“Technology provides us with new tools from which to explore and communicate our ideas, but the heart of education will always be personal relationships – with or without technology.” – Katie Brown, USA

“When we focus on language, we meet the needs of ALL learners,” says Katie Brown. As the English Language Learner Specialist at Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham, Washington and 2014 Washington State Teacher of the Year, Brown knows that language and communication skills are the foundation for educational success. “Kids are expected to talk, construct arguments, listen to their peers, collaborate and participate in constructive dialogue throughout their school day, in every class,” she says. “This is such an important shift in order to help close the achievement gap, which can also be referred to as a language gap.”

Brown, who has been teaching at Shuksan for the past 11 years, transitioned into her current role as the ELL Specialist just two years ago. And in those two short years, Brown has implemented a series of very successful “ELL family nights” where families are building community – even across many different languages. “At our meetings, we use electronic transmitters for interpreting,” says Brown. “This allows the families to hear the presentation in real time through their headphones. While I am presenting information, parents hear the presentation through their head sets in their home language.  This also means that parents do not have to sit in language groups. It looks just like a mini United Nations.”

Her recognition as State Teacher of Year has been a whirlwind – from throwing out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners baseball game to meeting President Obama (check out her terrific first-hand account of meeting the President here) – yet she has used each opportunity to not only discuss the importance of language learning, professional development and leadership, but to share her perspective on Common Core and what it can mean for all students, regardless of their circumstances.

Brown’s love and passion for teaching extends into almost every aspect of her life…including her free time. In fact, Brown is co-owner of and teacher at a Kung Fu school. And she won the silver medal at the world championships in March 2013.

Without further ado, here’s today’s Daily Edventure with Katie Brown.

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you? 

You can read my “why I became a teacher” story on my website/blog (the first or second entry I believe).  In brief, I was drawn toward education because I wanted to work with young people from diverse backgrounds. When you are helping students and families improve their lives, there is nothing more fulfilling.  Once you start to experience these meaningful connections with kids, fellow educators, and your community, you quickly realize the profound impact you can make each and every day.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education? 

I’m not one of those people who had that one teacher who changed their life, or who inspired them beyond all others. I remember coming home at the end of every school year throughout elementary and middle school saying that I now have another favorite teacher. Every year, each teacher had something unique about them that I connected with. If I had to choose some favorite qualities of those teachers, it would be that I remember the teachers who made me laugh. The teachers who brought humor into the classroom, told stories, and could laugh at their own mistakes as well as ours.  I think this is one thing that I continue to love about teaching now – not a day goes by that I don’t have a good laugh.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

At Shuksan Middle School, we have transformed what professional development can look like. We know that in order for teachers to implement best practices into their instruction, we need relevant PD, time to collaborate around our new learning, and consistent follow-up that is productive and positive. In a nutshell, this is what I do. The teachers at my school participated in over 52 hours of professional development embedded within the school day last year alone. We accomplish this through a combination of strategies. The first 30 minutes of every staff meeting is dedicated to instruction.I model new strategies, or other teachers share an idea that is working with their students. Every early release day is also focused on improving instruction.

For the past three years we have been working on implementing the SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) model and ensuring we are teaching language and content in our classrooms to meet the needs of all of our students. In addition, each teacher gets five half-days of release time to participate in instructional coaching with a colleague and me. These meetings help sustain our professional learning and ensure that we are implementing these new strategies and analyzing the impact on students. Finally, I facilitate instructional rounds once a month, which gives teachers an opportunity to observe others and have a dialogue about what student learning looks like and sounds like. It also gives us time to practice using common language around instruction. Now that these systems for professional learning are in place, we confidently tackle new initiatives, knowing we will be supported and have the time to learn, improve, make mistakes together and celebrate together.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?  

I use technology on a daily basis in order to provide direct interventions to English Language Leaner (ELL) students. There are many language software programs, apps, and technology tools that can provide students who are new to English the ability to work independently, yet constructively. This is important because it allows me to work one-on-one and in small groups to meet the needs of my students.

Technology has also helped me communicate with families who have English as a second language. I host an ELL Family Night every other month and have interpreters who help me communicate with parents who speak different languages (and provides families with real-time translation through headsets). Families feel more included, meetings run smoothly, and we can discuss meaningful information in less time. We have been able to build trusting relationships with our families and our attendance continues to increase at all of our school-wide events and our ELL Family Meetings.

In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work? 

Apps, cellphones, and mobile devices have changed education because it has changed how our students access information and how they communicate with each other and the world. The teacher is no longer the sole portal of information, rather the teacher has become more of a facilitator of learning, guiding students on the most efficient ways to find information, make meaning from it, and do something with it. Technology provides us with new tools from which to explore and communicate our ideas, but the heart of education will always be personal relationships – with or without technology.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?  

It is so exciting to see that language and communication skills are now being emphasized in state standards for ALL content areas, not just English. In addition to content knowledge, students must be explicitly taught the language of science, the language of math, and the language of art. For example, in addition to learning content-specific words such as hypothesis in science, students also need to learn the academic terms used by scientists such as analyze, identify, and compare. More importantly, students must learn how to express this academic vocabulary in writing and speaking. What does it sound like when we are comparing two things? What words and phrases do we use? In other words, students are not just expected to read and write like a scientist, but they should sound like one, too. It is important to note that many teachers have been doing this all along, but it is now at the forefront when we describe quality instruction. So many students will benefit from this intentional focus on language, not just ELL students, and that is exciting. When we focus on language, we meet the needs of ALL learners. 

