Communities of Practice: Connections and Collaborations in the EAL Context

Presented at the 31st NTC hosted by IGA in Guatemala City, Guatemala
November 6th, 2012


I was very excited to be speaking about community and communities of practice as tools for professional development and teacher empowerment in Guatemala. In some ways, I attribute Guatemala to my life journey of wonder and exploration. I came to Guatemala in 1996 to study Spanish in the quaint town of Antigua. I lived with a remarkable family for a month. I spent most of my time between classes at the plaza in the center of town, chatting with the little girls who were selling purses and other handicrafts. The children always made me feel comfortable. They gave me confidence with my emerging Spanish skills.  Years later, anytime anyone asks where I learned Spanish, I tell them – it all started in Antigua, Guatemala and continued from there. Since then – I’ve traveled to study, surf and climb mountains in several Spanish speaking countries.


When I looked into the audience at the conference I saw a community. A community that I belong to and from which I find strength in shared knowledge and experiences. For me, belonging to a community is a way of life – the only way I want to know. I truly believe that everything is better or becomes better when shared – food, wine, books, music, and travel. Even grief, when shared, becomes more bearable within a community.

So, what is community? There are many ways to ‘theorize’ community. Academics in the fields of Sociology and Anthropology, to name but two, have been exploring the question of ‘what is community’ for decades. They have found more ways to discuss community than I would ever find relevant to me, but there are some interesting perspectives.

What is community to you? What do you envision when I ask you ‘what is community?’ Do you see your neighbors and the places you walk? Do you see the men and women you work with? Do you see your friends and family?

Community can be defined by place, interest or communion. Place defines people residing in a particular region as members of a community, such as people living within the same village or living within the same high rise building. Interest defines people who share a love for the same activities, sports, academics, and hobbies as belonging to the same community.  Back home, for example, I am part of a strong community of rock climbers – and even when I’m not climbing – I feel a connection to these individuals. People may be united by a spirit of community that is less tangible because not everyone knows each other, but they all rally behind a cause such as equal pay for women or animal rights; or perhaps they are unified by a particular belief in a higher power.  And of course, these community markers can overlap and intersect. The details of what defines community aren’t as important as the simple state of ‘belonging’.

In fact, studies have shown that belonging to a community has actually been correlated to increased health benefits! It’s true.  One researcher claims that social capital is gained through connections with others, through reciprocal interactions. These interactions promote a sense of wanting to improve a shared livelihood, commit to one another and join efforts within a shared network.

There have been arguments made that social capital in the form of community promotes trust and reciprocity that enhance child development, lead to improved shared spaces, lessen class disparity and improve health.

According to Putnam (2000), “as a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining” (p. 331). In addition, he states that “regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income. Civic connections rival marriage and affluence as predictors of life happiness” (p. 333).

Community through Shared Experiences
“People are looking for community in all the wrong places. It’s not goodwill and like-mindedness, it’s daily experience in workplaces and neighborhoods and churches and civic groups.”

-Francis Moore Lappe, activist, writer, political theorist

I do believe like-mindedness makes up community, but I agree that we go beyond simply thinking alike to form community – we do alike. We act together, we ‘activist’ together, we survive together, we strive for betterment of the world, we engage one another in discussion of ideas and participation in activities.

Who am I to speak to you of Community?
I’m just an American – I come from a society that values individualism so much! We build six foot privacy fences around our yards and homes; we walk straight from the office to the car to the home. We move out the minute we turn 18, if not sooner. And when our beloved parents turn ‘too old’ to live alone, we find a suitable assisted living facility for them to find comfort and care. It’s true – so much of what I know about community I have learned from my travels in Latin America and Africa. But also, in my work with teachers.

