Using Cogenerative Dialogues to Foster Community and Support English Language Learner Students' Learning

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    Using Cogenerative Dialoguesto Foster Community andSupport English LanguageLearner Students Learning

    BETH A. WASSELLRowan University

    SONYA N. MARTINSeoul National University

    KATHRYN SCANTLEBURYUniversity of Delaware

    Given the collaborative nature of the TESOL profession, modelsare needed that provide opportunities for teachers and otherschool-based stakeholders to interact with students to under-stand their successes, challenges, and particular needs moreclearly. In this article, the authors advocate for the use of cogen-erative dialogues, a promising practice for learning more aboutthe teaching and learning needs of English language learners(ELLs) in a specific learning context. Cogenerative dialogues arediscussions involving students and teachers that foregroundproblems and generate strategies to improve teaching and learn-ing. The dialogues were implemented as part of a larger, mixed-methods study in two urban middle school science classroomsin the United States. The authors discuss beneficial outcomesand tensions for both ELL students and teachers. Benefitsincluded (1) creating opportunities for students to develop avoice, (2) assuming responsibilities for learning, (3) sharingresponsibilities for language acquisition and learning, and (4)developing a sense of community. They also address two otherspecific concerns: the language proficiency levels of the studentswho are involved, and the cultural practices around critiquingteaching and learning.doi: 10.1002/tesj.109

    TESOL Journal 4.4, December 2013 759 2013 TESOL International Association

  • Given the collaborative nature of the TESOL profession (e.g.,Honigsfeld & Dove, 2012), models that provide opportunities forteachers and other school-based stakeholders to interact directlywith students to understand their successes, challenges, and needsin the classroom and beyond are warranted. In this article, weadvocate using cogenerative dialogues, a promising practice forlearning more about the teaching and learning needs of Englishlanguage learners (ELLs) in a specific learning context.Cogenerative dialogues have been used extensively in the field ofK12 through graduate school science education (Martin, 2006;Roth & Tobin, 2001; Siry & Lang, 2010; Stith & Roth, 2008; Tobin,2006), in teacher education (Martin, 2009; Martin & Scantlebury,2009; Scantlebury, Gallo-Fox, & Wassell, 2008), and in urbaneducation settings (Bayne, 2009; Carambo, 2009; Elmesky & Tobin,2005; Emdin, 2007), yet no study to date has focused on theirimpact on ELL students language or content learning. In thisarticle, we extend the use of cogenerative dialogues to the field ofTESOL and advocate its use as a promising practice. We firstoutline the methods used and then describe both the beneficialoutcomes and the tensions that emerged when using cogenerativedialogues with ELL students in science classrooms.

    COGENERATIVE DIALOGUES: WHAT ARE THEY ANDHOW DO THEY WORK?Cogenerative dialogues are discussions involving students andteachers that foreground problems and generate strategies toimprove teaching and learning (LaVan & Beers, 2005). Theyprovide a space for participants to critically and collectivelycogenerate solutions to the specific challenges that are impedingteaching and learning (Roth & Tobin, 2001). The primary goals arefor teachers and students to accept responsibility, to share theirperspectives about teaching and learning, and to collectivelygenerate plans for enacting positive change in the practices ofindividuals and groups. At the conclusion of each dialogue,participants clearly state what was discussed, what was heard,and what was cogenerated. Then members take responsibility forhow they will enact their plans.

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  • Cogenerative dialogues require cycles of implementation; oncea plan is enacted, participants should engage in follow-upcogenerative dialogues to assess the outcomes and to cogeneratenew plans if needed. Dialogues typically occur during lunch orbefore or after school, and may include other stakeholders such asstudent teachers, parents, researchers, or administrators. Thedialogues occur regularly over time, with teachers generallymeeting with students at least once every two weeks. Teacherswith whom we have worked have chosen to meet with studentsmore frequently, depending on the availability of time, the issuesthe group seeks to address, and the number of participants.Optimally, cogenerative dialogues have three to five students, butcan also be conducted as one-on-one sessions. The smaller numberof participants increases the speaking time for students andteachers. Ideally, the dialogues include the same group ofstudents, who over time develop trust with each other and withthe teacher and become more comfortable sharing theirperspectives with the group. However, the format is flexible andmay include a whole-class setting or other arrangements.

