Carolyn Temple Adger

CAROLYN TEMPLE ADGER: Carolyn Temple Adger. Center for Applied Linguistics. 

You know, I’m not exactly sure what that question means. Uh, I think that all professional development really has to be focused on teaching and learning.  That is, on what goes on in the classroom. All professional development really needs to routed in what teachers do everyday in their—in their work, in their professional lives.  And that too often I think professional development is put together by people who are really very much outside the—the lives of teachers in classrooms.  Certainly there are types of dilemma because certainly there are topics that teachers need to know about that don’t necessarily arise in their work. Um, and so I think professional development needs to be designed so that teachers can focus on—can focus together—working together preferably in uh in their schools, can focus on what—what the real issues are for their students and for their own learning. 

A very productive way to uh organize professional development is to look at student’s work. In uh a project that I’ve been doing, one of the strategies that we’ve used with professional development sessions with teachers is to focus on a piece of student’s work.  That’s not the only thing that we’ve done in these groups.  We’ve done um the more usual thing of reading professional literature and then talking together about it.  We’ve also done um peer observation where teachers go into each other’s classrooms with uh a very focused protocol for looking at what happens there.  So there are a number of kinds of activities that you can do in professional development but using um, um protocol for looking at a piece of student’s work objectively rather than evaluatively, which is the way that we are accustomed to looking at students work, can be very valuable for teachers because it can show them what it is that students know whereas typically we look at a piece of student’s work and we are more focused on what students don’t know, on what they aren’t able to do really well.  But in the approach to examining students’ work that we’ve been using in this group, um we look at the piece of work and we describe what’s there.  We look at it without any kind of context.  We don’t know what the work—what the assignment is, we don’t know who the author is, we don’t know whether this student who wrote this piece is uh Native English speaker or not a Native English speaker.  We don’t know anything about it.  All we have is the piece of student’s work.  And what I found is that teachers are very um interested to look at a piece of student’s work from that perspective.  It’s very revealing to them about their own practice. And that really is uh the point of professional development. The point of professional development is to figure out well, “Where am I as an individual?  Where am I now in my professional growth?  And where would I like to go?  What can I do in my professional growth—growth that’s satisfying for me and good for the students that I teach?”

The—the approach that we have used for examining student’s work is highly formalized.  The first question that teachers address is “What do you see there?  What’s in this work?” And then teachers are asked to speculate about what the conditions were that produced this piece of work.  But as a result of walking through this very formalized protocol, many teachers be—begin to ask questions that are really um more about their own classrooms then about this particular student’s work. So they ask questions uh about their own practice. One of the questions that came up in a session on student’s work had to do with how much—actually this isn’t so much related to student’s writing. It’s related to student’s reading.  How can—how is it that second language learners, kids who are learning English as a second language, how can they begin to understand some of the conventions of writing that we as very fluent readers and writers just take for—for granted. So for example, in uh in a narrative, reading a piece of fiction, the um the narrative flows so that a sentence will say, “I’m going to go hunting this afternoon,” said Tom. And then the next line is, “That sounds like a great idea.”  It doesn’t say who said it.  So we as fluent re—readers know that the person that said that was a particular character in the story.  But kids who are learning to read English as a second language don’t necessarily know that.  So then the question becomes how can teachers use the kinds of performance that they notice in writing or in kids classroom performance in uh—in cooperative learning groups. How can teachers use that kind of student performance to figure out what it is they need to do in instruction?

