principal, PS 182, New York

Staying flexible and knowing when to shift gears

Part of being part of a PLC is staying focused, but just as valuable is the ability to be flexible and shift gears when our knowledge and understanding has morphed and grown. This is especially true when it comes to making the ELSF Guidelines for English Learners relevant and responsive to your individual school context. The way you use the ELSF Guidelines depends on multiple factors. Digging into the specifications under each of the Guidelines is no different.

Take teachers at PS 182, for instance. The goal of their first meeting was to begin diving into the Guidelines and select a focus area. The staff started to naturally gravitate towards Focus Area II (Scaffolding and Supports for Simultaneous Development) and IV (Leveraging Students’ Assets) as many of the teachers questioned the use and efficacy of the scaffolds they were already using in their teaching. When teachers reconvened for their second meeting, the AP used the teacher-friendly Rating Scale tool to help teachers further reflect on their instructional materials, practice, student needs, and their individual understanding of the Guidelines.  

Using the rating scale, teachers and instructional leaders had an opportunity to engage in the specifications, and this is when they had some big “aha” moments. Our very own math coach said, “Wow… I thought I knew how to teach.” One teacher’s first impression was that Focus Area IV (Leveraging Students’ Assets) was really just for gathering background knowledge on students during the first two months of school and then that focus area could be put on the back burner. After fleshing out the specifications in that focus area, her thinking shifted and she recognized that she needed to visit and revisit that focus area throughout the school year. The math team came to a new realization: “Wow…we really don’t craft language goals for our kids…it’s all about the math.” All of our students are English learners, hence their interest in exploring Focus Area I, Guideline 2 (Interdependence of Mathematical Content, Practices, and Language; Explicit mathematics and language learning goals and pathways).

Whose job is it to teach language anyway?

Using the ELSF Math Guidelines Rating Scale tool revealed that many of the teachers concluded that teaching language does not usually get the attention it deserves, even in a school where English learners comprise nearly half of the student population. The ‘aha’ moment came when educators realized that they hadn’t been thinking explicitly about language development in math. Some of their reflections on this included PLC team members noticing and wondering:

  • I am reflecting on what we are implementing or not implementing in [math] class.
  • How do we include a language goal without making it too much for kids?
  • What do thoughtful language objectives look like in math class?
  • We need language goals along with math goals.
  • I think I should refer to English language proficiency standards to help students with individual goals.
  • [What are]... more ways to incorporate specific language supports into my teaching?

The team recognized that they need to develop their expertise and that they need more knowledge when it comes to teaching English learners. As ‘good’ teachers of math, what else is needed to fully support English learners (de Jong & Harper, 2008)? The reality now in schools is that ALL teachers need to be teachers of English learners. Math teachers need to engage their students in language development while teaching content at the same time (Walqui, 2006).  

Keeping a focus on your school’s goals

It was important for the AP to keep alignment to the school’s instructional focus in mind and circle back to that (and often). Therefore, she embedded the instructional focus, which happens to be centered around the concept of student “transference,” in her exit card at the culmination of the meeting. Besides jotting down a lingering question and an emerging “aha!” moment,  each member had an opportunity to answer the following question:

How does the focus area selected connect to our instructional focus for the year?

PLC members responded with the following…

  • Students need to be able to access the language before they can begin transference on a task.
  • Focus Area I, Guideline 2 can connect to our instructional focus because they [students] can transfer their language goal to all content areas [i.e. language functions such as ‘identify’ or ‘analyze’ spanning across content areas].

This gave teachers an opportunity to revisit the big overarching goal of the year, ensure alignment, and make connections to our support for English learners.

Stay tuned as we see where this team goes next in their exploration of teaching math AND language!  


de Jong, E. J., & Harper, C. A. (2008). ESL is good teaching “Plus”. In M. E. Brisk (Ed.), Language, culture, and community in teacher education (pp. 127-148). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Walqui, A. (2006). Scaffolding instruction for English language learners: A conceptual framework
International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9(2), 159-180.

Rachel Rosenbaum Mandell has dedicated the past 16 years to working with children in the NYC Department of Education. Currently, she is an assistant principal at a public elementary school in Jamaica, NY where she serves as instructional leader for 770 students, 35% of whom are English Language Learners. Prior to this role, Rachel served as an ESL teacher in East Harlem, and Midtown, Manhattan. She also worked in public relations for 3 years before diving into the world of education and spent 13 years as a volunteer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rachel received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania, her M.S. in Education (TESOL) from the City College of New York, and her M.S. in Education (Educational Leadership) from Baruch College. In her free time, Rachel enjoys floral design, restaurant hopping, and spending quality time with her husband Matt and two young children, Jesse and Becca.

Felice Russell brings over 15 years of experience to ELSF as a teacher and leader educator, educational researcher, and K-12 collaborator focused on meeting the needs of K-12 English learners through teacher development and support. Having worked across multiple teacher education programs in K-12 TESOL, elementary, and secondary teacher education, as well as leadership education, Felice is dedicated to preparing and supporting teachers and instructional leaders that are committed to meeting the needs of English learners. A former K-12 teacher in Seattle and Portland (OR), Felice received her B.S. from Cornell University, her M.Ed. from Portland State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Her teaching, research, and community engagement focus on the intersection between English learners and the general education/content classroom, family and community engagement, and equity for culturally and linguistically diverse students. She resides in Connecticut with her family.


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