Unveiling Language Learning Challenges with Mandi Morris

Embark on an insightful conversation with Mandi Morris, the National Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Flashlight Learning, as she discusses the intricate landscape of teaching English as a second language. Explore the challenges in secondary English learning education, from resource scarcity to teacher turnover, while emphasizing the pivotal role educators play in shaping learners’ identities and the importance of building strong relationships within the education system.

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[00:00:00] Justin Hewett: Mandi has supported language learners across the nation and internationally over her 18 year education career with a sustained curiosity for learning and a desire to build community at the heart of her work. She’s been an elementary classroom teacher, a sixth grade ELA and humanities teacher, middle grades ELD specialist.

A K 12 ELD coordinator and an international teacher in South Korea and Bahrain. She is currently working as the National Curriculum and Instructional Specialist at Flashlight Learning. Mandi earned her bachelor’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages from Liberty University and a master’s in TESOL from the University of Central Florida.

Both of these degrees were a combination of applied linguistics, language learning, and acquisition methodologies, theory, and research. Mandi Morris, welcome to the ML chat podcast. What a pleasure to have you on today.

[00:00:58] Mandi Morris: Thank you, Justin. I’m really excited to be here and talk with you today.

[00:01:03] Justin Hewett: Hey, this is not your first time on the ML chat podcast because you have been co hosting it with me and we’ve had a lot of fun, doing that and had some great conversations with amazing people across the nation.

But now we get to turn the tables and we get to have fun getting to know you a little bit better and diving into, to your journey and what’s brought you to, to serving English learners and to be really passionate about this work. I’m really excited to dive into that. And so we’re going to go there, but before we do that, let’s start with where you are today and what you’re doing today.

You know right now you’re the national curriculum and instructional specialist at flashlight learning. What does that mean? What do you do? For flashlight and maybe just walk us through that a little bit and give everyone some background

[00:01:50] Mandi Morris: Yeah, this position is really incredible because it’s so responsive to The needs that we hear from teachers So a big project that we have been working on recently is making sure we have equity in our resources, that as many resources we have for teachers that are in English, they’re also translated into Spanish.

And it’s work like that is really exciting about this role and that it’s just really meeting the immediate needs we hear from teachers. Another project that we added this year is the scope and sequence work that we’re doing. Again, that came from a need we were hearing from teachers. Students need prompts.

They need scaffolds to drive discipline rich language that is aligned and mapped to content. So like, all right, we’re going to do it. And we’re growing that. A lot of schools have the vision. Schools are catching the vision of that. In addition to that, I support our training modules that we offer for teachers, expanding those again, in a responsive way that meets the needs of the teachers.

And we’re always just wondering how can we do better to be more responsive to those needs. So that’s what my day looks like at Flashlight.

[00:03:01] Justin Hewett: I love it. I love it. And I love hearing you talk about, aligning with, the content that students are working on in their classroom anyways, right?

It’s interesting. We spent a lot of years at Imagine Learning. I was at Imagine for 11 years and one of the interesting things for us, there is, we would get questions about is the content that students are going through and imagine learning aligned with what we’re doing in the classroom and the answer was always no, but it’s maybe, it’s, scaffolding and it’s helping give them what they need right now in their development.

But we now know, golly, like there is just so much value and it’s so important to align to what students are doing in the classroom. Why is that, Mandi? Like why is that important that it’s not just let’s pull the student and let’s go over here and we’ll just focus on language, right here in this independent, isolated, situation.

Why is it important that maybe we’re not doing that as much anymore?

[00:03:55] Mandi Morris: When we think about language acquisition, you’ll hear the expression vocabulary is king. And. There’s been a push for sure in the last handful of years to really explicitly teach vocabulary and have teaching instruction that is very structured around the way that we teach content vocabulary.

And if you think about it, as a language learner yourself you can communicate your ideas pretty effectively or effectively enough, even if your grammar is horrible. horrible. So your verb tenses can be all over the place, but if you have the vocabulary to link your ideas together, you can get your ideas across.

And when we think about, okay, so we know students need vocabulary. There’s all that basic language kids need when they’re first learning a language or anyone needs in their first learning language. That’s like that emergent language that you need. But once you get past that in the first. And so when students are watching their first six to 12 to 15 months, students need the vocabulary that they’re seeing in content so that they can feel confident and they can feel like those classes are accessible to them.

So when ELD classrooms or ELD instruction, stays separated from content past that emergent language stage, students are really at risk of being separated from the vocabulary that they need in order to have success in those grade level core content, discipline, rich classrooms. Us being able to map that and bridge that together is so powerful for students that their instruction can be linked while they’re learning language, they’re learning the content they need for success in their 10th grade bio class.

That’s really powerful.

[00:05:40] Justin Hewett: How do you make connections otherwise, right? That’s ultimately at the end of the day. Language is about being able to understand and being able to communicate and if we’re not, giving our students the opportunity to align their language learning with the content that they’re studying and learning they’re not going to be able to understand or communicate about it.

Yeah it’s a Pretty natural connection there. I think that that we’re really seeing happen a lot across the country right now. There’s an increased focus there. It seems and it’s been fun to feel like we’re on the cutting edge of that and working with them to provide content, provide images that really allow.