    The rules of a cogenerative dialogue include (1) speaking isvoluntary; (2) no voices are privileged, including those of adults;and (3) what is discussed stays in the group, unless the groupdecides to share conversation with others (LaVan & Beers, 2005).The rules are typically posted on a sign and reviewed at thebeginning of each cogenerative dialogue. The dialogues alsonormally include snacks, drinks, or lunch to make the atmospheremore comfortable and casual. The meetings can begin with aspecific guiding question, such as What can we do to improve ourclassroom? In the sections that follow, we provide some of theunderstandings that emergedboth positive and negativeas ameans to illustrate the potential for using cogenerative dialogueswith ELL students.

    HOW CAN COGENERATIVE DIALOGUES IMPACT ELLSTUDENT LEARNING?The extension of cogenerative dialogues as a promising practiceemerged from a multiyear, longitudinal, mixed-methods study

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  • funded by the National Science Foundation.1 The study focusedbroadly on middle school ELL students beliefs about science,practices in science classrooms, and science and language learning.Data were collected over a 2-year period from six science teachers(two males, four females), two ESOL teachers (both female), andapproximately 150 students in Grades 68 in two urban charterschools in the northeastern United States. Data sources in thebroader study included achievement data (standardized testscores, grades, developmental levels, etc.); field notes from weeklyclassroom observations; interviews with teachers, administrators,and a group of approximately fifteen students selected for casestudies; and the transcriptions from cogenerative dialogues, whichwe used in an effort to gain multifaceted understandings aboutways to support ELL students science and language learning. It isimportant to emphasize that the promising practice described inthis paper emerged from an ongoing, longitudinal studyexamining the impact of gender, ethnicity, and English languageproficiency on science learning (see Martin, Wassell, &Scantlebury, 2013, for more information on the broader study).However, in this article we focus on sharing promising practicesthat emerged regarding the effectiveness of utilizing cogenerativedialogues with teachers and their ELL students.

    Originally cogenerative dialogues were utilized as a method forcollecting data in our study. However, over time we began tonotice that the dialogues had potential to be a powerful tool forteachers to engage students in conversations aimed at improvingteaching and learning. The dialogues privileged the studentsvoices. For many students, this was the first time they had beenasked their opinion about school, teaching, or learning. Ultimately,the dialogues became a space for positive change andtransformation derived from students perspectives.

    In the sections that follow, we share four examples from ourstudy to illustrate the contexts in which cogenerative dialoguessupported students and teachers to alter classroom practices topromote improved teaching and learning. Each of the examples is

    1National Science Foundation (NSF) HRD 1036637, G-SPELL Gender and Science Proficiency for EnglishLanguage Learners.

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  • representative of common features of cogenerative dialogues,which we have identified from our analysis of project data usingmicroanalysis of participant interactions from video recordings. Inaddition, textual data generated from video and audio recordingsof cogenerative dialogues were coded as cogenerative dialoguesand either student responsibility or student voice usingHyperResearch qualitative coding software. We share theseexamples to highlight positive aspects of cogenerative dialoguesand to describe some of the concerns that emerged as weimplemented them with ELL students.

    Developing a VoiceFirst, cogenerative dialogues provide a shared space for ELLstudents to emphasize their needs and to devise plans forenhancing their own learning. In the first example, we introduceHector,2 a seventh-grade ELL student from Puerto Rico who,4 years earlier, had moved to the northeastern United States. ByGrade 7, Hectors Mac II assessment scores revealed that he wasperforming at a high intermediate proficiency level in speaking,reading, and writing, and at an advanced level in listening. Weinitiated cogenerative dialogues with Hector, a few other students,and Amy, his science teacher, who had been teaching for 3 years.The cogenerative dialogues were held during lunchtime andfocused broadly on one question: What can we all do to makescience class better? Amy suggested that she would like toimprove science class by expanding opportunities for students tospeak during small and whole group discussions. Hector,however, explained that he would like to try, but he was fearful ofasking questions in science class because other students had madefun of his spoken English when he first came to the United Statesin the third grade. At the end of the meeting, the group cogeneratedan important strategy that would help both Amy and Hector meettheir goals: Hector would try to ask one question per class sessionwith the support of another student, Lorena, who offered to helpHector by regularly reminding him to ask questions. Videoanalysis of classroom interactions revealed that once Amy

    2Pseudonyms are used to protect the identities of all students and teachers described.

