Teach Plus California Teacher Leader Carolina Rodriguez on Holistic Teaching and Leveraging Students’ Bilingual Superpower
By Kathy Pierre
Carolina Rodriguez taught 8th grade STEM in San Jose, California, for seven years before becoming an instructional coach. Now, she supports teachers across sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. As a Teach Plus Emergent Bilingual Change Agent, Carolina has also been working to find ways to assess and teach students more holistically and effectively, while leveraging their superpower: being bilingual.
This year, Carolina will continue her work with Teach Plus by leading a mobilization network, creating a space to support her colleagues and communities to better understand and shape local decision making for emergent bilingual students. Carolina talked to Teach Plus about her work as a teacher leader for the Emergent Bilingual Change Agent Network, her experience as a bilingual student, her decision to continue her advocacy for English learners in her community as an EBCAN Alumni Mobilizer, and more.
Teach Plus: What was your EBCAN (Emergent Bilingual Change Agent Network) project?
Carolina Rodriguez: Our cohort’s thought process was: What is an issue we see at our sites or in our district and what can we do to explore and address it? For instance, there’s a lot of data and information about students who are at early phases of their emerging bilingualism that I’m not getting from their previous teachers. Most of the context is from standardized testing, which is a very traditional way of learning about students. I didn’t think it was enough. Data that would be useful about students that is not accessible through standardized testing are things like the students’ family background, interests, personal goals, past education, performance across content areas in addition to English and math, and strategies that their previous teachers have used that were successful. We were losing out on opportunities to accelerate our students’ learning.
In my Change Agent project, I wanted to focus on how we can document the progress of students in a more holistic manner that includes their interests, involves the student and their family, and is kept centrally in one database so that this information can follow the student and we can then provide it to the next teacher. Through EBCAN and its network of teachers, I learned about an Individualized Language Acquisition Plan that another school had used that had all the components I needed for my work: where the student is language-wise, what the action steps were, and so on. We modified the document and I tried it with a couple students during the 2021 school year. Following this trial run, we were able to collect data on students and set goals for their progress. Now, even when the student leaves my classroom, their data and progress aren’t lost.
TP: Why did you decide to become an instructional coach?
CR: With the work we were doing through the EBCAN cohort, I began to wonder how I could leverage these supports with the rest of my colleagues. I really value collaborative efforts, especially distributive leadership. What better way than to interact with all the middle school teachers at our campus than by becoming a coach? There are some similarities with teaching students. First, I needed to know how to build relationships with my colleagues and second, I had to get to know their different learning styles and what motivates them. My new job has given me a newfound appreciation for the teaching profession, especially as I know how different folks have their own styles of connecting with students.
TP: Do you have a personal relationship with bilingualism? Were you an emerging bilingual student yourself?
CR: I was born in the U.S. and I can’t really tell which language I learned first. I learned Spanish in a way that an English-language learner might have learned English. I grew up in a household that spoke both languages and my elementary schooling was in English, but then my middle school schooling was bilingual.
So I had the benefit of knowing Spanish when I worked with some of my students who are learning English, but not all my students are Spanish-speaking. I’ve had students who speak Vietnamese and other languages that I don’t have access to. This highlighted the need for me to explore this part of my teaching career because I saw a need amongst all ELL populations.
TP: Are there any “aha” moments you had while working on your Change Agent project?
CR: I would say that the most powerful part of the whole cohort experience was when I started to realize my peers all had very similar goals. For example, Jose Rivas is a high school STEM teacher in Lennox, California. I’m a middle school teacher and Jose and I had very similar concerns but different approaches. We both wanted to address issues concerning teacher alignment and collaboration when providing literacy supports for students. His approach was to organize and develop a PLC where STEM teachers create a framework to help with planning, implementing, and peer evaluating live lessons that provide integrated English development. At my site, we modified an Individual Language Acquisition plan and then held several workshops where teachers who had emerging bilingual students in common could share learning data for speaking, listening, reading and writing. They would then plan next steps with their colleagues that would be used in their classrooms at the same time to support an area of need. My “aha” moment was that we could exchange information about our progress and potentially “swap” resources if at the end we were pursuing the same goal.
TP: What made you want to come back as an EBCAN Alumni Mobilizer?
CR: There were several reasons. First, being part of the EBCAN work has helped me to stay focused. There are so many things that we need to address including teacher shortage, COVID-related challenges, and our students’ learning acceleration and social well-being. These issues are all still competitors for our time. EBCAN has really helped me to ground myself and commit the time to continue working on this. Second, EBCAN has helped to continue opening avenues to learn from experts and partners outside of my school building. And third, I want to continue expanding the network of involved educators and with this next phase, expand it beyond teachers. I particularly want to explore the involvement of students and families. Their input can make such a huge difference in our students’ experiences.
TP: What advice would you give to aspiring teacher leaders?
CR: I’m a kid that was raised with Mr. Rogers. He said his mom would tell him: “Look for the helpers.” That would be my advice to teacher leaders: Look for the helpers on your team. They are the people who are going to be invested first. Don’t be afraid to tap them on the shoulder to get their feedback. It’s so important to listen to our colleagues, especially when launching new efforts.
Kathy Pierre is Communications and Media Manager at Teach Plus.