Meeting Challenges in Education and Building Community Partnerships with Elizabeth Public Schools and VACNJ

We hosted numerous CALTA21 Professional Development sessions at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey over the course of the 2017-2018 school year. Museum leadership staff from the center, along with more than thirty-five middle and high school ESOL and bilingual teachers from the Elizabeth Public Schools district actively participated in consecutive CALTA21 professional development sessions throughout the academic year. 

The Elizabeth Public Schools face a big challenge – they are home to 5,107 students (increasing by 675 students in the last year alone) representing more than 29 languages and countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and El Salvador. Due to the destabilizing world events impacting those countries, students enter the school system with a range of academic, social and emotional needs. The district is committed to supporting these students so they may succeed academically. However, it is also trying to help them find a sense of belonging to their community. It is within this context that the Elizabeth Public Schools partnered with CALTA21 and the Visual Arts Center in Summit, NJ – because CALTA21 supports academic learning by strengthening each student’s voice and encouraging the sharing of their personal narratives in the classroom and during the museum experience.

During the sessions, thirty-five teachers delved into visual literacy, learning engagement strategies to use in the classroom with English language learners and bilingual students. Teachers told us that they felt their own personal growth was crucial to supporting their students, and they became extremely committed to practicing and understanding the connections between visual literacy and literacy, and the value both can bring to the language learner. Finding that images have no language barriers, participants were able to appreciate how students could think in their own languages, while simultaneously engaging with the teacher who is explaining with words in the new language.

Applying what they had learned during the different sets of PD sessions, the teachers then turned their focus on using the museum collection and artwork from sources, in conjunction with the CALTA21 activities, to prepare lesson plans that supported their teaching and learning goals.

Teachers sought out images that they felt would help students to:

  1. Expand their vocabulary;
  2. Learn how to decode an image that appears in their textbooks;
  3. Support their statements with evidence; and
  4. Overcome the fear of public speaking.

Below are three samples of lessons developed by the teachers for different language levels and different school subjects, based on what they learned during the CALTA21 PD and what they were going to be teaching next.

Teachers and museum professionals found common ground, learning from each other and developing a community partnership to continue on beyond these sessions. Students later visited the museum during their summer programs.

Evaluation results demonstrate that teachers felt that:

  1. They grew as educators;
  2. Had expanded their teaching strategies, improving their ability to listen to students and understand their needs;
  3. By incorporating their own learning into the classroom experience, their students were more engaged, more excited and learning better. 

Museum professionals also understood the value in this work and the importance of their institutions becoming a place of belonging for students and their families. Museum leadership is now working with the district and their funders to continue developing this community partnership – taking it into a new level by piloting an adapted CALTA21 curriculum and acquiring a teaching collection, making more access for student and family visits.

With feedback from the program evaluation, we learned that almost three-quarters of the teachers in both groups wanted more training and 93% suggested also training supervisors and members of the school administration. Teachers also asked for more access to images and wanted the institution to offer summer training programs and to expand training to include those who teach lower grade levels.