The ability to get language in the air, which I love that concept around, the, these different content. Mandi what in particular brought you to serving English learners? Like where did that start? I know you are super passionate about our SIFE or SLIFE students and newcomers and our second day.

Like you are so passionate about this work. But where did it start? Like where, what drew you to this? Were you in, when, did you have a good friend when you were like, how did you come to this work? We’d love to hear about that.

[00:06:48] Mandi Morris: I think it’s something that developed over time. I, when I often will say when I’ve been asked that question, I read a book in fourth grade about a little girl from England whose family moved to China and I was so enraptured by that story.

story. I grew up in a small town and honestly wasn’t surrounded or around a lot of different languages or cultures or people who didn’t look and talk and do a lot of the same things that my family did. And I was like, wow, you can do that. That is just so cool. And when I was, after I read that book, when I was about nine, I told my mom, when I grew up, I’m moving to China.

And she said, no, you’re not. And I moved to South Korea, so not exactly China. But I think that put a little seed in me at a very young age of just wow, that there’s actually like a really big world out there. And then in middle school, I had a really incredible opportunity.

To spend some time in South America and Bolivia. It was a missionary trip that was really focused on doing, and we were, building a church floor and, really doing acts of service. And that was another moment that just imprinted on me. Like this world is so big and connecting with people not like me is just the most beautiful, humbling.

incredible experience. And I want to do that for the rest of my life. And then in college, I had joked in our last podcast, I did nursing for a year and a half and I hate blood. It’s just not a good fit. And I stumbled upon the TESOL department just by accident really. And I was like, wow, I can get a degree in teaching English.

And I could take that degree and move overseas. And Yeah, this is my thing. And I have never looked back. It’s just been an incredible opportunity to be able to connect with people from all over the world, and I am just always humbled by stories from my students and their families. I feel very blessed that I.

I made that switch in college, and it’s been a great fit.

[00:08:50] Justin Hewett: We had such a fun conversation with Connie Cisneros, the ELD director, EL director in Temple, and she was telling us about their amazing CTE program there, and I had joked that it’s too bad that you weren’t able to go through your, do some nursing while you were still in high school, like a lot of their kids are able to do.

I Want to know what this book is you read when you were in fourth grade. What what book was this? Do you remember by chance?

[00:09:16] Mandi Morris: The Little Green Frog. And it was about a girl, her parents were missionaries, and I don’t remember all the details of the book now. It was a really long time ago. But it just it’s incredible the things that stick with you from childhood that at that moment might not seem that significant, but all of these years later, almost 30 years later, it’s like that moment, that piece of literature, and it impacted my life.

[00:09:45] Justin Hewett: Oh, totally. I’m sitting here thinking I’ve got to go and see what books my fourth grader is reading right now. I’ve got a fourth grader. What is being imprinted there that’s going to last with him forever? That is amazing that your mom says, no, you’re not. And then you end up when South Korea, you end up.

at Bahrain. What an amazing experience. Tell us a little bit about that. What was that like teaching English, as a foreign language, living in these other countries? How formative was

[00:10:13] Mandi Morris: that for you? incredible experience. So in South Korea, I was teaching English as a foreign language.

And then in Bahrain was teaching English at an international school. So quite different experiences in Bahrain. I was a sixth grade humanities teacher. So our entire school was in English all day long. It was a K through 12 system. Every single class was taught in English. And our students had been immersed in English from the time they were in nursery at three years.

So they’re fluent, bilingual trilingual students often in south korea, I was really young and it was Again, just such an incredible experience. It was hard. I taught five hours of kindergarten and then had a 45 minute break and taught three and a half hours of elementary school students in the afternoon.

Like boom. One class after another out of the 12 month period, we had seven days that we had off work because there were like no real holidays. So it was an incredible experience. We wanted to stay longer. But we were halfway through our masters at the University of Central Florida. So I was taking as many online classes as I could while I was in South Korea.

I ran out of online classes and needed to be on campus in Orlando. We came back from South Korea and then I started a public school here in Central Florida and was there for four years.

[00:11:37] Justin Hewett: Wow, cool. How amazing. What neat life experiences that And I can imagine that’s given you a lot of fun perspectives as you came back and you plugged into the, our K 12, public school district, system.

So you, you started working in Florida and then how did you end up making your way to Oregon? Because I know that you ended up making your way to TTSD, Tiger Tualatin School District.

[00:11:59] Mandi Morris: So as we were in Florida for four years, my husband’s also a teacher. We were on this journey together and we lived by the beach.

We were on a bike ride. Our son was about one and I remember I looked over and I was like, we should move overseas. wE’ve been talking about it a lot. And it was this moment of if we’re going to do it, we just got to do it. Or we’re just going to keep talking about it. And I told him, I don’t think I want to move to Africa or the Middle East.

Because we had a one year old and I thought I just, I want to be somewhere where it doesn’t Feel maybe so unfamiliar that it would be overwhelming. I was my first child. You’re a new mom And then we got offered jobs in countries in africa in the middle east so We ended up in the middle east we went for two years Amazing experience.

