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Williams: Let’s keep the innovations the pandemic brought to teaching English learners and reaching their families

Conor Williams | May 24, 2021

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Students and teachers at Center City Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C. have fun on Zoom (Instagram)

Here, in the wrenching 13th — or perhaps 14th, depending on how you mark the tragedies — month of the pandemic, so many American families are frayed. Even with vaccines bringing us nearer to something like its end, the strains of the long lockdown are weighing on pretty much every parent, caregiver and kid.

And while data are scarce, it appears that English learners are being particularly excluded from COVID-era educational opportunities. In many communities, there have been worrying gaps in access to distance learning, examples of these students’ pandemic struggles have surfaced in national news coverage, and some early data on academic achievement suggest that the pandemic is hitting ELs especially hard.

But these challenges are layered atop generations of pre-pandemic inequities that have defined ELs’s educational opportunities across the country. What can schools learn from the pandemic to confront and close these gaps in the future?

Addressing the digital divide

Even before schools closed last year, English learners and their families were significantly less likely to have access to technological devices, internet connectivity, and sufficient data and/or bandwidth for downloading information that impacted their ability to do homework and engage fully in school. The pandemic converted this challenge into a crisis.

As schools suddenly moved to virtual learning in the spring, surveys and polls from the Parent Institute for Quality Education and Latino Decisions showed that large shares of ELs were unable to access their schools’ learning offerings.

“When we did close schools, we knew there was going to be a digital divide,” says Alicia Passante, ESL program manager at Center City Public Charter Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based network of schools where roughly one-third of students are current or former ELs. “[We] spent all summer making sure that every family, every kid, had a device. We surveyed our families and made sure that if they didn’t have internet, we knew, we invested in hotspots, and got those to families.”

While schools like Center City spent the spring in emergency mode, targeting basic infrastructure elements — like getting devices to ELs’ families and connecting them to the internet — many realized handing out resources only solved part of the problem. As pandemic learning has continued, some schools have pivoted from purchasing and distributing tablets or laptops to holding trainings to building the necessary digital literacy skills to use them.

Center City language access coordinator Hannah Groff says that the network’s outreach efforts have “boosted up” the technological skills of their school community — particularly parents. School leaders also prioritized training teachers to support ELs through online instruction, including paying for some to get Google Classroom certifications.

Similarly, at Mount Diablo High School in Concord, California, where nearly one-third of students are ELs, veteran teacher and EL coordinator Lorie Johnson scrambled to learn tech tools on the go, “playing catch up and a lot of trial and error in terms of finding what’s gonna work.”

Now, as Johnson and her students have grown more comfortable with different virtual learning tools, she says that they’re completing work faster and turning it in more efficiently, which has “forc[ed] them to be independent learners.” She’s also finding she is able to monitor their progress on assignments more comprehensively when they work online.

Perhaps even more valuable, the digital environment is also helping her students improve other so-called “soft skills,” like taking turns in group conversations or presenting their work to their classmates.

Engaging families

English learner advocates have long pushed schools to improve how they connect and engage with ELs’ families. This can be difficult, given U.S. schools are predominantly monolingual, English-only settings. Indeed, around the turn of the 21st century, voters in Massachusetts, Arizona, and California even went so far as to pass statewide referenda that largely prohibited schools from teaching ELs in languages other than English.

Research suggests that this approach is not particularly effective. Indeed, in 2016, the federal government released guidance indicating that, for young ELs, known as dual language learners, approaches “that do not provide home language support do not optimally promote the language and cognitive development of children who are DLLs.”

This structural problem often creates real divisions between schools and ELs’ linguistically and culturally diverse families. Will the pandemic catalyze a change after decades of stigmatizing these children and marginalizing their communities?

So far, data suggest that many schools have a long way to go.

Until schools reopen, ELs’ family members are the only adults who can reliably be in the rooms where these students are learning. In many cases, this means that they have had to take on new responsibilities for their children’s learning.

“Parents have to be more engaged than they were before,” said Groff, emphasizing the need to communicate with families from her D.C. charter school network, about distance learning assignments and expectations, as well as EL students’ progress.

To ensure that information about ELs’ distance learning is accessible to their caregivers, schools like Groff’s are working harder than ever to translate communications and share them with families through multiple mediums. Some are using apps like Talking Points or ClassDojo, which use machine translation to allow teachers to communicate directly with ELs’ linguistically diverse families.

Groff says that it’s become much easier to schedule meetings and connect with families over Zoom now that the school has helped most open and navigate the use of email accounts. The network has also grown its efforts to hire multilingual members from their schools’ community to translate documents and other school communications and interpret meetings into Spanish and Amharic, which is the native language of many of Center City’s Ethiopian immigrant families.

Centering language development in distance learning

Teachers across the country are struggling to engage ELs and get them to speak up during distance learning.

In response, some educators are holding classes outdoors or launching bilingual learning pods. Others are leveraging technology like Flipgrid, Kami, or Nearpod to spark ELs’ interest. Still others are setting up non-academic online meetings for small groups of their EL students to connect and talk with classmates.

And yet, many teachers, including Johnson, of California’s Mount Diablo High, report that their EL students are often reticent to turn on their cameras during live instructional time, highlighting an ongoing debate among educators. To break the ice, Johnson has turned to fun activities, like sending students on scavenger hunts — “go find something red and bring it back,” she says — that require the cameras. She also meets with students in smaller groups during intervention periods to work on specific areas for growth.

Passante and Groff say that, by shuffling class schedules, the pandemic prompted more collaboration among Center City teachers and students. In the network’s distance learning models, teachers are more likely to share students across classes, so they have had to learn to plan and work together, sharing newfound best practices.

“When they’re in small groups with kids,” says Passante, “they design activities that align to the language goals…[and] really give kids access to content.”

While the pandemic has forced schools to make some encouraging, if incomplete, changes in how they interact with ELs, it’s not yet clear whether these will stick when campuses reopen. Ideally, since the pandemic forced schools to rapidly close digital divides, in-person educators will be able to rely upon these new devices and digital literacy skills to extend learning in creative ways.

Similarly, schools’ necessary improvements in reaching out to linguistically diverse families could provide a foundation of stronger relationships and communication to support ELs’ learning when schools reopen. And finally, educators’ creative pandemic thinking about how to get ELs to use language — speaking, listening, reading, and writing — could remain at the center of more ambitious pandemic recovery efforts when students come back to classrooms.

Or, as Johnson puts it, the pandemic has taught her that “we’ve been underestimating these kids for years.”

Dr. Conor P. Williams is the founder of the EL Virtual Learning Forum, a free discussion community where educators working with ELs can share questions, ideas, and resources for supporting these students during the pandemic. Teachers can join here

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