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Supporting equity for English learners during the Coronavirus pandemic

By Sarah Ottow

Learning Forward is pleased to share this blog post in collaboration with Confianza, which works with professional learning leaders, coaches, and teachers to develop educators’ capacity to provide access and opportunity for culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all facing challenges in our personal and professional lives, the likes of which have never been seen. For our English learners (ELs), the fastest-growing subgroup of students in the US, we are seeing the special challenges these students and their families face every day now magnified with schools being closed. My colleagues and I at Confianza are working directly with our client schools and districts to respond in real-time to the challenges of keeping teaching and learning going in some way, shape, or form. I’d like to share what we’re learning about what professional learning leaders can do, during this crisis, to address issues of equity for our ELs. I summarize them in three themes: Comfort, Communicate, and Connect.

Comfort

First and foremost, leaders should focus on comforting students and families by addressing basic needs. You may have heard the saying that “we can’t focus on Bloom’s Taxonomy until we get Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs under control.” That means we need to learn about and, to the best of our ability, tackle survival issues for our students and our families now. One leader told me this week, “not everyone in my district understands what my EL families are really going through.” There are so many unknowns for many of those families, from lost jobs to fear about undocumented status and beyond.

Leaders should focus on comforting students and families by addressing basic needs. Click To Tweet

Furthermore, we are seeing the digital divide as a more glaring example of inequity than ever before. “If the expectation is to have children on computers, provide computers,” a leader stated, “because some households have several families living there and only one phone with no computer.” Plus, platforms can be confusing for families if the school has not used online learning in the past, especially for parents and caregivers who don’t speak English.

Given that this time is full of uncertainty around economic security, health, and other basic needs, I recommend asking the following questions of your school/district now:

  • Are students and families safe and healthy? How can educators check in to see if students and families have their basic needs met?
  • Do students and families have access to food? Can the school provide breakfast and lunch for the households?
  • What resources can the school and/or community provide now to make sure basic needs are met, including access to wifi and devices?

Communicate

When reaching out to EL families, we need to make sure that we are communicating in a way that is accessible to those who do not have proficiency in English. As one leader shared with me, “I don’t think I’ve ever been this passionate about my job before because now we are seeing which educators know how to effectively reach out to multilingual populations and who does not.”

When reaching out to EL families, we need to make sure that we are communicating in a way that is accessible to those who do not have proficiency in English. #ELs Click To Tweet

Every time we send a message, we should ask ourselves if it might be missed by some families.  For example, by sending home electronic surveys in English asking who has wifi access for remote learning, we may leave out 1) those caregivers who do not have proficient literacy skills in English and/or 2) those who do not have devices at all on which to view and respond to the survey.

I recommend asking of your educators:

  • Is the communication we are sending home to families actually accessible to all families? If not, what ways besides email can we reach out (e.g. phone calls, texting, platforms that translate to home languages)?
  • Is the district/ school leveraging the expertise of EL educators about how to communicate with and support EL families?
  • What accommodations need to be made to the distance instruction we are providing so that it is accessible for ELs (e.g. blended supports that include print-outs instead of all online learning and the same type of scaffolds we would provide in face-to-face classrooms)? The same principles of accessibility apply as always, but even more so now. For example, consider whether you are overemphasizing writing tasks or effectively balancing all domains — reading, writing, listening and speaking.
  • Can leaders leverage this opportunity to take note of any inconsistencies in accessible, two-way communication for EL families so that a more proactive and inclusive set of policies and practices can be put in place for the long-term, even after the crisis ends?

Connect

In the midst of the unexpected and fast-moving nature of our new teaching reality, let’s take time to slow down, breathe, and really connect with each other. We can focus on the power of relationships to get us through. Let’s not overemphasize remote learning at the expense of organic connection and alternative ways of learning between all people–students, educators, caregivers, the community. Social-emotional support should be woven into academic learning and now is a great time to make that a new reality.

''In the midst of the unexpected and fast-moving nature of our new teaching reality, let’s take time to slow down, breathe, and really connect with each other.'' @SarahOttow Click To Tweet

Yes, ideally, we can keep teaching and learning going, but let’s not forget how important it is to check in and share how we are each experiencing this “new normal.” “We’re keeping it simple right now,” disclosed a leader, “we are giving students academic assignments and we are also asking for students’ and caregivers’ ideas about creative projects, down time, and outdoor activities when possible, too.”

Take time to pause, reflect and ask yourself and your stakeholders:

  • Are we providing the time and space to process these changes — emotionally and logistically? Or are we pushing ahead with over-programmed schedules and expectations that may be unrealistic at this time?
  • How are we hearing from students about their experiences right now? Can teachers check in through phone calls or video chats as well as or in addition to email to make more personal connections?
  • How can schools capitalize on families’ funds of knowledge and not just the “official” curriculum? Can we balance the needs of core instruction with other ways of authentic learning in the home? How can families be partners to get through this together?

These strategies can help to narrow some of the gaps and address some of the needs EL families are experiencing right now. And as we work toward longer-term solutions for making high-quality teaching and learning truly accessible to all, comfort, communication, and connection will continue to be essential.

Sarah B. Ottow (sarah@ellconfianza.com) is the founder and director of Confianza. For additional resources on supporting English learners, visit Confianza’s website at https://ellstudents.com/.

 

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