Schools must work harder to connect culturally with English learners during the pandemic

Music teacher Jon Schwarz mentors second-grader Vanessa. Encinitas Unified School District created the mentoring program to provide support to English learners and their families during the coronavirus lockdown.Music teacher Jon Schwarz mentors second-grader Vanessa. Encinitas Unified School District created the mentoring program to provide support to English learners and their families during the coronavirus lockdown.Magaly Lavadenz and Elvira ArmasOctober 9, 2020California students, particularly English learners, don’t just need schools to provide them with access to math, reading, science and social studies.
They need schools to help them and their parents cross cultural and linguistic barriers to access distance learning materials and instructions. We all should be concerned that more than a million California students are at risk of falling further behind academically.
Last spring, as schools struggled to pivot from the classroom to distance learning in just a few weeks, many marginalized student groups, and particularly English learners, too often were left out of schools’ distance learning offerings.
A poll of families who speak a language at home other than English, conducted by the Education Trust-West, found 25 percent had received materials only in English.
Surveys conducted in June of California parents revealed that more than 90 percent reported that they had received information from their child’s school how to access online learning, but nearly a third of families were unable to understand the instructions.
Such barriers, combined with lack of or spotty internet access, resulted in significant learning loss last spring for these students. There is considerable evidence that this could do lasting damage to their academic trajectories.
More than 41.5% California’s students speak a language other than English at home — 18.6% of these are English learners. Learning cannot happen without becoming a community where educators listen closely to and observe what their students say or don’t say.
Listening to students’ voices however is not standard practice, according to a recent poll of youth across the nation. Teachers need to connect socially and emotionally with their English learner students by intentionally using these students’ histories, knowledge, strengths and realities to facilitate new learning.
We have an opportunity during the pandemic, when class mostly is conducted via video conferencing or calls, to amplify student voices in multiple languages and create connections.
Teachers, such as Leslie Hiatt, who teaches 32 fifth-graders at Bell Gardens Elementary School in the Montebello Unified School District in Los Angeles, have found ways to connect in English and Spanish with students and parents. In Hiatt’s class, 42% of the students are English learners.
When the pandemic struck last March, there were few state or local guidelines to guide teachers in virtual teaching, yet Hiatt made it a point of “staying connected to each other every day.”
She created intentional and consistent spaces for students to have conversations with her through phone calls, texts, Google Hangouts and Zoom. Students voices, fears and hopes guided discussion topics and influenced decisions about social and emotional resources in multiple languages.
She uncovered issues such as lack of access to resources, fear of the coronavirus, and job insecurity. Some of her students use their cell phones to participate in distance learning, shining a light on digital divide faced by the community she serves.
We learn a valuable lesson from Hiatt that all children — especially English learners — should have periodic check-ins with educators, counselors, coaches and administrators, who are focused on monitoring and supporting their mental health and wellbeing.
This can be done using a wide range of communication strategies: phone calls, texts, emails, mobile app messages, paper packets, and more. Districts can also invest in licenses for apps that allow simultaneous translation in group settings, virtual spaces, and one-on-one communications. Bilingual personnel can support teachers in their efforts to communicate in the language spoken by the parents.
Now, more than ever, teachers and school and district administrators must prioritize and bolster translation approaches to reach multilingual families. They need to prioritize multilingual communication to create a comprehensive approach to supporting English learners and other under-resourced student groups through working alliances of education professionals and family members who form teams to support students.
Let’s not forget that distance learning also provides a unique opportunity for English learners’ families to actively support their children’s home language development, which also supports their overall academic development and acquisition of English.
This fall, we all miss the real-time sounds of the school year: the ringing of the bells for classes to begin, announcements over the public announcement system. But most of all, we miss the melodies and cadences of the multiple languages of our students’ voices. Educators can and must address student concerns that impede learning by employing strategies to uplift and amplify student voices and their multiple languages.
Magaly Lavadenz, is distinguished professor of English learner research, policy and practice and executive director of the Center for Equity for English Learners at Loyola Marymount University School of Education. Elivira Armas is director of programs and partnerships at the Center.
The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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