I had some of the students who have imprinted on my life. I actually, this summer we were in London for my mom for a family trip. A student, a former student of ours from the Middle East saw on Josh’s Instagram that we were in London. messaged us and said, What hotel are you at? I’m in London in law school.

I have to see you and we haven’t seen her since 2016. It was incredible. We went and had coffee and cinnamon buns together. It was amazing. Just the most incredible students. So we were there for two years and then we went from there to Portland, Oregon and we were in the TTSD system over there.

We were there for five years. And again, just an incredible place. I learned a lot about being an educator and leader in TTSD. That is so

[00:13:39] Justin Hewett: cool. What an amazing experience. That’s amazing. How cool that you got to meet up with your student in London. Are you kidding me? What a neat, like tender mercy, just neat experience that you weren’t expecting.

That’s really cool. So then you go to Portland and you’re working in in TTSD and you end up in leadership. And so it’s fun to go through and hear your journey here. I want to switch gears just a little bit, still talking about a journey, but instead I want to talk about.

An English learner’s journey or a multilingual learner’s journey. I know this is something that, a lot of educators spend a lot of time thinking about and trying to figure out how do we provide the best experiences possible. But I know this is something that, that you think a lot about and that you’re really passionate about trying to figure out.

How do we make that journey better? But regardless, to some degree it is what it is. Maybe talk to us just a little bit about that if you don’t mind. And maybe you learned that in Portland or maybe you went, through that experience in Portland.

But we’d love to hear a little bit more about your perspective on the journey that our students go through.

[00:14:43] Mandi Morris: The way students perceive themselves in school as learners, is incredibly important, and I don’t know that as teachers we sit in that space and think about that enough. School was really hard for me.

And I think that I’m not a language learner, but just school was hard for me. And I’ll make the connection here, but I was homeschooled for A lot of growing up. And it was great. Like I got to hang out with my mom and we made banana bread and we would go to the library. It was a very casual experience.

But then I like actually went to school and was like, Oh. I can’t really read, or I can’t spell I, I can’t do basic math I can’t do the things that you have to do to be successful in school. anD that carried with me that feeling behind carried with me. All the way through and even into college.

And it’s something that imprinted in me the way you see yourself as a learner. And I remember being in college and looking around the classroom and thinking, all these people know what they’re supposed to do, and I literally have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I have the notebook, I have the text aNd it was always trying to catch up and trying to watch others and see what they were doing and mirror it so that I could try to feel like one of them. So even though I was not a language learner, once I became an ELD specialist, I realized pretty early on working with language learners Oh, , I get that.

They’re doing what I was constantly doing as a learner. I was looking around and trying to figure out, what am I supposed to do here? And I think it gave me empathy for my students over the years because I knew the story you tell yourself matters. So when you look around and it feels like everybody else is smarter, Everybody else is more successful.

If you tell yourself the story that I can’t do it, I’m not like them, I don’t have the smarts they have or the skills or the access they have, or if you tell yourself, I don’t have it now, but I can, and that you believe in yourself, that story matters, your perception matters. So I think, Teachers have so much power in shaping the story that students tell themselves and I experienced that as a learner because I had teachers who were willing to see past my failing grades and that I really had the want and the desire to and I was willing to work hard for it, but I really needed help because I wasn’t successful.

I wasn’t having success in school. So I think that’s a message that’s important. ELD specialists are advocates. We have a lot on our shoulders. We’re teachers, we’re language specialists, we’re a bridge between content and language. But at the end of the day, we’re advocates. Our students have to feel like we believe in them and we believe in the story that they tell themselves and that we can shape that in a growth mindset way.

[00:17:41] Justin Hewett: I love that idea and that thinking about identity, for our English learners and thinking about how do they perceive themselves and. For some people, if they make a mistake, it’s not a big deal. They don’t even think twice about it. They just correct themselves and move on or other people that make a mistake and they dwell on it and they think about it and they like rehash it over and over again.

And part of that is just like the identity that we have for ourselves. Some kids are just they are excelling and doing great things, but yet in their minds, they’re not quite reaching it right because they feel like they have to be perfect and, they might make a mistake every now and again, right?

And there’s a struggle there. So it is interesting how much our identity and the way that we perceive the way that we talk to ourselves, the way that we think about ourselves, how much that impacts the experience that we have each day. One of the things that we’ve really focused on a lot at flashlight has been trying to focus on the gain instead of the gap, right?

Dr. Benjamin Hardy with Dan Sullivan, wrote a book called the gap in the game. And one of the things that I’ve just, it’s really impacted me is because a lot of times I’m wired to look at the gap and look at Where I am compared to where I want to be. And a lot of times that can drag us down a bit, that can be a weight on us.

It also can drive us to a degree, but it’s a negative drive a little bit, where if I pause for a second, I look at where I’ve come from. Now I get to see how all the progress I’ve made now. I’m now I’m in the game because I can be confident about what I’ve done. I can look back and see the progress that I made and have the confidence that I can make more progress in the future.

And I just wonder how much of an impact, that has on our students what do you think are some good strategies for teachers to think about, Mandi, with when it comes to this and, or maybe some things that just can help them be more aware of what they’re doing or what they.

