Shera and Liz
And we're off...
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
Hello and welcome to Dual Language Tandem Teaching! We are really excited (and admittedly a little nervous - novice blogger alert!) to begin blogging about tandem teaching in dual language programs and to share our journey in writing a book about it! If you’re reading this blog, you are probably connected to dual language education in some way, perhaps as a teacher, administrator, coach, or parent. If not, here’s a quick definition: dual language programs provide content and literacy instruction through two languages with the goals of promoting bilingualism and biliteracy, sociocultural competence, and grade-level academic achievement. In many of these programs, different teachers provide instruction in English and the partner language, and have to work together to coordinate instruction across the two languages. Like others who have used the same term to describe co-teaching to support students who receive special education services or those who are classified as English Learners, we call this approach tandem teaching, because just like two riders on a tandem bicycle, the two teachers have to coordinate with one another to remain balanced and get to the destination, and can take turns steering along the way.
To date, there hasn’t been much guidance about working together to coordinate instruction across languages within dual language programs, and teachers have largely been on their own to figure out how to do it, which can be really challenging in a number of ways - academically, logistically, and interpersonally. While there has been an increasing amount of attention paid to co-teaching over the past decade, particularly with regard to supporting special education students and students classified as English learners, or for supporting the professional learning of student teachers, these models typically talk about approaches for having two teachers working together in the same classroom at the same time. For example, Honigsfeld & Dove have researched and written extensively about co-teaching between classroom teachers and ESL specialists to support students classified as English learners, and we value and build upon their work while recognizing the differences in approach that dual language programs require. In dual language programs, both teachers are classroom teachers with the same role and status, and they share the same students, but they rarely if ever teach in the same classroom at the same time. Plus they’re providing instruction in two different languages, sometimes in the same subject areas, and sometimes in different ones. So while we consider dual language tandem teaching a form of co-teaching, we also see some important distinctions from existing co-teaching models, and that’s where this blog and the book come in! For the past few years, we’ve been thinking and writing about these ideas, trying them out, and presenting about them at conferences, where we’ve gotten valuable feedback from practitioners in the field. Now we feel ready to take our ideas to a wider audience through this blog as we work to complete the book. Our goal for this blog is to share our experiences and ideas with you in the hope that what we have to say is going to be helpful to you in your tandem teaching practice, and we also welcome comments from you about ways in which our ideas are resonating with you - or not! In other words, we’re considering this blog an opportunity to ‘workshop’ some of the ideas that we’re thinking about for the book, and also to document our writing journey and progress on the book - another ‘tandem’ venture!
But first, to get you a little more acquainted with us, we’d like to take the opportunity in this initial blog post to give you a bit of our background story. Like many of our fellow tandem teachers out there, we didn’t know one another before becoming tandem teachers, and we had to quickly get to know one another and figure out some basic approaches for working together. As you’ll see from our stories, we came from different backgrounds, which ultimately enhanced our partnership since we had complementary strengths, but it also created its share of challenges as we worked to get to know one another.
I’ve been teaching my entire life, well - almost! My mom, grandmothers, aunts, great aunts, and even great grandmothers and one grandfather were ALL teachers. It was in my blood and there wasn’t any way around it... I was destined to be a teacher! I started at a young age teaching my dolls, toys, friends, and family at home, then moved on to my first real teaching gig when I was just 10 years old - teaching my entire school how to line dance during their PE classes! I’m from the south...line dancing was HUGE in the early 90’s! I continued teaching in various forms throughout my life: Zumba classes, skin care classes, even how to organize your closets classes! Naturally, I majored in education, graduated from Clemson University (Go Tigers!) with a BA in Early Childhood Education, then started teaching right out of college. Shortly thereafter, life circumstances led me out of the classroom and I stopped teaching to help run our family property management business. Several years later when I moved to Costa Rica, I didn’t plan to start teaching again, but I did want to meet some people in the community.
The teacher blood started flowing, so I applied to a maternity substitute position at La Paz Community School. And thus I started my path in dual language as the English counterpart kindergarten teacher in a preK-12 IB dual language school. I was a novice to the world of dual language education but fascinated by the program model and eager to learn all about becoming a dual language educator. It was a real trial-by-fire experience, since I started mid-way through the year when the original teacher had to take emergency maternity leave, and I had two different Spanish counterpart tandem teachers that year alone!