Yeah, I think inquiry based professional development is more—is—it’s open-ended and it is more focused on the issues that come up for teachers in their practice.  It maybe the case that there’s um a school district initiative, for example, uh the standards movement, if a school district is implementing standards or some other new curricular initiative, then it’s—it has been the inclination of school districts in the past to hold professional development sessions uh in which teachers are told by somebody what this document, what this policy means.  But if you turn it around and ask teachers to inquire about what the new policy standards perhaps means for them in their classrooms and then you have a conversation, you get together with um with your peers, other teachers, and perhaps an outsider or perhaps not and work through the meaning of this policy for your school.  Then you find that people are really invested in it and teachers in the school may come naturally to say, “Boy, we ought to do a better job of aligning curriculum in our school across the grades.”  If, for example, we expect kids to write five paragraph compositions um in the 7th grade, then we need to look at what happened in the preceding grades to figure out well, what should they bring to this.  Um, that that kind of direction for professional development really arises out of teachers thinking together about their practice and what their kids are able to do and what they need to do to help their kids move ahead.  (interruption) Yeah.  (clears throat)  Yeah, inquiry is really a respectful model in terms of the orientation that is taken towards teachers.  It respects teachers knowledge and it respects the kind of questions that arise when a seer less professional is working hard to get better, to make things better in their classroom.  Which people with expertise are always doing? They’re always trying to get better.  Um, and so yeah, it is—it is respect—it is a respectful approach to professional development. (interruption)  Yeah, and teachers can do that.  Teachers are perfectly capable of reflecting on their own practice, but many teachers haven’t been encouraged to do that.  So they may not be fossil at it.  But when they’re in a condition that encourages them to reflect on their own practice, they like it and they are good at it.  And they’re—they get a lot of stimulation from doing that with each other.  (interruption)  Absolutely.  Absolutely. In the group of teachers that we work with, we met after school from three o’clock to five o’clock. These are middle school teachers—well, and I think any teacher that time of the day is a hard time.  But coming together with their peers, people whom they liked and respected and trusted, was really rejuvenating for them and so from three to five in the afternoon, they were able to have amazing professional conversations that really beneficial to everybody and very stimulating to me as an outsider.  I had trouble sleeping after the sessions.  (interruption)  You know, it’s just um to be with a group of teachers who are so concerned about their own classroom practice and so intent on doing a very good job of teaching English language learners and um really um excited about their discoveries about their students just generates a level of intellectual conversation that is uh hard to—hard to pass up. 

Yeah. Teachers are very accustomed to, of course, to being isolated in their classrooms. And I’ve even heard teachers’ say, “Just leave me alone, let me shut my door and teach.”  But that—that perspective on teaching is—is not that I think we should really um condone. I mean, certainly we don’t condone it and it’s one that we should really work against, because in collaboration—when teachers are collaborating with their peers, that’s when learning goes on.  I mean, it’s very well known now, we just certainly take it for granted that students in K-12 learn through collaboration.  And this is—this is true of teachers as well. There are a lot of reasons that collaboration doesn’t happen as much in schools as it ought to.  Schools in general are not organized now to have real collaboration among teachers.  And even when we inch toward that, it’s only inching.  So if we have common planning time for 20 minutes a day, some schools would report that as a time in which teachers are collaborating. But what can you do in 20 minutes a day?  I’m not saying that it’s not valuable. It is valuable and there are issues that come up that can get taken care of in this 20 minutes.  But a sustained really deep kind of professional development is not going to happen in 20 days—in 20 minutes a day. It’s just not going to happen.  And so we need to move school districts and schools toward setting aside professional development money and—and it takes a lot of professional development money to create spaces for teachers to learn.  But it must be done. It must be done.  If we are—if we expect teachers to be high quality professional and that’s what we have to expect, we certainly won’t keep people in teaching um unless we create a climate in which there is uh a really high quality professional experience.  Then it’s going to mean a reallocation of funds. And it has been done around the country.  I mean there are places in which funds have been reallocated for in depth professional development and we need to—we need to make sure that happens.  But it’s not easily done, you know. It—it means that the states and the school districts and the schools are all going to have to work together.  And I think that probably school districts are going to need to engage in some inquiry because it isn’t perhaps immediately apparent to people who are accustomed to having professional development in dribs and drabs.  It’s not immediately obvious to them what kinds of benefits can come from long-term sustained professional development. 

It’s really not easy to move into doing long term sustained professional development even as—as much as we um know that it’s a good think to do, it’s not easy to pull off.  There’s the matter of reallocating funds so that you can pay teachers to come to professional development sessions.  But then there’s a lot of um adjustment of attitudes and re-thinking of philosophies.  Teachers who are accustomed to going to professional development and sitting and having professional development done to them, which is kind of an amazing think to think about, don’t easily move into a more collaborative way of interacting, so that you can get kind of subtle um problems in inquiry based or collaborative professional development. You’ll find that there are people who are physically present, not—not obviously resisting.  Certainly I’ve got the obvious resistors, but people who are there but not engaged. People who would like to be engaged but aren’t quite able to do it because they simply haven’t had practice.  And people don’t, we found in our work that there are people who didn’t understand the value of talking to their peers and would say to us, “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.”  Well, it doesn’t go like that.  I can’t tell you what to do in your classroom. I don’t—I don’t know your classroom. I don’t know your classroom nearly as well as you are—as you do. And so really helping teachers to see the value of the professional development is important. You have to do a sales job. You have to create the kinds of trusting relationships so that people will say things that might sound wrong, that might be offensive to people.  But you—you won’t forward unless people are able to ask the kinds of questions, make the kinds of comments that come to them. And in the honesty in the spontaneity of talk about professional practice, then people begin to see the lights that others bring to that kind of setting and grow from that.  And it doesn’t, it’s not the case that everything that people need to know in—in order to get better in some domain that they’re focused on, it’s not going to all come from professional conversation.  There all—also has to be reading. I like reading together, I like a situation where people have uh read something and then come to talk—come together to talk about it. Or have read something, tried out something in their classrooms and then come together to talk about it.    