Can do and what they can say that can positively impact our students

[00:19:40] Mandi Morris: I think it’s really important to take the time to Reflect on your own story and to think about who are the people in your life Who saw the gain when you didn’t think about how powerful that is the teachers the You know, it could be your mom.

It could be your spouse It could be a friend but the people in your life that have been able to say to you When you’ve needed it, look at everything that you have accomplished. Look at all of these strengths that you have that are going to help you to get to this next space. When you know your own story, and you can see how people have imprinted on you and have helped you to see the gain in your own life.

I think that it empowers you as an educator to be able to do that for others as well. And when you feel that gratitude, we know there’s so much science and research behind how gratitude fills us up and hopefully it allows us to fill our cup up so that we can do that for the students in our classroom as well.

I do really believe in specific feedback. I early in my teaching career, so I graduated college at 20, and I had my first teaching job at 20, and I turned 21 about a month into my first teaching job. I was teaching 6th grade language arts right outside of Washington, D. C., and, I was like, I put the stickers of good job that was my feedback.

Well done. And it took a while into my teaching career to realize like that’s not helpful. Like it might feel good for a moment but it’s not really helping students to grow in specific and meaningful ways. That’s something that I love about flashlight is that our platform is explicitly built in order to give feedback and to set goals for students.

But that specific feedback is so powerful for students. And I think another piece of this is understanding rigor. So we, as educators, I taught in a title one school for years here in central Florida, like I had mentioned earlier, and I had a lot of students from very disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, and there were.

There were cross paths in my own journey as an educator where I felt bad and I just wanted to make it easy because it felt better in the moment to make it easy than to do the harder thing, which was to keep the rigor and build the student up to the rigor. And there are times in my career when I did the easy thing.

I made it easier in the moment, which did nothing to help that student in the long run. And that’s something that ELD specialists are very familiar with that struggle of keeping the rigor high so that we are building students up, give them the feedback, set the goals they need in order to meet success so that they can feel that, feel empowered by that success over time.

[00:22:30] Justin Hewett: It strikes me as an opportunity for students When they rise up to the level of those, those standards, those expectations, that then they get to see the gain that they’ve made. They get to see their growth, which in turn will give them the confidence to Take on additional challenges in the future where on the other hand if they’re not able to go through that You know that struggle we hear, you know called the productive struggle It never feels productive in the moment but but to let the students go through that struggle and and to be able to grow and it’s interesting in all parts of our life growth is not easy like a lot of us Like, are we still growing, right?

Are we struggling ourselves to make sure that we’re continuing to you know, sharpen our saw and be the best that we can be and, it makes me think about weightlifting and they talk about how if you lift weights what you’re really doing is like breaking your muscle fibers when you lift and then they have to go heal back up.

That’s painful. Maybe that’s why I don’t do it. I need to do more of that. That’s I got some work to do there. I want to talk a little bit about our, our multilingual learners experience of being in school systems where, they’ve really been built on this idea of quiet classrooms, right?

Everyone on task, right? Tell me, how does that work for our English learners, Mandi if they’re in a classroom like that, trying to build language, they gotta use it, right? Tell, talk to me a little bit about that, that experience and what we need to do to maybe make some shifts there.

[00:24:08] Mandi Morris: All people who are learning need to be able to talk. It is a way that we process. It is a way that we, Learn from one another and we’re actually really teaching our students as well in that process the soft skills That they need for success later in life. I mean think about how much of your career in sales is soft skills It’s the communication skills, right?

and we should be practicing those purposefully in the classroom and I mean I You know, any ELD specialist or anyone who works with language learners, they know this very well. You have, English learners are so good at hiding in the classroom. They are just by middle school, they are experts at hiding in the classroom.

And in elementary school, English learners are a little bit more willing. to do the hand But you do that so many t your answer wasn’t right called on somebody who co perceived as better or mo you stop doing that by mi it just doesn’t feel good We have to think more creatively, and teachers are thinking more creatively about this.

But how are we engaging students in that productive struggle, in productive domains, in speaking and writing? And it’s not turn and talk, where you just tell kids, okay, turn and talk to your partner. And they’re talking about what happened on the way to the bus stop in the morning, it’s, it has to be structured.

So if we want students to be engaged in academic language, then there has to be accountability for not only how are they engaging, but how are they listening to their partner who is also engaging and then responding. So there’s that, we’re teaching in the back and forth it has to be structured. It has to be explicit and it needs to be a regular part of the classroom all throughout the day.

not just in an ELD space, not just when students are pulled out or when there’s a co teaching class, but all day long. And that norm is set from a district and from a principal down. So can we have classrooms that are doing that really successfully? A hundred percent. But if the student is in my sixth period class, and there’s an expectation that you will engage in productive conversation that is structured.

That is rich with vigor with rigorous academic language. But then the rest of the day, there’s no expectation. The impact for that student is not nearly as significant as it can be when there’s the expectation all throughout the day.

[00:26:49] Justin Hewett: It makes me think about who is doing the work, right? We build capacity by doing the work. Who is doing the work in that classroom? And maybe the work in that moment is You know, talking and using their language, maybe it’s, maybe it’s something else. But I think that whoever is doing the work is the, is the person who gets to learn the most in that moment, it feels like.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m also thinking about other misconceptions, that might be out there for teachers that, are serving our multilingual learners or maybe they, maybe their English learners who are also, SIFE or SLIFE students what other misconceptions you think are out there, Mandi, besides, super quiet on task classrooms, what are misconceptions you think of when you think about our SIF and SLIF students and maybe our secondary English learners?

