English learners continue to struggle in different learning models, and this is also true of these students at project-based learning schools. These schools, delivering a method of instruction that uses projects for teaching and learning (Markham, 2003), have produced higher achievement for minority students relative to their achievement in comprehensive high schools (California Department of Education, 2008). Yet, these achievement gains are not experienced by the language minority subgroup—English learners (California Department of Education, 2008).
For this project, teachers analyzed student work samples, generated a list of writing errors, selected and implemented instructional strategies to enhance vocabulary and writing, engaged in debriefing sessions to reflect on and make changes to their teaching, and repeated a qualitative action research cycle to see whether student writing would improve as a result of their collaborative work. Between November 2009 and March 2010, I met with four teachers seven times, conducted three observations, communicated with them through email and telephone and interviewed the team using a focus group protocol.
When analyzing the data from my study, four key findings stood out. First, teachers across disciplines were able to effectively reach their English learner students using comprehensive strategies that targeted and identified their specific writing needs. They implemented, modified and repeated cooperative writing strategies such as reasoning and writing in math, vocabulary development and usage, and mechanics and punctuation. Second, a change in the size of the student working groups proved a critical shift that prevented English learners from "hiding" among their English-only peers. The study team changed the group formatting to pairs rather than groups of four, and the teachers accordingly changed their behaviors by interacting with students in pairs using preview questions, calling on students by name, asking students to repeat what others say, prompting them to agree or disagree with their peers, and modeling in order to show students how to use the strategies correctly. Third, according to the study team, collaboration yielded better results than working alone, and the ability of teachers to collaboratively work across disciplines helped them to plan more effectively for English learners. It also allowed for better information-gathering on particular students, making it easier for all teachers to target specific weaknesses across the curriculum. As a further beneficial side effect of collaboration, they developed a new level of professionalism in their relationships with each other. The teachers said they felt that this methodology would serve them as a purposeful strategy to use in the future. Finally, I found that the study team's perceived impact on writing included improved basic writing such as use of topic sentences, transitions, punctuation and organization, an increase in the retention and understanding of academic vocabulary across disciplines, and an increase in student confidence in writing.
These findings resulted from my primary inquiry. I wanted to investigate what would happen if teachers openly shared, discussed and modified strategies and encouraged each other to deepen their inquiry around the following questions: (1) How does a team of content area teachers use and modify instructional strategies in a project-based learning environment to meet the needs of English learners? (2) Does adopting a collaborative teaching strategy appear to enhance or strengthen a culture of collaboration among the teachers? (3) According to teachers, to what extent do the strategies targeting English learners help these students improve their writing?