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PhD scholar designs community workshops to help preschoolers, English language learners

Workshop participants gather to discuss educational challenges related to English language learning.

Brittney Beck

Brittney Beck led “design-thinking” workshops, like the one at the top, to bring together students and community stakeholders to collaborate on ways to improve learning for preschool students and English language learners. 

Many of the most enduring challenges facing the U.S. education system defy simple solutions.

For example, how to improve the educational outcomes for preschool children and for students whose first language is not English?

Finding solutions to these issues will go a long way to determining the future of millions of young people. But there are many challenges to overcome. Education scholars have found that disadvantaged children who start kindergarten with fewer social and academic skills are more likely to fall behind their peers in school. Similarly, the academic performance of students classified as English language learners (or ELLs) — perhaps the fastest-growing segment of the public school population — falls well below their peers and they experience disproportionately higher dropout rates.

“It’s necessary to recognize that these issues are so large and complex that no single teacher or school can hope to solve them independently,” says Brittney Beck, a doctoral candidate in the School of Teaching and Learning at UF’s College of Education.

“And yet, before much can be accomplished, you need to bring together all the stakeholders in the public school system — families, educators, students, school administrators and the general public —to discuss solutions and find collective responses.”

This understanding led Beck to organize two separate “design-thinking” community workshops for stakeholders of the Alachua County Public Schools District to explore the myriad issues of early learning and ELLs, with a particular focus on the problems of children growing up in poverty.

Wide range of stakeholders

Participants were assigned to a group and they posted their ideas about how to solve educational challenges during brainstorming sessions.

Participants were assigned to groups and they posted ideas about how to solve educational challenges during brainstorming sessions.

All told, Beck’s three-hour workshops attracted 114 education students, UF College of Education faculty and staff, and representatives of local schools and community organizations. Participating students included those in Beck’s Introduction to Education classes and faculty lecturer Jo Kozuma’s course on second language learning and teaching.

“These workshops were a way to bring the curriculum to life for the college’s students,” Beck said. “They can read in textbooks about issues related to preschool education and bilingual education and they can learn more through their field experiences. But until they are sitting shoulder to shoulder with community experts who are trying to implement real-world solutions they do not have a full sense of the issues.”

Beck made use of her training in “design-thinking” processes to organize the workshops and spark engagement among participants. Attendees broke into groups of interdisciplinary stakeholders and Beck guided them through phases of the design-thinking process, including storytelling, root problem identification, ideation and small-scale experiments.

Community members who attended one or both of the workshops included officials from Alachua County Public Schools, the county library district, literacy groups, women’s advocacy organizations and Southwest Advocacy Group, a nonprofit that works to improve conditions for residents of impoverished neighborhoods in Southwest Gainesville.

By the end of the workshop, each group chose the most viable solution and developed a way to test its effectiveness. A caveat: to limit pie-in-sky, budget-breaking ideas, they needed to take less than an hour and cost $10 or less. Among the solutions: Gather a large group of ELL advocates to attend meetings of the boards of local school districts to learn about its commitment to ELLs and to speak about the need for more culturally enriching experiences for all students.

“It’s more important than ever to find ways to help immigrant and refugee schoolchildren and their families, given the societal climate that increasingly questions their presence in our schools and communities,” Beck said. “Creating a welcoming community cannot rest on the shoulders of educators and schools alone. It demands an interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder coalition committed to upholding the promises of pluralism in all facets of community life.”

A student’s perspective

One of the student participants in the English as a second language workshop last fall was Cy-Anne Small, a junior in the college’s ProTeach Unified Elementary Education Program. Small said she collaborated with Victoria Condor-Williams, president of the Latina Women’s League, a nonprofit organization that works to improve Latino/Hispanic culture and art in Gainesville.

Small, who was born in Jamaica and grew up in West Palm Beach, said the workshop highlighted how aspiring teachers need to gain a greater understanding of the lives of students from diverse backgrounds. This is all the more challenging since the majority of students seeking education degrees are white females. “We have to make sure we have the best school teachers and this was a step to make sure we have inclusive classrooms and to learn what equity is.”

Beck noted that scholars have found the most effective way of addressing the deficits of ELLs is to draw from students’ existing cultural and linguistic assets.

Already, some participants are independently organizing a follow-up workshop. Theresa Sterling, literary director for the Alachua County Library District, is teaming with two UF scholars to host a workshop on March 3 to discuss multiple perspectives surrounding plagiarism by English language learners, as well as strategies to address this complex issue. UF College of Education doctoral students Hyunjin Jinna Kim and Aleksandra Olszewska are helping to coordinate the event.

Ester de Jong, director of the School of Teaching and Learning, said: “The workshops illustrate the importance and strengths of partnerships and collaboration to meet today’s educational challenges. They were a great success.”

Beck said she is working with Jennifer Taylor, supervisor of guidance and student services for Alachua County Public Schools, to coordinate another workshop this spring devoted to the unique challenges faced by LGBT students and educators.

Source: Brittney Beck, doctoral fellow, School of Teaching and Learning, 352-273-4215
Writer: Charles Boisseau, News and Communications, 352-273-4449