At NYU Steinhardt, Think Tank Focuses on the Needs of English Language Learners

Students from the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies spoke at Steinhardt's ELL Think Tank.

Once a month on a Wednesday afternoon, teachers, educators, academics, and administrators gather in the Department of Teaching and Learning’s Corcoran Room for coffee, soda, chips, and NYU Steinhardt’s English Language Learning (ELL) Think Tank.

The ELL Think Tank is one of the ways that the NYU Partnership School Program helps expand the teaching and learning of the New York City public school community, and is run by Rosa Riccio Pietanza, coordinator of partnership schools for Steinhardt’s teacher education programs.

NYU Steinhardt’s partnership schools – there are 23 in all – are elementary, middle and high schools, where students in Steinhardt’s teacher education programs do their fieldwork and student teaching.

Working with schools on a daily basis, Pietanza, who has twenty-four years of experience in New York City’s public schools — including serving as founding principal of the University Neighbor High School — has her ear to the source and a good instinct for what schools need.

Rosa Riccio Pietanza

She was meeting with Martha Polin, principal of Lower East Side Preparatory High School, when the idea for the ELL Think Tank was born.

“Martha mentioned a need that school administrators had to talk to NYU faculty about issues in ELL instruction, and then we thought that it would also be a good idea to invite principals and assistant principals of NYU Partnership schools to join in the conversation,” Pientanza said.

The first ELL Think Tank meeting was held at Lower East Side Prep in January 2007.  Convened by Pietanza and Frank Tang, clinical professor of foreign language education at NYU Steinhardt, it was attended by a handful of people.  Six years later, attendance at the think tank is healthy with a core group of NYU faculty members and New York City principals attending regularly to share resources, tools, and best practices for ELL instruction.

“The ELL Think Tank exemplifies the different ways that universities, schools, and policy entities can come together to collaborate intellectually,” says Joseph McDonald, professor of teaching and learning, and founder of NYU’s school partnership project.  “I think it demonstrates that research, policy, theory, and practice are all crucial to solving complex problems in education, and that trust built up between a set of schools and a university over time can enhance and strengthen these connections.”

In December, teachers, students, and administrators from the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies were guest speakers at the ELL Think Tank. In an animated session, students talked about their varied experiences as English language learners or non-native Chinese speakers in a school, which practically created itself from scratch, designing its own curriculum as it was opening its doors in September 2003.

Miriam Uzzan, the high school’s assistant principal, attends the think tank regularly.  For Uzzan it has been a place to exchange information, learn about new happenings, and work with colleagues that have a shared interest in improving the education experience for English language learners and their families.  She reflected on the value of her students’ presentations; how important it is for schools to advocate on behalf of ELL students.

“Listening to our students talk about their experiences offers all of us a chance to learn and think about how we can make acquiring language a better experience for new immigrants,” Uzzan said.

Last year U.S. News & World Report gave the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies its gold medal ranking, listing it as 25 in its “best high schools in the nation” category and the fifth best public school in New York State.

Pietanza notes that the high school’s resourcefulness in seeking out programs to support their students and faculty boosts an already strong foundation.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, then we’re proud to be a small part of the village that can help New York City’s high schools grow and thrive,” Pietanza said

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Photos:   Students and staff from the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies visited NYU Steinhardt’s ELL Think Tank (top row):  Miriam Uzzan, assistant principal and Yan Li, principal;  Students (front row, left to right):  Minmin Ye, Qiling Feng, Brenda Sanchez, Benjamin De Los Santos.  (Credit:  Debra Weinstein.)

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