A grant, a camp and a vision


Trista Sobeck

There’s change in the air this summer. Actually, there’s been change in the making for the last two years as the iTeachELLs grant begins to shape and redefine how one of the most underserved populations in the nation, learns. It is currently in year two of implementation and the team is now executing on the carefully planned-out STEM Education for Diverse Learners summer camp.

But this summer camp doesn’t feature campfires, marshmallows and fish-filled lakes. Rather, it’s filled with problem-based learning; tackling the challenges of diverse learning; and closing the achievement gap between ELL students’ math and science grades with those who are native English speakers.

The iTeach ELLs grant team has big plans to not only make sure that this U.S. Department of Education-funded grant is successful by providing improvement data, but that it can successfully support teachers in implementing ways of instruction about the populations they are reaching. 

The grant

“All learning requires language,” says Wendy Farr, clinical associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and director for the iTeachElls grant. “To not take language into account is like a medical doctor not considering a patient's pulse.

"We are examining the role language can play in STEM education,” she explains. Although the grant team recognizes that the new buzzword is STEAM (the A standing for arts,) they are focused on math and science because of the achievement gap between English learners and native English speakers in these subjects specifically.

“Our purpose is to help our teacher candidates — or anyone who learns with us at our college — be prepared on some level to work with English language learners,” she says.

"Of interest is that, in the state of Arizona, all students must be instructed in English. Therefore, part of the grant’s mission is to work with what’s most impactful pedagogically, the culture and the law,” Farr affirms.

“The feedback we received from former students was that they felt as if they were not sufficiently prepared to provide support for ELLs in the classroom," says Anne Smith, clinical assistant professor. "Our goals in the grant will provide teacher candidates and faculty with tools to support all learners.

“Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is one of the largest teacher prep colleges in the country; we graduate about 1,500 new teachers a year, yet we have very few who are grads with specialty degrees,” she explains. Therefore, something needs to be put into motion to help assist those new teachers who need the skills to reach ELLs and diverse learners in their classrooms.

The iTeachELLs grant has four goals:

  1. Implement a number of key reforms in Pre-K–8 certificate teacher preparation programs so graduates will be measurably more successful in understanding and implementing strategies for teaching ELL students in math and science content areas.

  2. Design methods courses in math and science to include materials and instructional strategies that promote development of language (including academic language) and literacy skills.

  3. Use project-based learning pedagogy and design principles to establish knowledge and skills that teacher candidates can apply to “real world” classrooms.

  4. Integrate an understanding of evidence-based practice and scientifically validated research related to the teaching and learning of ELL students including evidence-based assessment and data-driven decision-making within project-based learning to improve differentiated instruction.

The grant team is very focused on the concept of Problem Based Enhanced Language Learning. PBELL was designed to advance the use of language in all academic areas.

“We don’t want English language learners to be separated from all the other students,” Smith states. "When schools pull students out and focus on teaching only English, those students are missing key learning that is taking place inside their classrooms.

"Our goal is for 100 percent of students to have access to 100 percent of the curriculum.” she explains. “It’s the understanding that the content can be taught in tandem with language. They are not separate concepts.” says Smith.

The camp

The concept of a summer camp was borne out of the idea that the grant team wanted to reach more teachers during a time when their schedules allowed them to think more clearly about the strategies and learning they are providing. Summer provides that time. The grant team was able to reach out and invite recent graduates of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, as well as mentor teachers located throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area.

“This is the first camp we’ve offered and it’s a huge investment,” reports Farr. “The grant outlines that at least 200 registrants need to attend.” Farr is confident that number is more than attainable since it features a dynamic curriculum, including speakers from around the community discussing topics that are meaningful to Arizona’s educational landscape; field trips to local museums for hands-on learning from field-based experts and area attractions for math and science experiences based on grade level; and a number of breakout sessions that allow teachers to share their learnings and discoveries from the experience.

The camp has three main goals:

  1. Teach STEM through problem-based learning
  2. Learn how to use community resources to provide meaningful experiences
  3. Understand how to enhance lessons to build discipline-specific academic language

All events and discussions are aligned with the Arizona teaching standards and make clear the connections between the camp’s goals and the immersive experiences teachers will encounter. “We want our teachers to enjoy meaningful experiences they can implement in their own classrooms this upcoming academic year,” says Farr. 

The first four days have their afternoons packed with field trips and experiences that show teachers how to leverage local and community-based organizations to augment features of the math and science curriculum while focusing on language.

Attendees will visit the following Phoenix area destinations:

  • Arizona Science Center
  • Legoland Discovery Center
  • Sea Life Aquarium
  • Challenger Space Center
  • Arizona Museum of Natural History
  • Great Skate

Farr points out that teachers can continue to leverage local businesses and attractions like these. “Sometimes you may not even know that these places have experiences based on a students’ grade level already prepared,” she continues. For the STEM camp’s needs, the destinations are modifying their offerings for this specific educator audience.

The vision

“The goal is to say to Arizona teachers, ‘Here is another way — an improved way — to teach,'” says Farr. “The state doesn't need us to do a lot, but we want to do better. It would behoove us to make this a requirement or an assignment in a college class.” 

Farr says that first and foremost, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College exists to support its students in making an impact. “If we could help close that achievement gap between ELLs and native English speakers, that would be fantastic,” she concludes.

For more information on the iTeachELLs grant, the STEM summer camp or to find out how to get involved with the camp, contact the team at iTeachELLs@asu.edu.