Utilizing an Online COP: Family, Community, School

A guest post by Christina Cavage
In this blog, Christina Cavage shares the ideas and outcomes resulting from a 6-week online community of practice among educators in Syracuse, New York, USA.

Over the last year, a groundbreaking project was implemented in Syracuse, New York. With the help of a W. K. Kellogg Foundation Grant, teachers and decision-makers participated in a multiphase project to explore ways to engage ELL families in the school and the community in which they live.

Family, Community, School began in Syracuse by gathering K–3 teachers together from three different schools. In the face-to-face meeting, a needs analysis was conducted to assess the effectiveness of current strategies that bridge the gap between ELL families and the schools. Teachers reported that while programs do exist, they were falling short of what could be done. Teachers worked together to brainstorm ways that could better engage families, with little cost to the schools.  After the brainstorming sessions, faculty participated in a 6-week online community of practice (oCoP).

The oCoP represented a true grass roots effort. Teachers exchanged ideas, developed feasible plans that could be carried out at their schools, and supported one another through establishing collaborative partnerships. Several wonderful ideas grew out of the oCoP that would later be implemented.  These include:

  • Family Mentors/Advocates: ELL families would be paired with a host family to help them acclimate to the community and the school.
  • Literacy Programs for Family Members: Establish adult literacy programs for parents in the evening at the school.
  • Welcome Center: Establish a welcome center for ELL families where they would be greeted by multilingual staff.
  • Family Workshops: Organize workshops for families on local community resources.

Teachers left the oCoP excited and ready to move forward with several of their ideas.  Comments made by participants included:

I have…really enjoyed being a part of this exciting Online Community of Practice! As a teacher, I know that I am a lifelong learner. Being given the opportunity to participate in this type of professional community has been awesome! I look forward to participating in more projects like this in the future.”

“As my colleagues have voiced so eloquently, we have truly appreciated and benefited from this online community. We are very lucky and proud of our resources that our library has already started to compile for all of our students but I feel if we follow thru with grant funding our possibilities to be a resource to our families would be fabulous.”

“Thank you and thank you for this opportunity and if there are any more opportunities to do this again please keep me in mind.”

“I have definitely appreciated being part of a larger community that focuses on ELLs and the whole family. I think the other ideas we are developing, and talking about, for our school are definitely within the realm of possibilities.”

“I wanted to add that one thing I’ve enjoyed about this community is we are starting with the practitioners and not top-down. This could prove a worthy model in many areas of education!”

The next phase of the project involved getting the decision-makers on board. Principals gathered face-to-face in Syracuse in August 2015. They were guided through the development of action plans; developed action plans around the feasible, viable ideas that grew out of the oCoP; and participated in a peer review of those plans. The plans were put into action in late September 2015. The Joy School completed several activities that clearly had an impact on the school community. A small sampling of these activities included:

  • Hosting International Night, and providing transportation for the families: An event where diverse cultures are highlighted through food, arts, and conversation.
  • Highlighting a culture of the month: Each month, a new culture is highlighted through visual displays, and readings in K–3 would be inclusive of the culture.
  • Family field trip to local library: Teachers and administrators took ELL students and families on a tour of the local library.
  • Literacy backpacks for families: Backpacks were created with bilingual and literacy reading materials. These are lent out to families.
  • The establishment of a lending library: Literacy books for adults and young learners are housed in a special section of the library for ELL families to borrow.

Overall, with a little brainstorming, collaboration, and dedication, engaging families is possible!

ChristinaCavageChristina Cavage is currently a professor of ESL at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).  Prior to joining SCAD, she served as the department chair of ESL and modern languages at Atlantic Community College in New Jersey.  She is the author of several textbooks, including Next Generation Grammar, and a regular presenter at local, regional, and international TESOL conferences.  In addition to her teaching and writing, Ms. Cavage served as the facilitator for TESOL’s Kellogg Grant, Parts II and III.

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