National Writing Project

A Social Networking Space for Teachers of English Language Learners

By: Lynn Jacobs
Date: May 24, 2010

Summary: The Know ELLs social networking space supports educators in sharing an array of resources on the teaching of English language learners and provides a supportive space for them to discuss their successes and challenges in the classroom.


The geographic region of the Great Valley Writing Project in Central California has always had a large population of English language learners. But since the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998, which all but eliminated bilingual education in the state, California teachers have been left without many of the supports and resources needed to teach their English language students effectively.

To address this gap, two Great Valley Writing Project (GVWP) teacher-consultants, Brandy DeAlba and Debra Schneider, developed a social networking website—a Ning —called Know ELLs . Know ELLs is a space where teachers come together to share resources, support one another, and discuss their successes and challenges in teaching English language learners.

In just a few months since its inception, the site has attracted over 100 members and has proven useful to a wide range of teachers, both those who have substantial experience in teaching English learners and those who are new to the field and are looking for support.

Today there are a variety of special-focus groups, including "Recent Research on ELLs," "Know ELLs Book Group," and "Look Inside My Classroom," where members discuss pressing dilemmas and swap resources, often via a diigo social bookmarking group . Members actively blog on the site about topics such as standardized testing and the Common Core Standards.

"We wanted to create a place for professional development and social interaction, and also include the ability to upload documents and link to other sites," said Schneider. "We wanted a one-stop resource that offered more than just conversation."

Plans are in the works to include lesson plans and videos of classroom teachers presenting the lessons. The moderators welcome new members and encourage additions to the site that will deepen the collaboration around teaching ELL students.

Social Networking Expands Reach

The website has been launched only recently, but the origins of Know ELLs can be traced back to a critical decision by GVWP a decade ago.

We wanted a one-stop resource that offered more than just conversation.

When Carol Minner became the Great Valley Writing Project's site director in 2001, she encouraged a renewed focus on meeting the needs of teachers of English language learners: both those who were teacher-consultants and those in the greater community to whom the Writing Project site might be able to offer professional development.

Since that time, according to De Alba, "our project puts forth a conscientious effort to recruit, support, and develop ELL teacher-consultant leadership through ELL-focused staff development, writing conferences, migrant academies, book studies, and an ELL leadership group that is exploring the development of writing skills in our ELL students. We decided that we could use social networking to expand the reach of this work."

In fact, although most members of the Ning come from California—and the Great Valley in particular—members are also dotted around the U.S. map, including South Dakota, Brooklyn, and Texas.

The idea for the Ning came to fruition when Schneider and DeAlba attended the 2009 English Language Learners Network Resource Dissemination Retreat in Lake Tahoe to collaborate on the development of this resource.

DeAlba and Schneider drove together to the retreat, and while in the car worked on the big picture—their goals and purposes—and identified the elements of a social networking space that would help attain them.

"By the time we officially started in the early hours of Thursday morning, we knew that we wanted to make a social network on a Ning and that it needed to have lots of resources, such as video, articles, teachers' narratives, blog entries about current events, and collaborative special-interest groups, to name a few," Schneider said. "We decided on a Ning because it seemed easy to use and it had a specific URL that could be easily unlocked by a school district filtering system without opening access to all Nings."

Over the course of the three-day retreat, the Know ELLs Ning was developed, and recruitment at the event had begun to form a membership base. Every participant cheered on the last day when Schneider and DeAlba announced that they had already gathered over thirty members from among participants in the retreat.

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