The outcomes of uh sustained, ongoing professional development because it’s never over, it’s not that you do it for three years and then you’re fixed, it’s that you do it for the rest of your professional life.  But the outcomes are both for students and for teachers getting better so that as teachers get better at what they do, then students can get better both at being students and at learning whatever it is they’re suppose to be learning.  The—the outcomes also we found in our research um were there were a lot of unanticipated outcomes.  There was really a burst of professional growth uh in terms of participating in professional organizations, giving papers at conferences, uh being asked to participate in professional development for other teachers in the district.  That was an outcome that we were very happy about but we hadn’t predicted that would happen for our—our research purposes. And those kinds of things continue with these teachers now. They really have a real strong sense of capabil—of their own capability, their own professional competence and there—there is an excitement that they have about both the process of collaborative professional development and what they’ve learned. So they are very eager, they have stepped into uh leadership roles in their schools so that they can share the process of collaborative professional development as well as what they’ve learned about teaching.

In the work that we were doing, we were working with mainstream teachers as well as ESL and bilingual teachers.  We think it’s really important to bring those three groups together in professional development and let them learn from each other.  That’s not always easy because those um groups of teachers aren’t custom to talking to each other. It’s not always easy to bring them together, still important.  But I—I have to say that the growth for the mainstream teachers was the most exciting to me.  Um, mainstream teachers; especially teachers over 40, many of them had really not been well educated to teach English language learners. They simply didn’t understand the trajectory of language learning, they didn’t understand that uh English language learners might not engage, for example, in cooperative learning activities as easily as um Native speakers of American English would do.  And so there is just a lot of learning that had to go on.  And one of the teachers in particular, a 7th grade English teacher was a fine teacher, a wonderful teacher, a very capable teacher.  (coughing) One of the mainstream teachers was a very, very capable 7th grade English language arts teacher who was really able to adjust instruction for students.  She was uh a veteran teacher who loved kids, loved teaching and was always growing on her own.  But as a result of working collaboratively with peers, really learned so much more about her English language learners.  Uh, the—learned about the—the kinds of language, difficulties that they might have and what she could do to help them get better.  And it was very exciting to me to see that as she got better, she took more responsibility for those kids and she spoke about those kids in our group in a new way after she felt very capable of teaching them. She—she spoke about those kids differently then she did when she was pretty much perplexed about them.  And so I think that that’s something that can happen with teachers when they have high quality professional development over a long period of time, it can enhance their ability to—to teach the kids that show up in their classrooms rather than the kids that they might have known or might have been prepared to teach and to um feel as responsible for those students as they do for other students. 

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been um a push in teacher education for teachers to learn about the—about what dialects are, that dialects are a natural language phenomenon and there are a lot of misperceptions and misunderstandings about variation in the English language that are very harmful for students.  And so I wish that all teachers could have some kind of an introduction to sociolinguistics so that they could understand that we all speak a dialect, there’s nobody that doesn’t speak a dialect.  Um, and that the dialects that are represented in our schools are perfectly normal and natural and not in need in being stamped out, that always of speaking are perfectly viable ways of communicating messages and that every dialect has functions in the speech community of speakers in—of that dialect.

