Strategies to Support Some of Our Most Vulnerable Students Through Distance Learning
Note: In addition to a recent 11-part series and video offering advice to educators making the transition to remote learning and a video offering advice to parents (along with many more upcoming related posts—look for a multipart series at the end of this month in which both teachers and students will be reflecting on their first five weeks of distance learning), I've begun a series of short posts responding to specific questions from readers.
Today's question comes from Shirley Lindburg:
How do we keep the achievement gap to a minimum between the haves and have nots? I'm especially concerned about refugee families who have recently arrived and are new to American education and technology.
Teaching for Liberation Takes Outside-of-the-Box Thinking
Sarah Said currently leads a multilingual learning program in an EL education school in a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago:
We cannot give up. We cannot give up. We just can't give up. Distance learning is not something that many of us are accustomed to, and it's a struggle. I have heard many people on social media say that, "We are solely catering to our 'haves' and not our 'have nots.' " Yes, our "haves" have the technology. They have the resources and in a lot of cases, a parent (sometimes two) who is working from home. But there is more to this than just having glam tech and parents home.
Having worked in schools that are mostly classified as "high needs" throughout my career, I will say: You don't always need the glam tech to support students even from a distance; it's nice, but it's not everything. Our families are motivated to have their children become successful. Many of them make sacrifices like working multiple jobs, choosing not to have certain things that would make their lives more "comfortable," moving from their home countries, and the list goes on. ... In these times, we need to think about alternatives to support families and students who don't have technology. We need to support physical and emotional needs first, then academics. We can do it.
Right now, you are not being judged by test scores; in a lot of states, we don't have to even give definitive grades. This is our time to reach students and teach for liberation so that we can assure that everyone gets a ticket to the ballpark. In order to do that, you have to have justice—this means tearing down barriers. Here are some ways you can do this:
Getting Resources to Families:
- Many schools, including my own, are distributing paper resources and Chromebooks at food pick-up. Send any types of assignments and resources home at those times. We also have families returning work at these times. It is scanned, and our office staff emails it to teachers.
- Scholastic has great deals on book club books; look at the dollar reads. You can ship them to your school to be handed out by office staff. Students can log their reading and send you pictures of their responses via text if they have phone access.
Communicating Assignments to Families
- Phone calls and self-addressed stamped envelopes have been helpful to my team in these times. How would we have handled this pandemic without the internet? What if this occurred in the late 1980s or early '90s when your average American did not have the internet? You need to get out of your comfort zone and make a phone call. If language is an issue, you'll either need to use a language line of translators to make a call or send a document home in home language. Try to schedule a call at least once a week, same day and time with your students.
- I usually put a one-pager at the beginning of each assignment with directions for it in English and Spanish. I also provide visuals for the directions.
Types of Assignments to Give—Take Advantage of the Autonomy You Are Given
- Try to give students assignments and projects for which they can chronicle what is happening during these times. The writing may be therapeutic. Yes, your multilingual students can write in native language if this is a comfort. At least, you can help build on their first language at this time.
- Create projects and assignments that help students think critically about their communities and even places where their families have come from. Give them a chance to problem-solve and create solutions. This is real-world thinking.
- Try to have a social-emotional-learning component to the work you are giving. We need to remember to focus on a child's well-being. Yes, keeping up with the core subjects is important, but our kids are experiencing a lot of trauma in so many ways from this pandemic.
I can give you tips or ideas, but I cannot give you a definitive answer or "what to do guide." What I can say is this, you know your students, you know your community, and you know the best ways to reach them. Do what you need to do in these times to ensure that all students get a "ticket to the ballpark." For administrators out there, this is not the time to say "no" to team members' creativity for reaching families; support them with resources or just be a thought partner in helping them reach their students. Think outside the box and give your students a chance during these times.
Sending messages to vulnerable students
Carol Salva is an ESL consultant for Seidlitz Education. She is the co-author of Boosting Achievement: Reaching Students with Minimal or Limited Education. Carol shares research-based strategies through her weekly podcast on voiced.ca and her blog at salvac.edublogs.org:
One of the biggest challenges facing educators during this coronavirus pandemic is how to support students who were already at a disadvantage academically. While remote learning can be difficult for any child, language-learners and students living in poverty face unique challenges as the world shifts to distance learning.
For the purposes of this article, I'm going to focus on secondary Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE). More specifically, the undereducated students who are new to the English language, are new to American education, and may also be new to technology.
I want to begin by calling out the profound lack of equity we are witnessing where these students are concerned. We can't ignore the division between those with access to digital media and those without such access (van Dijk, 2020). We need to shine a bright light on the negative outcomes of the Digital Divide and demand a change moving forward. But I'm going to push that soapbox to the end of this article and start by offering ideas to help teachers of SLIFE be productive at this time.
The Essential Messages
If you are supporting a language-learner who is SLIFE, and may not have access to technology or may lack the experience of using technology, I highly recommend that you align your efforts with four essential messages recommended by John Seidlitz (2019) for working with English-learners (ELs).
- You Are Important.
- What We are Learning Is Important.
- We Will Not Give Up on You.
- You CAN Do It.
Ideas for sending the YOU ARE IMPORTANT message:
- Reach out to these families regularly
- Communication apps like Talking Points or Remind
- Text, call, write letters or postcards.
- United Way Helpline (2-1-1) for area services
- Get ideas at Immigrants and Refugees and Schools
- Book drive & distribution
- Try to reach through friends or family
- Include them in class meetings via phone
- *Any of the following efforts helps send the message that students are important
Ideas for sending the WHAT WE ARE LEARNING IS IMPORTANT message:
- Be explicit about why the work is important.
