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Enduring connections from my Fulbright experience: A grass-roots story

Katy_Arnett_Day_2Since I was an undergraduate, I’ve been fascinated by the philosophies, politics, and practices of teaching a second language (in my case, French) to students who have language-based learning disabilities/difficulties in their first language (in this case, English).  This interest followed me through graduate school, into the classroom when I taught at the high school level, and now in my work as a professor in teacher education.  Because my interest in this area has mixed the languages of French and English, Canada has always been my preferred context exploring this question from a research standpoint and when trying to expand best practices in this particular field.  My strong connection to this work was deepened through my recent experience as a Fulbright Scholar and has led to new opportunities to make this connection deeper still.

Fredericton is a small city with lots of small town connections, which to me, was definitely a factor in my decision to base my Fulbright experience there.   I’d worked with teachers (and the UNB) in the Fredericton area before, and I’d been impressed by the positive collaborations between the K-12 schools and the UNB group with whom I was working during my Fulbright experience.  In perhaps a stroke of luck, 2012-2013 saw the beginning of a renewed interest at the provincial level in ‘inclusive education.’ A report had been commissioned and published in the months prior to my arrival, looking at how inclusion was being addressed in New Brunswick schools and what could be done better.  In the FSL community, it did not escape notice that FSL programs did not get a lot of attention in the report, even though, in recent years, there has been a push within FSL—particularly French immersion programs—to better respond to a wider range of learner needs in their classrooms.

Aware of this omission, two leaders of a school district’s French immersion program saw an opportunity to advance the program’s dialogue about inclusion.  They were both aware of my presence at UNB (thanks to small-town connections and a good reputation of my previous work), and approached me with some ideas about how we could work together.   The crux of their challenges was this:  despite increasing interest and support of inclusive teaching within French immersion, teachers in the program still encountered difficulty in implementing these principles.  How have teachers worked around these difficulties to be inclusive?  How could we enhance/support their efforts to take their work ‘to the next level’?

Though I enjoy traditional research, I felt that this question required an application of action research principles.  We already knew that students with learning disabilities and other specialized learning needs could learn another language (thanks to previous research in the field).   We already knew from other previous research what some of the teachers’ difficulties were in implementing inclusive teaching practices.   What we didn’t know was what teachers had been doing, in spite of these challenges, to be more inclusive in their French immersion classrooms.  We (the two French immersion leaders and I) wanted to figure out what these teachers needed to further strengthen their efforts to be inclusive.

The short version of the story is this:  With support from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development of New Brunswick, the three of us were able to bring together a group of teachers and literacy support specialists in immersion to begin to address this challenge.  For the first few months, I collected data from the teachers about their experiences, so that I could situate their needs within the larger literature, but also discover entry points to the solutions.  We met as a group to review resources and have frank, professional discussions about the challenges of supporting student learning needs in French immersion.  I took their feedback and used it to begin to either identify other resources or create ones they felt to be missing from their toolbox.  The success of our work in the first 5 months of our project led the Department of Education to continue our funding until the end of March, 2014.

During this current academic year, one of the leaders and I have continued work on the project.  I’ve been back to Fredericton once this fall and will go back twice this winter to get some ‘on-the-ground-time’ with the teachers; otherwise, we remain connected through Skype, email, and the occasional phone call.  Some of the teachers have had to leave the project, and we picked up some others.  We are currently in the midst of piloting some of the documents/resources I’ve developed in response to their needs, to see if they will work in the day-to-day chaos of classroom teaching.  I’m also building, with their input and contributions, the start of a mock website that could potentially be shared with the entire province as a starting point for providing FI teachers with the information and resources they need to be more inclusive.

Some of the data that have been collected in this project could find their way into a research paper, but admittedly, that’s not my focus at this point.   This project, in the months that remain, is really about trying to make a difference in the lives of students, using the collective wisdom of a talented group of teachers as the guiding force.  With my co-leader (a talented doctoral candidate at UNB who is seconded to the university from the school board at the moment), our role is to be the sounding boards, the touchstones, and the conduits for the energy and expertise of the teachers.  From our standpoint, this project is showing the benefits of school-university partnerships, but also the value of empowering teachers to help create solutions to challenges from the bottom-up.

Katy is an Associate Professor of Educational Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Katy was a 2012-2013 Fulbright Scholar at the  Second Language Research Institute of Canada (L2RIC) at the University of New Brunswick.

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