[00:27:37] Mandi Morris: I think one of the biggest misconceptions that comes to mind that I. I’m very hopeful is, has, there’s a lot of work that’s been shifted in this in recent years. But the misconception of it’s the ELD specialist job to fix that or figure that out. And that siloed approach is not at all. productive for our students, we have to work as a community.

So getting rid of that misconception so many times over my career in the classroom, I would have, a content teacher come to me and say, so and so has a test on Thursday on fill in the blank, and I need you to get him ready. It’s that’s not the purpose of this class. We have learning objectives.

We have content objectives. We have language objectives. And the request comes from a place of the teacher feeling like I want him to have success and I don’t know how to do it. So it comes from I think, often it is coming from a good place, but it’s just misconceptions about. This is your responsibility and not mine.

So I think undoing that misconception is so important and that is, it’s a big task because it means that our core content teachers need a lot of training around what how to support English language learners in their classroom. And we have to bridge those relationships between ELD specialists and grade level teachers.

You mentioned secondary, and this is a real passion of mine, having been a content teacher and also an ELD specialist in secondary. When we think about students with interrupted formal education or limited formal education, and students who are new to the country, so they’re coming with very emerging language skills in the secondary level.

Depending on the size of your School district and the resources you have, it is very overwhelming to solve for, it’s overwhelming for the counselors, for the teachers, for the ELD staff because often it’s like, where do we start? How do we help these students feel successful? When they’re really still learning the language of.

Like that really emerging language that you learn at the beginning, right? And it takes a lot of creativity. So I would say a misconception is that it’s impossible to put your hands up and to say, we can’t solve for this. We don’t have the staffing. We don’t have the budget. We don’t have the resources to do it.

If you take a step back and you find willing partners. It could be a 9th grade ELA teacher. It could be a 10th grade history teacher. Find willing partners and start small. Start building small. And you can grow a system to support these students in your high school.

[00:30:28] Justin Hewett: It’s amazing to me how important those connections are, right?

And just people taking You know, some level of responsibility and opportunity, I’m thinking about, the teacher approaching you and saying, Hey, I need you to get this student ready for this test that’s coming up and teach this. And it’s just interesting, it seems like we’re seeing a significant shift in, English learner services, if you will, across the nation of more co teaching now more than ever.

And, it feels like to me that, as you’re talking about our Cypress Life students, just there at the end in, finding that ninth grade history teacher or whatever it might be to like, Be a partner in this student’s journey, and it’s just interesting to me how it feels like co teaching helps with a lot of these pieces and really, prevents the silos of where we started our conversation.

They were students are pulled out and working on, independent language skills and, that aren’t connected to the classroom. It feels like those connections are just have really become paramount. Yeah. Is that why you think that co teaching is really becoming more prevalent across the nation right now, Mandi?

[00:31:40] Mandi Morris: I think so. I think there’s a greater understanding that co teaching not only works well for students who are newcomers to SIFE’s life, but it also is really supporting students on the other side of that. that have been our advanced language learners, our experienced language learners that still haven’t met the scores on their state language assessment.

But we see students in 10th and 11th grade, they’ve been in ELD since kindergarten. And when they are able to be in a co setting environment or co teaching environment, Where it can count for their ELD, their required ELD minutes, but they still have all of those slots in their schedule available for electives, available for opportunities that can help them think more broadly about what careers are available to me after high school.

What might I want to study in college? It’s a great support for students all across the journey, the language learning journey. I will say for students who are SIFE, SLIFE, recently arrived in the United States in the high school level, they do have really specific language needs. So those students are going to need explicit language instruction in a different way than our advanced language learners who, just have not met that criteria on WIDA but have, are advanced language learners.

But I think that is a big reason and I hear from school districts that it’s sometimes difficult to get disciplined teachers on board with co teaching because they’re worried about the workload, they’re worried about how am I going to learn this new skill. We have to have a growth mindset when we are thinking about co teaching.

Start with your willing partners, find pockets where teachers are willing. to partner with the ELD specialist, and then once you have teacher advocates in your building, you can grow the program from there.

[00:33:41] Justin Hewett: It’s fun to hear you unpack that and think through that, Mandi. One thing I just realized is we’ve been using the term syphon’s life. And I think there’s probably I don’t want to take for granted that everybody knows what our education acronyms mean. Do you mind maybe unpacking that and talking a little bit about those students?

[00:34:02] Mandi Morris: Yes, so SIFE students with interrupted formal education in SLIFE. students with limited or interrupted formal education. Different states seem to use one acronym over the other. I was just talking with a director this week who was here in Florida where I live and was noting that they are having the state of Florida, especially South Florida, is having a huge influx of students who.

have left Venezuela years ago, moved into Peru and Bolivia, eventually made their way north and eventually to Florida. And these students have left school, in fifth or sixth grade and are just coming back to school and not in their heritage language, coming to school in English. This is complicated and it’s not something that feels like You want a quick fix because we have kids lives in our hands, right?

