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Up Next: LessonPick

By Andrew Bauld on July 28, 2016 1:05 PM

The careers that HGSE alumni pursue in education once they have graduated are varied. And, for many new alums, their next steps begin to take shape long before they have left Appian Way. In this new series, Up Next, we check in with several alumni from the class of 2016 — all working on new projects that were born or developed at the Ed School — as they innovate, build, and create.

Yefei JinSchool can be a daunting experience for many students without also adding the additional hurdle of learning in a language not your own. But for over 5 million English-language learners (ELL), that is exactly the struggle they face every day in classrooms across the country. As difficult as it can be for students, the problem might be even more challenging for ELL teachers. 

While nearly 10 percent of all public school students are ELL, fewer than 2 percent of teachers are trained ELL instructors. That’s roughly one trained ELL teacher per 150 ELL students. And to make matters worse, there is very little content innovation for ELL instruction. That’s one part of the problem Education Policy and Management alum Yefei Jin, Ed.M.’16, hopes to address.

“The lack of innovation regarding the ELL phenomenon is complex yet obvious in many ways,” Jin says. “First of all, it’s a messy field. From my experience, specific issues surrounding ELL instruction influence the momentum of innovation. Controversy around best practices for ELLs, lack of coherence between states, and the political nature of the ELL teaching profession all affect innovative practice.”

To help teachers wade through these issues, Jin has created LessonPick, a free website for K–12 teachers of ELL students. The platform allows instructors to easily find and share ELL content through a database of resources. Jin hopes that LessonPick will be an innovative resource to help ELL instructors easily find quality ELL instructional content. Looking across the edtech landscape, Jin found those types of resources severely lacking.   

“Currently, there are small handfuls of edtech companies explicitly targeting ELLs. Some focus on data analysis or curriculum design, but few address the work of the ELL teacher,” Jin says. “I really believe that to be innovative in the ELL space, designing around the needs of the teacher is key and should be part of any comprehensive approach to using technology.”

Born in China and educated in Britain and Canada, Jin knows first hand the difficulties of second-language acquisition. Inspired by his own experience, Jin began working with ELL students as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities when his involvement with social change theater led him toward education and neglected communities. Jin volunteered with a local nonprofit to teach English to Karen refugees, an ethnic group from Myanmar. When that organization lost its funding, Jin sought to continue to work with the Karen people.

“I wanted to build a new program that used arts-based learning which I knew from prior work would be culturally and pedagogically responsive to the needs of these kids,” Jin says.

While this arts project ended, the idea for LessonPick grew out of Jin’s search for quality ELL resources. “The idea for LessonPick came from me scavenging for resources that could support their academics and social emotional development,” Jin says. In his search, he realized that existing methods of sharing resources were ineffective. 

Jin worked on LessonPick throughout the fall at HGSE, and found his thinking around ELL evolving through his work with faculty like Martin West, Monica Higgins, and Katherine Boles. Those lessons gave Jin a better understanding of ELL at the national level, while also shaping his concept of working with teachers in the classroom. 

Devoted to a field of education that often goes overlooked, Jin was used to working on his own, but he says he found inspiration from his Ed School classmates, who reminded him of the importance of advocating for teachers and students who were often neglected. 

“I think it really was the commitment of my classmates to push the conversation around diversity and equity which really helped me to stay focused on something a lot of people weren’t paying attention to,” says Jin.  

This summer Jin will have significant time and resources to devote to LessonPick, as he was selected for a HGSE Entrepreneurship Summer Fellowship, designed to provide funding for a limited number of HGSE students and recent alumni to work full-time at the Harvard Innovation Lab (iLab). Jin plans to work with a team of public school teachers from Minnesota to build the LessonPick database, collecting resources and tagging them across ELL standards and instructional models. Minnesota was a natural first location for the project since Jin had experience with the local K–12 system, having attended workshops and school board meetings while he was in college. It also helps that Minnesota has some of the most comprehensive and progressive ELL laws in the country. 

In addition to launching a fully operational website by the end of the summer, Jin hopes to curate the content provided by the Minnesota teachers before spreading to other parts of the county. But ultimately the sharing of resources is only the first step in his vision for LessonPick. 

“The real powerful element of the project will be creating a space where teachers are coming together,” Jin says. “If we can harness that in a meaningful way, it can go way beyond teachers simply sharing resources. It can go where all teachers feel empowered to push for school systems and legislative change. To do this, our teachers have to find each other. The resources are really only the first step for this.”