Photo: L.A. teacher Kelsey CushingLos Angeles teacher Kelsey Cushing discussing her action at a meeting with other Future Is Now Fellows.

Kelsey Cushing, a chemistry teacher at Ramon Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts in Los Angeles, worried about the English-language learners (ELLs) in her class. The school was seeing more than 70% of that population failing at least one subject, and many struggled with behavior issues.

As implementation of the Common Core State Standards proceeds, many teachers have begun to worry about how their students will fare on new assessments intended to align with the standards. This is particularly true for teachers who work with students for whom English is a new language.

For Kelsey, though, this was about more than test scores. “I wanted a way for us to support English-language students while building their confidence to be successful,” she said.

Mastering Vocabulary

Chatting with her fellow teachers, Kelsey and her colleagues worried that many questions on the Common Core-aligned tests require mastery of higher-level vocabulary words that are a particular struggle for many ELLs. Though many of these words — known as Tier 2 words — come up in a variety of different subjects, there was no coordination between teachers about when and how these words were taught.

The teachers began having weekly meetings, and soon they had created a shared list of Tier 2 words along with a 12-week schedule to coordinate their instruction across classrooms.

Tracking and Spreading Success

It may seem self-evident that such a comprehensive strategy would help students master these challenging words. But Kelsey isn’t settling for just the assumption of improvement. Instead, she’s using a quick but effective assessment tool to test the students’ vocab recognition both before and after the lessons.

Being thoughtful about efficacy speaks to Kelsey’s intention that her action will benefit and challenge other teachers to improve learning and engagement for their students.

“If we’re successful, vocabulary will become part of the professional development plan for our school in the future. Departments will plan interdisciplinary activities, lessons, and units,” she says.

“Our vocabulary plan could become a model for other schools and for the district.”