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?        

I am incredibly passionate about communication and collaboration. These are important skills for all learners, but essential for our language learners and students of poverty. We must teach the language demands of our content areas and give our students opportunities to use this academic language with their peers. The students sitting in our classrooms today bring a wealth of culture, knowledge, perspective, and experience with them.  Through collaboration, students will gain opportunities to learn from their peers, hear contrasting worldviews and beliefs, and use their diverse background knowledge to construct new understandings. When done right, collaboration breeds empathy, respect, and motivation.

What is your region doing well currently to support education? 

My region is honestly facing the reality that the demands on teachers and in education are continuously increasing, but the support needed to meet these demands is not keeping pace. Locally, in the Bellingham School District, this has led to true collaborative efforts between teachers and district leaders to solve this problem together. As a result, more time is being given to teacher-directed professional learning. There is also an increased focus on administrative accountability for the use of collaborative time. Overall, our district is thinking creatively about how to best use funding for professional development to ensure it is relevant, meaningful, and needed to improve student learning. Our regional ESD is supporting our efforts and creating opportunities for districts and administrators to meet and learn from each other.

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?  

In order for education to change, we have to talk directly about the gap between policy and implementation. Policy decisions are often made with very few teachers sitting at the table. Policies with the best intentions often fall flat when they hit our schools. This is because our students do not fit into a one-size-fits-all approach. Policy is not personal. But teaching and learning are rooted in relationships. What works in one school, may not work at the school three miles down the road.

To change this, we need to consider policies that may not lend to percentages and growth tables. Some things we just can’t measure. We need to focus on the development of the whole child and better understand how poverty and childhood experiences impact learning. Our students must have access to healthy food and actually have time to eat it. We must lower class size to meet individual student needs. We must work closely with our community partners to help provide services to students and families in ways the school cannot. We must ensure our curriculum is relevant and culturally responsive. We must work towards equity in education, where students have access to the same technology and resources as any other student, no matter their zip code. We must establish multiple pathways to college and/or career and better scaffold these pathways to help students clearly see and take the steps in front of them.

Children do not develop at the same rate. They come to our schools with drastically different needs, abilities, interests, gifts, and challenges. We can’t expect that they will all succeed under one model of public education. At times it feels like high stakes tests are determining student worth. This must change. We need to love our students and demonstrate this through our actions. 

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

A big obstacle has been ineffective school leadership. I have been working at my middle school for 11 years and have come to learn the power of the building principal in creating a positive school culture. We have always had a passionate, tireless staff in my school, but years of ineffective leadership. We were perceived as the low achieving school in our community with high levels of discipline. We were the underdogs to say the least.

Then three years ago, two new leaders walked through the door and we have never been the same. Our school climate is positive and focused on learning. Our staff is still passionate, but working intentionally and with a collective focus. We work as a team and create consistency for our students. We praise what they are doing right. As a result of these experiences, teachers and students now want to transfer into our school. I truly believe that the relationships of the adults in a building are one of the leading causes of student success. Leadership is crucial. 

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?  

For teachers who do not have effective leadership in their school, this is a huge challenge, especially if the issue is not being addressed at the district level. I think it is important for teachers to focus on what they CAN do. What leadership roles can teachers take within the school? How can teachers impact the climate of the school and the classroom? One of my favorite lines from the band Crowded House says, “Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you.” This is so true. We need to bring positive weather to school every day. It only takes one negative comment to change the energy in a room. On the other hand, it only takes one positive comment to switch the tone. We need to celebrate successes and work together to solve problems. When there is a lack of leadership in a school, teaching can often feel isolating. We need to find more ways for teachers to share ideas, plan lessons together, reflect on their practice, and take risks. Consistent collaboration and reflection, coupled with a teamwork approach creates a positive culture for all!  

How have you incorporated mobile devices/apps into your classroom and have you seen any improvements?

As an ELL Specialist, I rely on my mobile device to help with translation and communication in multiple languages. There isn’t a translation app out there that can translate with precision, but they at least give you the gist. When a student walks into your classroom with zero English, anything helps to start making those personal connections. My students can often use the translation apps to identify main ideas and key phrases in a text. They also use various apps, such as USA Learns, to practice basic English words, phrases, and sounds.   

Katie Brown
ELL Specialist/ Instructional Coach
Shuksan Middle School, Bellingham Public Schools
Bellingham, Washington @kdcanonbrown

  • Birthplace:  Pasadena, California
  • Current residence:  Bellingham, Washington
  • Education: BA Cultural Anthropology, MA Curriculum & Instruction
  • Website I check every day: Twitter, Facebook
  • Person who inspires me most: Jane Goodall, Maya Angelou
  • Favorite childhood memory:  Camping with my family on Yale Lake, learning how to waterski when I was 5 years old.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Huntsville, Alabama for Space Camp, then San Jose, California for a Kung Fu tournament.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why?  Making a fort with my 5-year-old nephew and 3-year-old niece – their personalities are hilarious.
  • Favorite book:  The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
  • Favorite music:  James Morrison, Jack Johnson, James Taylor, Dixie Chicks 
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?  Follow your gut.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “The purpose of life, after all, is to love it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” – Eleanor Roosevelt



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