And we really want a quick fix. The reality is language learning takes years, five to seven years. And I’ve heard some, there’s some movement on that, that maybe it’s really more like six to nine years it takes to really become. What would be considered proficient to a native speaker to be able to access content like a native speaker would be able to it takes time.

We have to have grace for ourselves, grace for our students, the teachers that we teach with, we need grace for one another. And at the end of the day, the student has to be the center of the conversation. Adults get in the way sometimes of creative programming. Schedules at high school get in the way of creative programming.

Start with the students who have the highest need and build your entire high school schedule around those students. Does that mean that we have to re think the way that we’ve done things. If you’ve been doing it the same way for this many years, is it uncomfortable? It’s very uncomfortable. Is it going to take more time?

It will. But it’s the right thing to do to build our schedules around the students with the highest need. And we’ve just got to get creative and keep the student at the center of the conversation.

[00:36:09] Justin Hewett: Oh so helpful. And what a great perspective to start with the students with the highest need.

yeAh, let’s build our product, our programming around. How to meet their needs. And then everything else will probably fall into place anyways, where if you do everything else first, there’s not as much room to be able to fit that in. It’s interesting. It reminds me a lot of the importance of having high hope to lead to change.

And it just is interesting to think that, ultimately when our students come into us, like we need to have high hope for them, helping them see, that they’re going to have a bigger future than their past and that they’ve got, great opportunities ahead of them and catch that vision.

I, that really resonated with me being able to have. These electives and if they don’t, then it can really, prevent them from learning what maybe that, what they might want to do for career when they’re done here. And when they get out of school I want to switch gears here just a minute and think about, the role of

progress monitoring and being able to help with that, right? I think that we see progress monitoring in a lot of different, places in our education system. And I know that, for you. You actually were pretty engaged in helping build a progress TTSD with Tim Blackburn, our other co host here on the ML chat podcast.

Shout out Tim. Tim is awesome. And I know that, you were working together and building a progress monitoring tool for, for TTSD to use. Maybe talk a little bit about, if you don’t mind, maybe first, I want to dive into the progress monitoring tool in general but why is that an important piece to this equation, to being able to help our English learners, our SIFE, our SLIFE students, our secondary English learners we obviously have a lot of different students that we can work with, but why is progress monitoring for this group of students important?

[00:38:03] Mandi Morris: In general, in schools, just thinking about tier one instruction, even we have. a lot of data around reading. That is generally a space where school districts, broadly speaking, have a lot of data around reading. Writing, it seems to tend, it seems to depend on the school district. I’ve worked in some school districts that have really strong systems for writing and for feedback around writing and building students up for college preparedness and writing.

And then other school districts where it’s It’s just like an add on thing that some teachers do as a classroom by classroom and others don’t. When it comes to speaking, this is something as an English language development teacher where I had my one data point a year for my state language assessment that I got in the summer.

So that was after, as a secondary teacher, you’re planning what classes your students are going to be enrolled in. You’re doing that before summer break. And then you’re getting your data back in the summer, which should be informing how you’re placing them for the following school year, but you don’t have it yet.

So now you come back in August or September, depending on where you are in the nation and when your school year starts, right? And you’re scrambling with the counselors trying to redo schedules because now you have this data back. That would have been great to have had in May. And it was just, honestly, it was a piece that we felt blind.

You hear ELD specialists say all the time, so and so is in the hallway hanging out and talking with his friends. I do not understand why he’s not passing. Fill in your state language assessment, ELPA, WIDA, well, that’s really different language, right? And that’s something that we have to understand.

Social language is completely different from content language. And when we have. systems in our school that are literally were built around sit down and be quiet and be a good learner, which means be a quiet learner. We have not created opportunities for students to even engage in practice and that content rich language because of this progress monitoring is an incredibly powerful tool for productive language for English learners.

Some school districts have been creating their own. Like what you mentioned, Tim and I were doing that in TTSD. We saw a need, our teachers saw a need. Teachers, the teachers in TTSD are outstanding, the ELD specialists. And in a lot of ways we’re like leading this charge, but then also it was the capacity.

Like, how do they have the time to build something from scratch? And Tim and I engaged in that work together for years. And I learned so much from him and. and continue to. But having that data throughout the school year informs instruction and allows us to target instruction so that we can see those incremental and then categorical gains for our students.

[00:40:52] Justin Hewett: And then you understand where they are today, that, that progress that they’ve made we can look at the gain, what we talked about earlier, we can see where we’re going still. And, what more needs to maybe fall in place or come in place. I love that as far as, unpack, unpacking that and thinking about it.

Let’s go to when you and Tim were, we’re really engaged in, working and building that progress monitoring tool with the other ELD. Teachers, it sounds like in TTSD, how much work was that to build? What did it take to put that together where you could actually start using it? It

[00:41:26] Mandi Morris: was a lot of work.

It was a significant amount of work. And I know I, I, over the years I’ve talked to, other. Directors, coordinators who have engaged in trying to build their own progress monitoring tool. It’s a lot of work to build and it’s a lot of work to maintain. And of course you’ve got to have teacher buy in.