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  • understood his frustration, she subtly supported Hector in class bydoing extra, individual comprehension checks, and by asking thebilingual in-class support teacher to help Hector ask his questionsin Spanish when needed. In addition, Lorena would regularlyremind Hector to try and verbalize his questions. In a follow-upcogenerative dialogue focused on evaluating the effectiveness ofthis cogenerated strategy, Sara, another student, mentioned thatshe noticed that Hector had been asking more questions duringscience class.

    Hector: [Describing to Sara what the group had cogenerated in thelast meeting] Oh yeah, [we decided] that I was going to ask [Amy]one question every day.Amy: Cause [Hector] doesnt ask questions, even if he doesntget it.Sara: Oh yeah, thats why hes changing [pointing to Hector]!Researcher: Hows that been working out for you?Hector: Im doing okay. Like, Im understanding things a littlebetter. (Cogenerative dialogue, 3/28/11)

    In this case, the cogenerative dialogue served as a mechanismfor Amy and the other students in the class community to learnabout Hectors challenges and to collectively decide on a way tosupport him. In addition, Hector had a voice in creating a strategythat would support his own learning. Because of the nature of thegroup, Hector felt comfortable sharing his concerns.

    In a year-end interview about her experiences, Amy reflectedon the impact of having participated in cogenerative dialogueswith her ELL students:

    Researcher: So any reflections that you have on the schoolyear what youve learned or thought about English languagelearner students as your result of your work on the project?Amy: I paid more attention to English language learners thisyear than normally it was interesting to hear what theythought about why they learned things and how they learnedand stuff like that. (Interview transcription, 5/25/12)

    The cogenerative dialogues provided an opportunity for Hectorto find his voice within the smaller group, and to devise a strategyto engage more fully in science class. Amys comments indicatethat the dialogues not only enabled her to focus more carefully on

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  • the needs of the ELL students in her class, but they also providedanother dimension for her to reflect more deeply on her teaching.In addition, the structure of the cogenerative dialogues provided aspace for her to cogenerate positive strategies for engaging ELLstudents in a setting that did not challenge her authority as ateacher.

    Assuming Responsibility for LearningSecond, cogenerative dialogues empowered students to take onadditional roles and responsibilities in connection with sciencelearning. For example, after our first cogenerative dialogue,Andres, a sixth grader originally from the Dominican Republic,was interested in finding out more about one of the topics wediscussed: what his class liked and disliked about science class.Completely on his own, Andres came up with the idea ofsurveying his classmates during recess about their likes anddislikes about class (Field Notes, 3/17/11). Andres arrived at thenext cogenerative dialogue meeting with his notebook, where hehad written down all of the responses from his classmates. Hethen proceeded to report the results, which provided additionalstudent perspectives for the group to consider. This became a taskin which Andres had an opportunity to utilize his speaking,reading, writing, and analytical skills in an authentic way, and in amanner that was tied to the needs of the class community. He alsowas empowered by his authority to serve as a voice for hisclassmates who were not present at the cogenerative dialogue.This example shows how cogenerative dialogues have thepotential to empower students to use inquiry and literacy practicesin real-world contexts, for real-life tasks.

    Sharing Responsibility for Students Language Acquisition andLearningThird, by engaging in cogenerative dialogues with ELL students,teachers have been afforded new opportunities to understandhow language demands can make the social aspects of learningmore complex. For example, in another cogenerative dialogue,four seventh-grade girls who all were ethnically Chinese andwho were bilingual in Mandarin and English expressed their

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  • frustration with being asked by the teacher to partner withnewcomer students during small group work because it requiredthem to explain activities in Mandarin. During this cogenerativedialogue, the science and ESOL teachers explained that theychose to place newcomer students wi...


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