National Writing Project

Local and National Programs Nurture ELL Teacher-Leaders

By: Katie McKay
Date: February 11, 2011

Summary: Massachusetts Teacher of the Year Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero explores how the interconnectedness of local and national programs is part of what has nurtured her development as a leader.


When Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero, the 2011 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, talks about her leadership role, she gives credit to the Western Massachusetts Writing Project (WMWP) for seeing in her what she had never seen in herself, "a teacher-leader whose experience as an ELL teacher they valued."

As she discusses the connections between her work with WMWP and the English Language Learners (ELL) Network Leadership Team, of which she is a member, she sketches a diagram. "As I am talking to you, I am drawing the arrows from recycling because that is how I see it, going both ways," says Ortiz-Marrero. Her work with English language learners is codependent and cyclical, she explains.

The ELL Network, one of five National Writing Project special-focus networks, was formed to support sites across the country serving the needs of ELL teachers and to develop and extend leadership among such teachers.

"When you are able to be on both sides, I think that your scope and lens expand," says Ortiz-Marrero. As her own scope has broadened through her leadership experiences at the national level, she has become focused on the triumphs, questions, and concerns sites share when dealing with the growing population of English language learners.

Contagious Passion

For years Ortiz-Marrero has been instrumental in WMWP's efforts to build leaders to provide professional development for ELL teachers. As Susan Biggs, the site's special projects coordinator, points out, "Wilma is just so passionate about this work that people can't help but become interested as well."

I would have never said, 'I want to go on to the national level.' Sometimes teachers, like students, need someone to pull them in.

The ELL Network's goals to expand sites' knowledge and advocate for ELL students parallel the long-standing ones of Ortiz-Marrero and her colleagues in western Massachusetts. It was her contagious passion coupled with her thoughtful work that prompted the ELL Network Leadership Team to invite Ortiz-Marrero to help lead the network. Along with other teacher-leaders, she has helped shape the network's annual program and stayed abreast of developments at local sites as well as national trends.

"The experience of being able to participate at the national level has reaffirmed the philosophy of the National Writing Project to build on teachers' leadership roles—and that it is not just about a philosophy but that you get to experience [it] firsthand. The NWP sees the potential in teachers, and they actually capitalize on that," says Ortiz-Marrero.

Building Local Leaders Builds Local Capacity

MWP has a history of success in building teacher-leaders to expand the site's capacity to meet the needs of local school districts. The 2001 Massachusetts law "English for the Children" presented WMWP with new challenges in advocating for English language learners, as it required all ELL students to be mainstreamed.

"We needed to build capacity at our site to meet the high demand of professional development," Biggs explains. "That's when we started to offer the leadership institutes. We were both building capacity and recruiting new teacher-consultants."

Ortiz-Marrero and her colleagues rose to the challenge: "Karen Sumaryono and I developed the ELL Initiative and strand in our site." Both the ELL Initiative and the leadership institutes honor the experience of local teachers.

Colleague Tracy Walker agrees with this view. She explains that at WMWP, they honor that experience by organizing activities (PDF) that validate the expertise participants bring to the institutes, adding, "Our goal is to develop a network of ELL educators who can share resources and support each other on issues of ELL advocacy."

National Goals Support Local Growth

Returning to those symbolic recycling arrows, Ortiz-Marrero recalls that the ELL Network financially supported the formation of the first ELL institute at WMWP. "What really made the ELL Initiative possible were the national grants, the minigrants. Without that I don't think that we would have been able to go as far as we have gone."

In addition to taking advantage of national ELL minigrants to build leadership and capacity, WMWP turned to Project Outreach, an NWP initiative designed to enhance the ability of local sites to understand and address issues of equity in their local programming. A Project Outreach site since March 2006, WMWP has been studying ways to expand its capacity (PDF) to better serve teachers of low-income students and diversify leadership at their site.

Ortiz-Marrero feels her participation in Project Outreach brought more openness and a sense of rejuvenation. This in turn helped her feel more comfortable participating in discussions on issues close to her professional and personal life.

Those discussions strongly influence conversations she has with site leaders from around the country, like those she has had with Mary Arias, a co-chair of the ELL Network Leadership Team. "Wilma and I have talked about the need to build leadership opportunities for people of color, increase understanding of multicultural teaching, and expand teacher pedagogy with ELLs," says Arias.

Such dialogues have also given Ortiz-Marrero the chance to learn about ELL populations that are distinct from those she encounters in Massachusetts. She speaks in awe of Michael Thompson, a fellow member of the ELL Network Leadership Team who works with Native American populations at the Bisti Writing Project in New Mexico. "It has been an incredible learning experience for me to learn from him and the struggles that are going on in different populations," she says.

Different, yes, but a broadened perspective helps Ortiz-Marrero focus on similarities as well: "We are talking about racism, about discrimination, and these are the common elements that oftentimes interfere with the academic success of our students."

It would be tough for anyone who has worked with the passionate Ortiz-Marrero in recent years to believe that this Massachusetts Teacher of the Year ever needed the extra push to become a national ELL advocate. "I would have never said, 'I want to go on to the national level.' Sometimes teachers, like students, need someone to pull them in," she says.

Her positive experiences at WMWP and on the ELL Network Leadership Team are tributes to how effective a model that values, identifies, and builds teacher-leaders can be in transforming educators and, in turn, education.

About the Author Katie McKay is a bilingual fourth grade teacher at Becker Elementary School in the Austin Independent School District. She participated in the 2007 NWP Summer Institute and is a member of the English Language Learners Network Leadership Team.

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