That’s another big piece of any progress monitoring tool is that you need teachers to understand the why and then To practice with the tool to implement the tool and understand the value of the data It takes a lot of coaching and professional learning To so that teachers are on that journey with you and you’re not doing it alone as a director or a coordinator, right?

So super clear communication just reiterating the why and then teacher feedback in that process is so powerful. If teachers are expressing like, this did not hit the mark for us, this did not meet our expectations. How can we adapt it to make sure that teachers voices are empowered in this process, that they are alongside in the process?

So yeah, building on your own is a big job. Something that I love about flashlight learning is that. Not only do we have so many images to spark productive language, but then we can add images. So we get requests all the time from teachers that I love, a really common book in middle school is House on Mango Street.

That was a request that came in this summer. And then our incredible artist, Jim made these beautiful images for students to be able to talk about. The book they’re reading in class. So that is a really neat piece of our platform. And then having the feedback and the goals that are built in, I think that’s another piece that’s hard when you’re building it on your own.

It’s hard to build all of the components to have the goals, to systematize the feedback, the rubrics. And of course. We’ve done that building on our end so we can help school districts that don’t have the capacity to do it on their own.

[00:43:22] Justin Hewett: And I just, I’m thinking, I feel like when I was talking with Tim about this, I feel as you were building, there was a lot of like night time work on this and weekends and it was You know, during the holidays, I, that this work was being done, because really it was in addition to your, your day to day responsibilities really of, being an ELD instructional specialist or coordinator or whatever that might be.

Is that, am I remembering that right? Or, were you able to just do this? Throughout the day, you know during your regular workday.

[00:43:58] Mandi Morris: Yeah. I know this was definitely like a weekend holiday break and night It’s totally accurate Because it’s a huge undertaking when a school district is building this out on their own Yeah, I know you are on point

[00:44:15] Justin Hewett: but it’s been interesting, you know being on this flashlight journey and building Flashlight 360 because, ultimately we’re trying to figure out, the best way to build this tool and, put different pieces in place.

And so it’s interesting whenever we would find a district that had taken the time to go build their own, it was amazing how, like, when they, it was so fun to learn from them, but it was also interesting to be able to compare notes and. Some things that had become easy for us because of the way that we had built ours.

It would be like, Oh my gosh, I wish I had that in my, it was just so fun. We had, it was it was really neat, like comparing, what they had done, how we had built ours. And but it is interesting to think about, all the work that can go into building that out. And then you’ve got that resource.

Does it take much, once you’ve got it built is it done, do you feel like, at that point, or does it require a lot of ongoing maintenance and adjustments, or is it, once you get it done, you’re done, and you’re ready to rock and roll?

[00:45:14] Mandi Morris: I think anything you implement as a school district, there’s always the danger of The belief behind it, the power behind it can leave with the person who is spearheading the work and that, that can apply to a lot of different things and it can definitely apply to progress monitoring.

And I think that’s why it’s so important that if you’re, whether you’ve built some, a program like that on your own or you’re implementing something like flashlight is having the buy in of your entire community. Because when something is like. Charged by one person. If that one person leaves, it can fall apart.

It can dissolve. People didn’t catch the belief behind it. I think, when you’re building your own system, maintenance can be challenging as well. Because if the person who was building the thing moved into a different position or moved to a different school, School district. Now you’re like, where did those Google Drive docs go?

Oh my gosh, we lost it when their Gmail account was closed. There’s that. So like the maintenance piece, it could be tricky when you’re building something in-house. Versus, we have, it’s a little bit of a different a platform in versus living in Gmail,

[00:46:22] Justin Hewett: Oh man. I can only imagine how painful that would be. You really did lose everything that was in a Google drive that the progress monitoring tool relied on or something. Oh my gosh, that would be so tough. Let’s just, let’s switch gears here then, Mandi. Maybe take a minute and we’ll just, we’re getting here to the end of our conversation.

And so I’ll ask you just maybe a couple of questions, but maybe here’s here’s the first one. Maybe tell me about a paradigm shift you’ve had. That changed the way that you see your students and language instruction.

[00:46:58] Mandi Morris: So i’m gonna go way back and tell you a short story and it’s connected to how i’ve seen my students over the years like I had said I did dual enrollment when I was in high school I really wanted to save my parents money.

I was so nervous about them paying for college and I So I, if you do enrollment, your classes are free. So I was determined I was going to get my AA done before I graduated high school. So I, I took, freshman one on one, like freshman comp. And again, had no idea what I was doing.

I worked. So hard on the first assignment. I put everything into it. I felt so nervous handing that paper. And when she gave me my paper with the red ink of a D minus, I was mortified. I was so embarrassed and I didn’t know what to do different. And that was what was so hard was that I really had tried, I didn’t know what to do.

And this teacher, I went and talked to her after class and I was, I was really heartbroken and she said, I don’t, she was confused and really understand why I had done so poorly. And once I talked to her a little bit more about my former education leading up to that point, she took me under her wing and she started tutoring me at her house.

And she was just my champion and she believed in me. And now what I know that’s called is feedback. She gave me really powerful feedback. So whenever there was an assignment in class, she would have me work on it on my own and then go to her house and she would just Mark up everything I had done, but I had the one on one time to ask her, but why was it wrong?

