Igniting the Spark: the Love of Learning

This post is one in a series on ED Goes Back to School, a program that integrates ED employees into diverse classrooms.

We all know that ‘a-ha’ moment. You remember the teacher that made your world open up in new ways, or the moment you saw a child’s eyes light up in understanding. Love for learning starts early. To celebrate these everyday small moments of joy, the US Department of Education embarked on a week-long journey, visiting several Early Learning Programs in the DC metro area. Highlights below:

Place-Based Learning

ED staff visited different programs in the DC metro area, including Educare whose work with the homeless ties directly to the White House Place-based initiative pilot. Following the visit, staff from different program offices gathered to share their takeaways. Kimberlin Butler, an analyst with the Office of Innovation and Improvement, found that “talking to those communities about their early learning models and getting the leaders to be empathetic to the different situations students enrolled” underscores the importance of place-based learning.


ED was also able to visit CentroNía, an early learning program that teaches children in a dual-language English/Spanish Early Learning environment. The program uses a co-teaching model, with two teachers providing instruction in either Spanish or English. ED employees who visited observed that the program was not just teaching a second language, but bilingualism, as the school shared that many families speak both English and Spanish at home.

Global Competence

We live in an increasingly connected world. At School Within School, children maintained their community garden, infusing science into nurturing the environment. Rebecca Miller, who works in the International Affairs Office, shared a small moment of joy while climbing a staircase during her visit: “I ran into a music teacher, carrying a guitar…he met his students for music class and they sang the going up the stairs song.” SWS retweeted the video, with the hashtag “#nothing without joy”. This sums up what early learning is about: the openness of embracing all things.

The Power of Early Learning

ED Goes Back to School provided the opportunity for the Department of Education to connect their work to various innovative models of Early Learning. The consensus was that these visits gave us a better understanding of how Early Learning is at the ground level. Teacher Ambassador Fellow Meredith Morelle shared how “the Policy office is P-12 and the emphasis needs to be on the P part, not K or 1. It is important that policymakers see practice. As an educator, it is important to have an understanding of pre-k.”

Ultimately, after visiting and sharing their impressions, everyone agreed on the most important takeaway of their school visits: it takes hard work to educate all kids.

 Alicia Pérez-Katz is a 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Teacher Shadowing from a Teacher’s Perspective

Teacher Flora

Diana Schneider, an education program specialist at the U.S. Department of Education, helps a student with work. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Diana Schneider, the U.S. Department of Education employee who visited my classroom during ED Goes Back to School Day,  proved to be a wonderful thought partner to me the entire time. We have a lot in common: we both were English Language Learners and we share a passion for helping students develop their English language skills, while also fostering a respect for their heritage languages and cultures. Diana definitely showed this passion when she co-taught a few lessons with me throughout the day. She helped me add layers of connections and critical thinking to our reading tasks and also forged relationships with my students who continue to talk about her to this day. Diana even volunteered to help chaperone a future field trip so that she could sustain these newfound relationships with our 3rd graders.

I hope that Diana saw how much collaboration goes into being an ESL teacher and how much job-embedded professional development schools provide nowadays. I’m glad that Diana could experience a professional development session as well as a grade-level planning meeting. Hopefully, these experiences captured how teachers use every spare moment to learn from each other and grow their practice.

I’m glad that Diana was able to see the multiple reading levels of the ELLs with whom I work and the amount of differentiation that goes into planning lessons that target their varied interests, decoding abilities, and comprehension skills, while also ensuring that all students are challenged to think critically. Diana noted that even lunch duty was infused with inquiry and academic discussions with the students. Every minute was used purposefully and it was wonderful to share that experience with her.

It would be great for Diana to also observe the ways in which I co-plan and co-teach with my entire 3rd grade team. I am extremely fortunate to collaborate with three dynamic and flexible general education teachers, each of whom has their own unique style of planning and teaching. We often experiment with different approaches and try to tailor our instruction to the needs of the different students in each classroom. Diana saw some parallel teaching, but didn’t get a chance to observe the team teaching or station teaching that I have done.

Students benefit from seeing skills modeled in two different ways or from getting more individualized support from targeted grouping when two teachers are present and both viewed as resources equally capable of leading instruction. I think that ELLs benefit from positive co-teaching relationships and inclusive settings that foster language and communication development.


Flora Lerenman, an ESL teacher at H.D. Cooke Elementary School, teaching a student. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

In 2014, there are still too many ESL programs in which general education and ESL instruction are far too separated. Collaboration ensures that teachers are partnering to meet all students needs together.

The field of ESL is growing and the Office of English Language Acquisition at ED has the potential to spearhead national innovation and research in best practices while advocating for our ELL students that have been historically marginalized. The ED Goes Back to School experience allows for teachers and policy-makers to collaborate on certain issues that require seeing student learning in action in order to debrief what student and teacher needs truly are — Diana and I were able to talk afterwards about what she saw and it caused me to think more critically about what ELLs need and what is possible for them.

Flora Lerenman is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in Washington, D.C.