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Brenda Colonna: Featured Educator

May 2016

Brenda Colonna is the ESL District Coordinator and the ESL Program Specialist for the Hardin County School District in Kentucky

photo of Marci Jamrose
Brenda Colonna

What is your current position? How long have you been in this position?

BC: I am the ESL District Coordinator and the ESL Program Specialist for Hardin County Schools. I am the only one in this position in the county, so I cover 21 schools ranging K-12. My job is to support content, classroom, and ESL teachers and build their capacity to work with English language learners. This is my second year in this current position.

What is your class, school and district like? Can you tell me a little about its location, size and about the composition of the student body?

BC: Hardin County District is the fourth largest district in Kentucky and we are located close to Fort Knox. This brings in a lot of military families and contributes to a high level of mobility within the district. We also have migrant families that come and go because of the agricultural opportunities we have in the county. All of our schools are Title 3 and many are low income schools.

We have 251 ELL students in this district, out of 14,300 total students. So it isn’t a huge percentage of students but the ELLs are spread out all over the county. There are a few schools with a larger concentration of ELLs. The predominant language of our ELLs is Spanish but we also have German, Arabic, Chinese, Tagalog, and 10 other languages. We received one student who speaks Ki’che, an indigenous language of the Mayan people of Guatemala. This is a new language for us and we are still learning about it. He came to middle school without any prior exposure to English. His education in Ki’che was primarily spoken and formal education was not required in his village. It has been a learning experience for us. His teachers and I have been working to help understand how to approach building his background knowledge, since he is coming with a very different set of skills and experiences than our other ELL students.

Why are you an educator? What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?

BC: It sounds very clichéd, but I wanted to make a difference and I enjoy working with kids. I started out as a Speech Pathologist. Back then, when a school received an ELL student, they were unsure how to support them. Since I focused on speaking in English, the ELLs were assigned to me and I found that I really enjoyed working with this population of students. I went on to become a reading specialist and when a position opened up for an ESL teacher in the district, it seemed to really pull together all my training and interests. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, I have also enjoyed traveling, learning about new cultures, and I have been in the position of being a second language learner myself.

I love my current position because I feel I have a chance to have a wider impact and am able to influence instructional practice and policy for the county. When I was in the classroom, I could reach my individual students, families, and my administrator but now I feel that I can help the entire district. If I can get the administrators on board and help build their knowledge on how to support English language learners, then they start to advocate for ELLs and we see changes more quickly.

While I love my job, I wish there were more people in my position so I could collaborate with peers and spend more time with individual teachers. Also, as a classroom teacher there were students I worried about, and now I have those worries on a district-wide level. It’s a much bigger advocacy role I have to take on and my concerns have broadened as my role has broadened.

What would you like all administrators to know about supporting ELLs?

BC: If there is one message I would like to get across to all administrators it would be that everyone in your building is a language teacher. We have to do this together and it has to be a collaborative effort.

Also, I try to build empathy for these students among administrators because this has to come from the top down. I do this by trying to put the administrators in the ELL’s shoes. For example, I have had German guest speakers come during professional development and give them a lesson in German so they get an idea of what it is like for ELL students trying to learn content in another language.

Tell us more about Professional Development.

During PD, we will talk about strategies and issues more unique to ELLs, such as how the background knowledge ELLs bring with them to class may be very different. And then we discuss ways to build up the knowledge students need to participate in the instruction. A lot of our PD has to do with building awareness among teachers. For example, I was observing a student the other day and the teacher gave him a reading passage all about being “blind as a bat.” Well the student didn’t know this idiom, so the lesson was lost on this student. This was something the teacher hadn’t thought about before, so our discussion just heightened her awareness of the language expectations. Or I will have a teacher come to me after learning that a student doesn’t speak English at home and I help them relate by flipping the situation. Well let’s say you and your family move to China, what would you speak in the home…probably not Chinese! So first you have to build awareness, which builds empathy and that builds advocacy.

How do you encourage collaboration in the schools you work with?

BC: My goal is to work myself out of a job by building up the school leaders. I do this by working closely with the ESL teachers in the schools. I include them in the trainings I do and we co-plan or co-present the material to the staff. They are the frontline person for their colleagues, so it is important that other teachers see them as their first resource.

I have had more success this year by asking, “What do you want?” and “What do you need to know?” This approach works better than me coming from the district with what I want to share, because it may not be what a particular school needs at that time. Also, I look for teachers and administrators who are very receptive and responsive to ELLs, and I encourage them to be an advocate for ELLs in terms of classroom placement, scheduling, and professional learning.

Why do you feel collaboration around ELLs is important?

BC: The bottom line is that ELLs, outside of a co-teaching program, will spend the majority of their day with content teachers who aren’t necessarily ESL trained teachers. Collaboration is essential to maximize the comprehensible input throughout the whole day because the ESL teacher may know how to support this student, but he/she usually only gets to spend 30 minutes at a time in the classroom. So the collaborative effort, with the reality of the constraints we have, is the best way to maximize the meaningful input for ELL students. Plus, this collaborative work builds the capacity of teachers.

This year we started a department PLC that consists of all the ESL teachers spread throughout the district. At these meetings we are able to pull together our knowledge as a department so we can share that at all the schools. No one person has all the answers so to me, the collaborative effort is the key, because we each bring a different expertise.

What benefits or strengths do English language learners bring to your classroom/school?

BC: We live in a fairly rural area and and some of our students haven’t been outside of Kentucky. I feel that our ELL students help to expand the horizons of our students. They bring with them cultural experiences that will enrich any classroom. They have problem solving strategies that other students might not have encountered or been challenged with yet, so they can serve as a resource or model for developing these skills. I share these strengths with teachers I work with and let them know that it is a gift having these students in their class and they should tap into what they know.