I didn’t I don’t understand why it’s wrong. Like I’ve never learned I’ve never learned different that feedback piece is so powerful and It’s one of the reasons why very early in my career with English language learners, I started conferencing with them. And this is something that English language specialists should be making time in their schedules to do, and it is hard to carve out the time, but you’ve got to be conferencing with your students one on one, not in an environment where they feel embarrassed in front of their peers or they feel called out.

I would do it during my planning period before school, after school I would pull kids and talk with them about their work, about their grades, about the data points that I had, which going back to progress monitoring, this is where that data is so powerful for the student conferencing. But that teacher changed my perception of who I was as a learner.

It’s not that I wasn’t willing, I wasn’t able. And when I had someone who gave me the skills to help put the pieces together, she just built this foundation that from there I could grow on. But if it hadn’t been for her feedback and for her availability and her belief in me, I don’t know what the rest of college would have looked like for me, honestly.

[00:50:01] Justin Hewett: What an amazing teacher to do that. She helped you become assessment capable, right? To be able to figure out what you needed, where you could go. You talk about those data points, like that’s what we can do and we can help our English learners with. I, when I think about feedback, I think about a term that I learned, growing up, which is that When someone follows up with you, it means that they care.

Cause sometimes you feel like you’re being like called out on the carpet a little bit. It’s Oh shoot. It’s no, if they’re following up, it shows that they care. And I think that, by providing feedback is one of the ways that we show our students that we do care about them and we’re going to give them what they need.

And I think, it’s been so fun, we’ve built this scoring team that is providing feedback to students around the nation and it is just so fun to hear about the students. to that feedback, internalizing it and doing what they can to use it. And, when we first started down that road, we didn’t know are the students going to care about the feedback they get from this, this voice that they don’t know who this is.

And it’s been so incredible to hear the stories of how meaningful it actually is to the students in that. They don’t just listen to this score, giving them feedback. And, and our certified scores are amazing and they are just such good people and, but they care about these kids and they give them just wonderful feedback and we have a method to it that, that really helps build the student up as well.

But it’s amazing what. Somebody giving us feedback can do to just change our trajectory, change our stars like that is really cool. Really cool. It can be life changing. It can be. It can really be life changing. That can be the fork in the road, right? That can be. Yeah, that’s exactly right.

 I want to ask just two more quick questions. If you could spend the day with anyone in our ML space. Who would it be?

[00:51:57] Mandi Morris: Zaretta Hammond, culturally responsive teaching. shE, does not talk only about multilinguals, but the way that she talks about teaching and advocating for our students and being a voice of power behind our students is incredible. I would love to spend the day with Zaretta Hammond.

[00:52:20] Justin Hewett: I love that.

Is that your, so you scooted over and you went and grabbed a book off your shelf. Is that the book that you would recommend? Or is that your favorite ML book, would you say?

[00:52:30] Mandi Morris: This is definitely one of my favorite education books. She talks a lot about rigor, and a lot of teachers have read this book. This has been around for a while. It’s been popular for a long time. And if you read it a long time ago when it first came out, or if you haven’t heard her speak recently, I was lucky enough to be at a conference just last month and I heard her speak again.

And it had been a while. It had been before COVID that I had heard her speak. And it was so invigorating and I love the way that she talks about rigor. and scaffolds. And I think that as an ML educator, that is a really powerful component of how she talks about building our students up. And then we remove our scaffolds when students don’t need them anymore.

They’re there for a purpose and for a time. It’s to give your students the legs they need for the work, but they’re not there so long that they become a crutch for students and they can’t do it independently. So if you read this a while ago. Go back and do it again, find your highlights and reread them go see her speak if you are lucky enough to get to a conference where she is she is just really a powerful voice in education.

[00:53:39] Justin Hewett: I love it. What was the name of that book?

[00:53:42] Mandi Morris: Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Brain.

[00:53:45] Justin Hewett: Fantastic. Fantastic. Mandi we feel so lucky to have you at Flashlight Learning to have you move into this role as our national curriculum and instruction specialist. We know that the districts who get to work with you feel really lucky to, as we’ve heard, in building different scope and sequences for them and.

And, re rethinking how to look at progress monitoring. You’re having a great impact on our product and our program. And as we continue to develop and anyways we’re grateful for your leadership and all the work you’re doing and how this was so fun to have you on the podcast.

[00:54:20] Mandi Morris: I really enjoyed it. Thank you so

[00:54:21] Justin Hewett: much All right, Mandi. I Know that there’s going to be some folks that are going to want to reach out to you and continue this Conversation and kind of dive a little bit deeper with you What is the best way for them to reach out to you?

[00:54:35] Mandi Morris: Absolutely. I would love to hear from you.

My email is mandi with an i m a n d i at flashlight360. com and our instagram handle is flashlight underscore 360 360 so flashlight underscore 360. You can connect with me there as well. You can dm, follow us, follow along with the fun. I would love to connect. I enjoy so much learning from educators.

So please reach out, tell me what you’re doing, what are your needs and your struggles and your successes right now.

[00:55:07] Justin Hewett: Wonderful. Mandi, thank you so much for being here today. And we hope everybody enjoyed this awesome podcast with Ms. Mandi Morris.


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