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We at WIDA feel that educators are heroes. They routinely go the extra mile to see their students learn and grow. Please help us celebrate the hard working educators in your life!

Featured Educator is a monthly interview with a classroom, district, or state-level educator on how he or she is making a difference for language learners. You can honor an exceptional colleague by emailing with "Featured Educator Nomination" in the subject line.

Briefly tell us why you think he or she is doing an amazing job. Please include the person's name, what they do, and contact information we can use to set up an interview. Thank you for helping us feature amazing educators of language learners!

Cathy Fox: Featured Educator

April 2014

Cathy has been an ELL teacher in Central Falls, RI, for the past 26 years. During that time, she has taught students from pre-K to fifth grade. She has also spearheaded the district’s participation as a pilot district of WIDA’s LADDER program.

photo of Cathy Fox
Cathy Fox

Q: Where do you teach? What are your school and district like?

CF: I teach in the Central Falls School District in Central Falls, R.I. Central Falls is the smallest city in the smallest state in the country. It’s the poorest city in the state as well, and it made national history three years ago when it went bankrupt. Now, the city is emerging from that and rebuilding.

The district has a total enrollment of around 2,600 students, divided into two early learning centers for Pre-K and Kindergarten, as well as two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. My school, Veterans Memorial Elementary, has about 500 students and all of them qualify for free lunch. Of the 500 or so students in my building, about 30 percent are identified as ELs.

We provide several models of service for our ELs: We have dual language classrooms from first through fourth grades. In addition, we have self-contained ESL classrooms for ELs in WIDA English language development levels “entering” through “developing”. Our higher developing-, expanding-, and bridging-level students are serviced in the mainstream with support from me. I have a current caseload of 26 students from a variety of Central and South American countries, as well as Cape Verde. In addition, the majority of students in my school come from homes where more than one language is spoken. We have a richly diverse population of students who are eager to learn, but many families struggle to meet their daily needs of food and shelter, along with the emotional and educational needs of their children.

Q: What is your approach in your classroom/school towards ELLs? What techniques/strategies have you found to be most effective in teaching ELLs?

CF: During my tenure in Central Falls, I’ve had some phenomenal professional development. Five years ago I was trained by Deborah Short on the SIOP model, and as a result of that training, I was invited to submit an excerpt in the SIOP book for Pre-K and Kindergarten. SIOP provides a research-based instructional model for teaching content and language. It helps me focus on the language my EL students need to access the content. This approach to planning helps me examine the opportunities I will provide for my students to use language.

I also use thematic teaching in my classroom, because it provides an opportunity to develop academic vocabulary. Thematic teaching enables me to challenge my ELs to tackle higher cognitive levels while providing scaffolds for their English language proficiency level. In addition, the Common Core Standards expect our students to use higher-level questioning skills and demonstrate deeper understanding. The most effective way we can do that is with thematic teaching. Margo Gottlieb’s book on academic language for English language Grades 3-5 gives some great samples of how to develop units using culturally appropriate resources.

One other thing I have learned is the power of talk in the learning process. Students need talk time to practice vocabulary in context and learn to use it with familiarly. So if I’m doing a thematic unit on civil rights, I have a list of content-specific academic vocabulary up, and we will tally how many times they can use one of those words in their talk. This approach supports their academic language development and supports the transition to writing.

Q: How have you used WIDA’s LADDER program to benefit your ELLs?

CF: Rhode Island was one of the first states to join the WIDA Consortium and as a result, WIDA is very integrated into our school system. In 2010, our district joined WIDA’s LADDER program and I was chosen to be our school’s coach. During the summer of 2011, I traveled to Madison, WI, to become trained as a LADDER coach for my district. It was very intense but extremely powerful professional development for me. I learned to really analyze appropriate data for ELLs and to chart growth data, which reveals where we are and where we need to improve.

For the past three years at Veterans Elementary, we’ve focused on the writing domain. We saw by looking at the data that we could achieve the most success in that domain. Our WIDA coaches helped us learn how to interpret that data and to fine-tune our teaching in that content area. We used interim assessments to measure the students’ progress in writing, and we used the writing rubric from MODEL to calibrate scores to see how effective our strategies to improve their writing have been. We’ve had great success with it - our students’ writing really improved.

Just as importantly, my co-teachers at Veterans have come together to form a professional learning community committed to the academic success of our ELLs. The LADDER cycle helped us analyze appropriate data and use that to help us focus on a data-informed goal for improvement. This process has supported us in Rhode Island’s Teacher Evaluation system as well. We use LADDER data to create our student learning objectives. Even though we’ve officially “graduated” from the LADDER pilot, we are still implementing our lessons and using what we’ve learned. It has been a very powerful experience for us and we have gotten great results from doing it.

Q: What benefits or strengths do English language learners bring to your school?

CF: I presented at the 2013 WIDA National Conference in October, and Kathy Escamilla’s keynote address perfectly captured what I believe to be true regarding the richness of experiences that ELLs bring to our classrooms. I don’t think enough people in education view ELLs or the whole idea of bilingualism as being an asset. ELLs provide a lens that gives us a broader perspective of the world. In keeping with this, 21st century skills challenge us to prepare students to work in a biliterate, bilingual workforce. If we don’t prepare our students for that, they’ll lose out. ESL educators have a very important job to help people, especially the powers that be, recognize the importance of bilingualism. We should take advantage of each and every opportunity for all of our students to become bilingual.

Q: How do you use technology in your job?

CF: All of my students love working with their iPads. I do have some apps I particularly like - Lexia Core 5 Reading is great! In addition, I have used the Language Builder apps (Sentence builder, Story Builder, and preposition builder) I love the way these apps show the students’ growth in different language skills. Often I videotape students when they’re talking with each other or presenting to the group. I can share those videos with parents and it’s a great reinforcement for students, as they can talk about what they’re doing well. Parents are so proud when they see their children working in class. Finally, in my classroom I have a wall with each student’s picture, and underneath it the student writes the goals he or she is working on. When we have evidence, either by listening to them speak, looking at their writing, or seeing on the iPad that they’ve accomplished one of their goals, we’ll tally it up, and then the student and I set their next goal.

Q: How have WIDA, and specifically its LADDER program, helped you achieve your goals as an educator?

CF: On a personal level, WIDA is my educational compass. WIDA’s standards ground what I do with teachers and students in classrooms. I’ve been really fortunate through Central Falls and the state to have a lot of professional development from WIDA. The LADDER program has made it so I get so excited when I look at data. It sounds corny, but one of the most exciting times of my year is when the ACCESS scores come out, and I can see our students’ scores and where they show growth. It’s so rewarding for me to see our students making progress. I also take a close look at students who are making slower-than-average progress. I go domain by domain and look at their growth and relate it to our programming ?? the content, the teaching, and the assessments.

Other WIDA tools I appreciate are the little student profiles that WIDA uses. While I love the hard data, it’s so important to remember that behind each piece of data is a person and a story. Teaching is about a lot more than numbers. Those profiles really capture the human element, things such as their history and home languages, and that’s extremely helpful to me. In addition, the WIDA website has so many great resources, so I constantly refer both ESL and mainstream teachers there.

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