Just one year into teaching and learning at La Paz, I was fortunate to have the pleasure of working alongside Liz. Boy, was I a lucky duck! Liz is a wealth of knowledge about dual language education and I felt so thrilled to be able to learn from her. Well, actually... at first I was a bit nervous and a little intimidated. After all, she was a university professor, master on the subject of dual language education, and did I mention she's the lead author of THE BIBLE of dual language? I was starstruck as I watched her present during our PD week before the kids started back to school. She spoke really fast and used big, collegiate words that left me scratching my head. I thought, “Wow! I am going to learn so much this year and what the heck is promoting cross-cultural and linguistic competency!?!” As the week went on, the nerves started to calm when I realized that I was going to be able to help Liz learn the art of teaching kindergarten - mastering transitions, creating routines, and classroom management. From the beginning, Liz made me feel like an equal, treated me as her partner, and guided me to understand the fundamentals of dual language education. Together we managed to have an amazing, unforgettable year...leaning on one another for help along the way, teaching a fabulous group of 5 and 6 year olds, and ultimately, creating a powerful partnership. By the way...Liz still speaks really fast and uses big words, I am still in awe of her, and I am honored to know her and be her partner!
I was living in Costa Rica for the year with my family while on sabbatical from my position as an associate professor of bilingual education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. My kids were enrolled in the Guanacaste Waldorf School, which I loved because it gave me the opportunity to learn about dual language education from a Waldorf perspective, which has a lot of pedagogical features that support bilingual learners, such as a holistic view of child development as well as a focus on physical movement, the arts, and nature. My kids loved it, too, but it was very small at the time - essentially a one-room schoolhouse in which my daughter was the oldest child in the school and the only student in her grade - so we knew that we would need to find another school when we decided that we wanted to stay for a second year. I also knew that I needed to find a teaching position, since I would be transitioning from a sabbatical year to an unpaid leave.
When we visited La Paz, I felt like we might all have found a home, and fortunately, I was right! The school had several openings, and I was hired to be the Spanish counterpart teacher for both kindergarten and first grade (different classes) the following year. While my career has focused on dual language education and I had carried out a number of research and technical assistance projects with dual language programs, I had never been a dual language teacher, I had never taught kindergarten or first grade, and I had been out of the classroom (as a transitional bilingual and ESL teacher) for twenty - yes, 20! - years!!! To say this was ‘a growth experience’ for me is an understatement!
After I was hired, I visited the school to meet my future tandem teachers in kindergarten and first grade, and to begin to get to know the setting and the students. I’ll never forget showing up to the kindergarten classroom. Shera came out and with her characteristic South Carolina charm, warmly shook my hand and smiled, and said, “We are just so excited to have you joining us next year! We are going to learn so much from you!” I smiled and said something like, “Oh, I’m the one who’s excited!” but on the inside, my stomach was doing flip-flops and I was thinking, “Uh, yeah, about that….” A few months later, during the professional week leading up to the first day of school, I showed both sides of myself - the competent dual language specialist who delivered a ‘dual language 101’ workshop to the staff in both English and Spanish, and the lost first-year teacher (for the second time!) who was clueless about basics like how to get the kids to line up. One day, after the millionth question from me, an exasperated Shera turned to me and said, “I thought YOU were supposed to be helping US!!!” “I will, I will,” I assured her, “but first you have to help me!” And thus our tandem teaching relationship was born - Shera the kindergarten whisperer, smart as a whip, organized with a capital O, with unparalleled classroom management skills, boundless energy, and a deep understanding of early childhood development, and me, an academic in the field of dual language education who had worked with programs across the United States for twenty years but had never actually taught in one!
As the year progressed, we got to know one another, and learned to leverage our respective strengths and support one another with our challenges and areas of learning.
In the process, we developed systems for working together effectively, and decided to submit a proposal to present at La Cosecha, the annual dual language conference of Dual Language Education of New Mexico (DLENM). We knew that there was a need for this kind of information in the field, and we wanted to be part of the conversation. Fast forward several years and we have now presented about tandem teaching at conferences around the world, and have also published some of our ideas in practitioner journals and in a guest blog post for Teaching for Biliteracy - see our presentations and publications page for details! We have learned a lot from our interactions with participants at each presentation and have refined our ideas for the book as a result.
So now that you know a little bit about us and why we are passionate about this topic, we invite you to join us on this journey. While we developed our ideas teaching kindergarten in a Spanish-English dual language program, we think that the approaches we have come up with apply across grade levels and language pairs. Come along with us as we workshop the writing of our book through this blog, and feel free to share comments, ask questions, or add relevant experiences in the comments.
PS...If you like what you’ve read, click one of the share links below to help it spread! If you’d like to be notified when new blog entries are posted, follow the link to subscribe. Likewise, if you’d like to be part of a larger conversation about this topic, join our new Facebook group with the same name - dual language tandem teaching! We’ll have conversation prompts to stimulate discussion, and that’s also where we’ll announce new blog posts, upcoming presentations, and other related activities. ¡Adelante!