Teaching Adult Emergent Readers
When I began teaching English to adult emergent readers (learners with no literacy developed in any language), I was faced with many challenges. I found comfort in knowing that I wasn’t alone. In the years leading up to completing my doctoral studies, I learned a lot about the challenges and needs of English language teachers of adult emergent readers. I conducted an ethnographic case study of teachers in this context, using Activity Theory to tease out the tensions within the human activity of these teachers. Activity Theory allowed me to go beyond a narrow focus on the teachers or learners alone and bring in the larger context with all of its complicated relationships and interactions. The findings, in a nutshell for the sake of this blog, centered around the following tensions or contradictions:
  • Teaching materials were scarce to nonexistent for working with this learning population and budgets in these teaching contexts often didn’t afford to purchase was little was available.
  • Teachers’ beliefs about their students were not easily mapped to the learners’ realities because of the limited shared language between the two groups and the lack of access to initial interview data on each student from week to week.
  • Teachers’ professional knowledge about how languages should be taught and learned were in contrast to the reality of working with this learner population. In this context, classes ran better if it was teacher-centered and fairly controlled – at least initially. This caused doubt and questioning in the teachers who felt they should be doing more pair and group work in the classroom, but were at a loss for how to implement it effectively.
  • Top-down decisions had a largely negative impact on the teachers. Decisions about scheduling, class size, teacher qualifications, and professional development were made by individuals who didn’t have a clear sense of what was actually going on behind the classroom doors.
  • Professional learning opportunities for work with this particular group of learners is generally limited. Teachers in this context are constantly adapting what they are learning to fit their students. They have to adapt materials, texts, teaching strategies and pacing. For the most part, professional learning opportunities target work with literate learners or they come in one-shot workshops that don’t provide opportunities to critically reflect on practice.

Professional Learning Opportunities

The majority of the tensions could be explored and addressed through improved access to professional learning opportunities that fit the teachers’ needs and empower them as agents of knowledge construction and therefore change in classroom practices. Teachers do theorize practice, but often do so in isolation. When a teacher theorizes practice, he or she takes a moment to reflect on a given lesson or activity and consider what did or did not work well. He or she will then go to the research or other resources to find alternative approaches. When something works well, a teacher may make note of this in a teaching journal or at least in his or her lesson plans for future reference.

Ideally, this theorizing of practice isn’t happening in isolation, but rather with the support of peers. Unfortunately, there is often little administrative support for professional learning – at least in the sense that most opportunities for professional development are unpaid or infrequent. Appropriate professional learning opportunities can provide a mediational space for negotiation of tensions. They allow for the following to take place:

  • Reduce isolation
  • Give teachers voice
  • Increase expansive or transformational learning
  • Target students’ goals
  • Promote student learning
  • Teachers theorize practice
  • Evolve knowledge base for teaching EAL
Communities of Practice
What is a community of practice? Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) define it as “a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4).
Communities of practice boost morale because teachers get one another! They promote qualitative change and development in program and teacher practice. Critically, communities of practice are context embedded professional development opportunities – directly connected to the teachers’ lived teaching experiences.

According to Freeman and Johnson (1998) “any theory of [second language acquisition], any classroom methodology, or any description of … English language as content must be understood against the backdrop of teachers’ professional lives, within the settings where they work and within the circumstances of that work” ( p. 405).

Communities of practice are collaborative approaches to professional learning that are immediately accessible to teachers. They are based in the actual teaching context and reflect the learner populations relevant to the teachers. Importantly, they are teacher-directed which allows teachers to take part in knowledge construction, rather than simply being consumers of ‘expert’ knowledge. The teachers  are available to one another as resources in an on-going capacity, constantly engaged in a feedback loop. They jointly theorize practice and co-construct solutions to problems they experience in their classrooms.

copyright Allan (2008)

Communities of practice can engage teachers in a variety of activities that promote critical reflection and theorizing practice, including:

  • Study Circles
  • Lesson Study
  • Action Research
  • Online Forums and Blogs
  • Book Club

Lesson Study

  • Choose a content area or class to focus on.
  • Teachers collectively develop a lesson based around research, shared knowledge, the experience of those involved, and innovative practices they would like to implement.
  • One teacher pilots the lesson with his or her class; others observe in person or videotape for later reflection.
  • Teachers discuss the lesson and feedback from both observers and the acting teacher.

Study Circle

Who’s afraid of research? It can be scary. Study Circles can help make it more accessible.

