Bringing Academic Vocabulary into Everyday Practice
This case features a community of practice at Rowland High School, Rowland Heights, California, that studied academic vocabulary during the 2010-2011 school year. Formal support for communities of practice began in the 2009-2010 school year. In 2010-2011, approximately 120 educators (13% of the district’s certificated staff) were members of a community of practice.
As a member of the Ball Foundation’s Education Initiatives team, I worked to support the foundation’s partnership with the Rowland Unified School District in Southern California. One part of the partnership’s work was to develop and support communities of practice as a model for self-directed professional learning and inquiry into instructional, organizational, and leadership practices.
This community of practice was initiated by history and social science teachers Susie Burch and Matt Cole. They had often collaborated on lessons in the past, but this community of practice was their first formal structure for collaborating. It included a total of eight teachers who taught classes in different content areas with a variety of types of students (different grades, levels, and English proficiency, for example). In addition to Susie and Matt, there was another social science teacher, one reading teacher, one English teacher, one Spanish teacher, one science teacher, and one special education teacher. The question they chose to pursue over the year was “What is the significance of academic vocabulary and how does it impact instructional practice and learning outcomes?”
“If I’m really going to implement what I learn, I need to have discussion, practice, and feedback. I’ve always been a social learner.”—Susie Burch
Susie Burch had been interested in academic vocabulary and studied it on her own for a number of years. In 2010-2011, she invited other teachers at Rowland High School to join her in a community of practice to find out what difference academic vocabulary could really make for their students’ learning. One of the teachers who joined her was Matt Cole, a fellow history teacher with whom Susie had often collaborated informally. He described his experience in the community of practice:
It was really a positive experience working with Susie and other teachers at my site. Academic vocabulary was really Susie’s passion. She’s the one that has always been interested in it. But after getting involved in the community of practice, I now see how central and important it is. There was always academic vocabulary we had to teach for each unit. But before, I was just giving my students the words. I wasn’t doing a lot with vocabulary. The community of practice taught us how to make it effective and how to make it meaningful for students and also for me.