National Writing Project

Supporting Teachers of English Language Learners in Kansas City

By: Katie McKay
Date: April 5, 2010

Summary: To help local teachers address the needs of a growing population of English language learners the Greater Kansas City Writing Project strategically calls on NWP resources, related events, and local experience.


Like many communities across the country, Kansas City, Missouri, has seen significant increases in its population of speakers of languages other than English.

In fact, one Kansas City school district has reported a 500 percent increase in its English learner population over the past three years. Area schools that have not historically served large numbers of English language learners are therefore facing the challenge of providing instruction for a more linguistically and culturally diverse student group.

Recognizing these changing demographics, the Greater Kansas City Writing Project (GKCWP) has prioritized ELL issues and taken action, getting support from two NWP programs—Project Outreach and the English Language Learners Network—to create professional development opportunities that support teachers of English learners.

Preparing Teachers for a Changing Population

GKCWP director Katie Kline points to her site's work with Project Outreach as a turning point. Project Outreach sites, during a yearlong self-study process that involves reflection and honest conversations, identify ways of meeting goals aimed at improving professional development opportunities for teachers of low-income youth and increasing the diversity in the leadership at their site.

During the 2006-2007 school year, a GKCWP ELL subcommittee, created with support from Project Outreach, surveyed six school districts in the Kansas City area. The subcommittee reported that in these districts ELL populations were growing faster than the pool of teachers who were certified to teach this population.

We have to think about who these students are, where they are coming from, how we can relate to their families.

Not surprisingly, the districts admitted to a lack of adequate resources to provide professional development for teachers who were overwhelmed with new populations of ELL students. As districts began seeking support, GKCWP realized that of their nearly 300 teacher-consultants, few felt prepared to specifically address the needs of ELL instruction.

Developing Local Leaders

Having identified needs, Kline looked to parts of the country that had been at the forefront of ELL issues for years for possible solutions. She decided to send four GKCWP teacher-consultants, who represented elementary, middle, and high school perspectives, to the 2006 UCLA Writing Project "With Different Eyes" ELL conference. In addition to having the goal of collecting new strategies, teacher-consultants went with the knowledge that GKCWP might apply for English Language Learners Network minigrant funds to support their ideas.

"One of the things that became clear," said Kline, "was that when people came back from the UCLA conference they were really enthused about these students that we hadn't thought specifically about before. For these ELL teachers, this was the first time they had been given a voice at our site, and now we were funding them to attend this conference."

Erin Wilkey, one of the GKCWP teacher-consultants who attended that conference and is now an integral member of the GKCWP ELL Team, reported, "It definitely felt like a kind of leadership initiation." Each year since this "initiation," GKCWP has sent two to four teacher-consultants to the "With Different Eyes" conference.

Exploring ELL Resources and Teacher Needs

After the conference, teacher-consultants gathered resources to support teachers of ELL students in the Kansas City metro area.

Wilkey felt lucky to be working in a district that provided support for ELL teachers, but, she said, "We talked to a few teachers who hadn't seen that in their districts. We thought, 'If you had nothing, what would you need?'".

With that question in mind, a team of teacher-consultants put together a proposal for an ELL Network minigrant that would fund two full days of professional development for teachers interested in learning strategies to support their English language learners.

The ELL team brainstormed ways of enticing populations of educators who would not immediately self-identify as teachers of English language learners. They began to use the term "culturally and linguistically diverse"—CLD—to describe these learners in order to communicate to a larger audience.

The culmination of this sitewide effort was a two-day conference, supported by an ELL Network minigrant, titled Teachers Responding to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners, held on consecutive Saturdays in early 2009.

Teachers noted that all students, not just those learning English, benefited from the strategies implemented.

The conference included presentations run by teacher-consultants and other identified educators of English language learners. Time for group reflection, for workshops about specific strategies for ELL students, and for action planning were included. A range of elementary through college educators learned strategies at the first Saturday workshop and implemented them immediately in their classrooms the following week. The next Saturday, they were able to discuss successes and challenges. (For more, see the conference agenda (PDF).)

Teachers noted that all students, not just those learning English, benefited from the strategies implemented and that they had an immediate impact in the classroom.

"I especially liked the range of presenters and topics: grammar to understanding cultural context to art presentations," said Jan Rog, a teacher-consultant who presented with colleagues from a local community college. She also worked to recruit ELL teachers from the workshop to apply to the summer institute. And, along the way, she learned new strategies herself.

Expanding Statewide

The site's work continues. Over the past three years, GKCWP teacher-consultants and their students have attended events featuring authors such as Sandra Cisneros. They are blogging and sharing ELL strategies on a new Kansas City Writing Project Coalition Ning (a social networking platform free to educators). They are developing action research plans that show that they have put ELL issues at the center of their site's priorities. And, in mid-November they will share their work at the 2009 Missouri Migrant Education / English Language Learning (MELL) Conference.

Rog reflected on how this new focus on ELL issues has affected the GKCWP as a whole. "I've been involved with GKCWP for two full years now. Over this time, I've observed that more teachers have become involved from schools with greater numbers of ELL students."

Through the newly formed Kansas Writing Project Coalition (KWPC), funded by a State and Regional Networks grant, representatives from the three Kansas Writing Project sites are working together to share resources and address statewide needs. GKCWP has noted that all Kansas Writing Project sites are struggling with the same ELL needs. One of the five committees formed by the KWPC will work to specifically address ELL issues.

When asked about her experience at an August KWPC meeting, Wilkey, who will serve on the KWPC ELL Committee, said, "We have to recognize the cultural context. We have to think about who these students are, where they are coming from, how we can relate to their families, and how we have to change our thinking in order to help these students to be successful."

About the Author Katie McKay is a teacher-consultant at the Heart of Texas Writing Project and a bilingual fourth grade teacher at Becker Elementary School in the Austin Independent School District. She went through the NWP Summer Institute in 2007 and is a member of the English Language Learners Network Leadership Team.

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