Study circles comprise “a group of practitioners reading and discussing research and considering its implications for classroom and program practice” (Burt, et al., 2008, p.6). They can provide a great follow-up to workshops and conferences as a means of processing the content, reflecting on theory and discussing suggested methodological approaches
My colleague Patsy Vinogradov (2011) has worked extensively to develop an approach to study circles that can be implemented effectively in many contexts. Her particular study circle was implement with teachers of adult emergent readers. However, by simply adjusting the readings, it can fit any context. Here are the basics of this approach:
  • Convene a small learning group (8-12 teachers)
  • Organize around a given topic relevant to a shared teaching context
  • Meet around given topic for 3-5 sessions, guided by a facilitator (expert on topic)
  • Include 3 Key Elements (NSCALL, 2006, p.11): 1. Professional wisdom 2. Research 3. Application of each to practice

Implementing Study Circles

Here are Patsy’s ideas, which you can access in her Study Circle Facilitator’s Guide:
Prior to each meeting
  • Read relevant research on selected topic
  • Prepare reflections on classroom practice related to research
During meetings
  • Discuss relevance of research to learners/context
  • Discuss potential applications of findings in classroom/program
  • Develop plan of implementation – How will the ideas be tried out in the classroom?
After meetings
  • Experiment in the classroom; change practice to incorporate ideas
  • Reflect on classroom practice
  • Observe one another in action
Action Research
Action Research is systematic classroom-based research conducted by the teachers. It can be a collaborative effort if teachers within a community of practice design the study together. They can conduct the same research in their respective classrooms and later discuss the data, analysis and interpretations collectively. In this way, they demystify the research and make meaningful connections between research and practice (theorizing practice!). Together, teachers then develop materials and classroom practices that ‘speak to’ the findings.
5 Phases of Action Research
  1. Identify a Problem – is it worth time, effort?
  2. Devise a Plan of Action – timeline, classroom practice during study
  3. Collect Data – determine the types of data, resources available
  4. Analyze Data – look for patterns, themes, insights, implications
  5. Develop a Plan of Future Action – what changes to practice will you make; what are your recommendations; how will you share with others?
Tips for Launching your Community of Practice
  • Find a core, committed group of teachers and administrators
  • Develop a shared mission on your first meeting
  • Plan to meet regularly – determine the frequency that works for everyone (e.g., weekly, monthly)
  • Create a ‘syllabus’ or action plan (i.e., decide to try Lesson Study, Book Club, Study Circles, Action Research)
  • Don’t be afraid of research – tackle it in teams; theorize practice!

For Program Administrators

  • Create time and space for and see the value in teacher-driven professional learning opportunities

For Teacher Educators

  • Cultivate skills for theorizing practice so teachers can generate knowledge throughout their career
  • Introduce professional learning models that are sustainable and teacher-driven so teachers can advocate in career

For Teachers

  • Create or join a community of practice
  • Participate fully and contribute in meaningful ways.
  • Analyze your own learning as a means of relating to your students’ learning – examine: what motivates you; what activities do you enjoy; what makes the content meaningful to you; what group/pair structures work for you

I believe that all teachers (or perhaps simply all humans) can feel isolated at times. Given what we know about the power of community to actually improve our health and quality of life, shouldn’t we believe that community at the workplace can at least improve our attitude and morale as they relate to our practice?

After giving this talk at the National Teachers Conference in Guatemala, a young woman approached me. She told me how much she believes in everything I said. In fact, she told me that she had tried to implement communities of practice at her school to band the teachers together as a unified voice to both explore practice and promote just decision-making by the administrators of her school. As she spoke, the tears welled up in her eyes.

Her story ends with probation and further isolation as the administrators in her school viewed her efforts to unite the teachers as a move to ‘revolt’ against the ‘top’. Her punishment is that she is not allowed to speak to any other teachers and can only interact with her students and her supervisors for the next year. Hearing this broke my heart. Teachers and administrators must work together and learn to speak one another’s language if we are to best serve our learners – the very people we are there to support. When there is angst or discontent within any army of people – be they soldiers, oppressed villagers or teachers – opportunities for growth, development and forward momentum are instantly squashed.

Find strength in one another. Come together as a force of knowledge and practice that can change the lives of learners and promote betterment for the larger community of mankind – one to which we all belong.


Allan, B. (Designer). (2008). Knowledge creation within a community of practice. [Web]. Retrieved from
Burt, M., Peyton, J. K., & Schaetzel, K. (2008). Working with learners with limited literacy. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. Retrieved from
Freeman, D., & Johnson, K. (1998). Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base of language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly, 32(3), 397-417.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Vinogradov, P. (2011). Study Circle Guide for Teachers of Low-literacy Adult ESL Students. St. Paul, MN: ATLAS, Hamline University. Retrieved on Nov. 1, 2012 from:
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice. Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.