 Yeah.  Um, kids who come to school with vernacular varieties of English, those are the ones that are dispre—dispreferred, not respected, really have a tough time at school. There’s been a lot of research that has shown that over and over again these kids are discriminated against, actually it’s language discrimination that—that features of their dialects that are perfectly normal, regular, and predictable, are treated by teachers and maybe other kids as being errors when, in fact, they’re not errors.  And so over time what happens is that students come to see the way they speak the language that they use as having something wrong with it and they see themselves as not quite meeting the expectations of the schools.  And unless schools are better at helping kids learn the variety that’s expected in schools, Standard English, then those kids don’t really get to the point where they can feel—many of them um don’t get to the point where they feel that they can excel in school.  And—and we know very well when kids don’t feel that they’re doing well in school, they’ll react in different ways.  And, unfortunately one of the ways that they react is—is to make everybody crazy there.  And it might seem that this is um an over blown description of what happens as a result of language discrimination and it may be—it’s probably the case because it’s not only language discrimination, it’s other kinds of discrimination.  Other—other ways in which schools see certain students as not meeting the expectations of the schools because the schools define very narrowly what is good behavior. But um, it’s a way in which kids who come from vernacular communities just don’t get a good education.  So schools really fail kids if they don’t respect their language variety. 

I did some research in Baltimore City public schools a few years ago, looking at the um evidence of um African-American vernacular English in classrooms to see whether that was interfering with kids education in any way uh as people have said for many years, and I spent a lot of time in classrooms in which all of the students were African-American.  Classrooms in which most of the students were African-American and that there was some interesting um affects that I noticed. One of them, the most startling one, was that although people say that the language—the dialect that’s expected at schools, Standard English, in fact in these classrooms the dialect that was expected was actually African-American vernacular English. Now if I would ask teachers um, “Well what dialect do you think is good for kids to speak.”  They’d say, “Oh, Standard English.”  But, in fact, the way things play out in classrooms um is that children use African-American vernacular English.  Children who are fluent in African-American vernacular English use that dialect and teachers treat it as normal.  But then what happens is that under certain conditions children automatically shift toward Standard English.  Those conditions are situations in which children are asked to speak with authority.  So, for example, in a math lesson, if a child is asked to explain a process um in an English lesson, if a child is asked to explain what he thinks about this story—I’m making this up, obviously. Um, then naturally the child in taking this authoritative stance toward what he’s talking about shifts toward Standard English. And it occurred to me then, this is research that I would like to do and it’s certainly is a question that teachers can observe in their own classrooms, how often are children asked to speak with authority.  How often does a teacher ask a question to a child, the answer to which is not known? Um, if children are given the opportunities, asked to speak with authority about some topic, I suspect that they will shift into Standard English. And what’s good about that is that it gives them practice in using Standard English so that they get more proficient at it. And it also gives them practice, at the same time—it’s really the same thing—gives them practice in using the variety in English that indeed is expected uh in schools and is more and more expected in schools as children get older and certainly is expected in university settings and gives kids more access to um good jobs.

Yeah. Well, certainly there is a need for all kids to be able to speak Standard English, to write in Standard English, because the situation in our country now is that that’s the preferred dialect and people need to be very proficient in the use of that dialect.  At the same time um, vernacular dialects have their own domain of use.  There’s a wonderful new book by John Rickford called “Spoken Soul” in which he makes the point that African-American vernacular English or ‘spoken soul’—it’s Claude Brown’s—I think it’s Claude Brown’s term—um is—is very—it’s very important dialect for African-Americans to be able to use.  So that if you’re an African-American and you only speak Standard English, then you wouldn’t have very good access to certain kinds of domains. He talks in particular—his examples are uh preachers—that preachers deliver sermons in Standard English but that it’s very often the case that they shift toward the vernacular to make points.  And this is—he uh—this book focuses on um sermons and also entertainment, but it’s also the case I’ve seen in uh professional settings where African-Americans use both Standard English and AAVE and that they shift um—that they have control over shifting so that—so speakers of—people who are fluent in both Standard and vernacular varieties of a language have um a real advantage.

I think it’s really important for all teachers to learn a lot about language. And I know it’s predictable that I would say that because I’m a linguist, but um because in our schools now we have so many children who are learning English as a second language and people—and students who may have um been exited from ESL programs but continue to develop uh proficiency in English over the—really, the course of K-12 um and we have so many speakers of vernacular dialects.  We have so many speakers of world Englishes, that is Englishes that are spoken outside of the US but that we—are now represented in our schools, teachers need to know a lot more about language then I ever learned when I was in teacher education.  Simply to do—to be able to do their jobs and it’s hard for us—I feel—I feel that we’re caught now in the—in a time in which there’s a real need for people to know a lot about language, but um we don’t have a history of learning about language in our country.  So in a way, is a difficult time, but in another way it’s an exciting time um because each of us, I think, has a role to play in ensuring that other teachers and our students learn how language works.