- Get training in the basics of balanced literacy to be able to infuse reading and writing support in virtual lessons.
- Get training in the basics of second-language acquisition and techniques for working with English-learners.
- Encourage native-language literacy.
- In the absence of technology, we can send home different-leveled readers and encourage students to list, label, and copy text in combination with illustrations, creating models or using native language.
- *Many of the other ideas give the message that what they are learning is important.
Ideas for sending the WE WILL NOT GIVE UP ON YOU message:
- Check in regularly and continue to offer ideas for reading and writing.
- Share public broadcasting stations and any education programs. ie: PBS
- Send authentic letters and ask for them to write back.
- Organize community partners postcard-writing campaign.
- Remind students to read as much as possible (in any language). Remind them of how they are going to gain literacy.
- Find resources at this padlet for engaging projects that students can do asynchronously & share synchronously. Websites for self-directed reading are also included there.
- Remember that many virtual meeting platforms allow call-in from a land line or cellphone—include them as much as possible. The tech on your end can help you communicate.
- Send links for videos that teach them how to use an iPad, a Chromebook, or other technology.
- Remind/show students that YouTube videos can be slowed down, closed captions in different languages, other language support with tech.
- *Many of the other ideas give the message that you're not giving up on them.
Ideas for sending the YOU CAN DO IT message:
- Show students their progress often.
- Share stories of inspiration with all students.
- Create a video to show students how to use chrome extensions for text-to-speech, voice-typing, etc.
- Send links for YouTube videos with culturally responsive narratives of people, like them, who have overcome similar challenges.
- Send printed blog posts, links, passages of the same type of inspiring narratives.
- Counsel students to understand the plan for learners who may not pass a class or a grade level. They need to remember that summer school, repeated attempts, tutorials, are all opportunities to improve and get closer to their ultimate goal.
- Make sure they understand growth mindset. We get smarter, we improve with more effort.
- Continued effort and support should lead to gains that help reinforce a student's perception of their own abilities.
The Long Game
I've worked with underschooled learners for many years and I've been amazed at the positive outcomes they can realize when the student and the educator focus on what is possible in the long run. Students who arrived having experienced years of trauma, with no native-language literacy, go on to not only catch up but also pass up native-English peers. In my experience, these students make the most progress when we partner with them to understand how they are going to advance in their literacy and how they can participate in grade-level learning. One student, Kamal, who still lacks native-language literacy, recently told us that he follows the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he feels like giving up. He tells himself that he needs to keep moving forward. You and your students can listen to Kamal right here.
I want to lift up all education professionals for the amazing work being done to support these children and all children. I applaud everyone scrambling to create packets so that every child has some type of curriculum materials while away from school. And many of our colleagues are risking personal harm to provide these materials or even a new electronic device to students like these. We should be grateful because much is possible with these tools.
That said, we must realize that we are not offering equity.
Our goal must be equity, and when we say equity, we are talking about a level playing field. An equitable learning experience would mean that we are meeting students at their level academically and offering access to the grade-level content regardless of their proficiency in the language of instruction and regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Your Plan for Moving Forward
As we do what we can to support students with limited education, it is important to reflect on what we might have done differently if we'd known the pandemic would have us at home for so long. One of the silver linings to this devastating virus is that so many people are seeing the inequity that advocates of marginalized populations have seen for years. The world can't look away from it right now. When schools go to remote learning, the Digital Divide grows greater. Knowing this, seeing what we are seeing, is it any question as to how we must plan for the future? We can help the students who have limited access to tech and little understanding of how to be productive in this current academic environment. We CAN help them. But they shouldn't be at such an alarming disadvantage. The inequity should never be this profound again. Administrators and program leaders must learn from this experience and prioritize these learners in their new and improved plans they will make for the next time we take school online.
See Carol's citations here.
Partnering With Busy Parents During School Closures
Tan Huynh (@TanELLclassroom) is a career teacher specializing in educating language-learners from upper-elementary to high school. Tan has served in public and private schools both domestically and internationally. He shares teaching strategies on his blog (Empowering ELLs) and has provided professional development training in eight countries. Tan wishes to support all teachers who are committed to empowering English-learners whether it be in a tweet, a blog post, a podcast, a book, a training, or a course:
Like some of your students, my language-learners have access to the internet at home and devices. You and I might both have a number of my students who do not have someone at home who is able to support distance learning. Yet these students are expected to successfully navigate a new form of schooling by themselves while their guardians go to work, attend to younger siblings, or care for ill loved ones. For children in these situations, they also experience a form of inequity—limited guardian supervision.
In response to their situations, I have partitioned even more time working with these students. The three strategies I am using are:
- Set a tutoring schedule: I created a daily schedule for the tutoring group. Students join a Google Meet at the same time each day. The consistent time establishes a familiar routine for students.
- Have students share their screens: When students join, they share their screens so I can see what they are working on. It is like sitting next to a student in a physical classroom and guiding them through their work.
- Create a daily checklist: With collaboration from their teachers, I created a daily checklist of assignments students must engage with. This focuses our tutoring time and prevents students from falling behind.
I know that there are many students dealing with more severe equity issues such as access to medical and psychological services and food and shelter needs. Yet just because a student has access to home internet and a laptop does not make their situations equitable in all aspects of learning. Some of these students lack the access to supervision provided by guardians. A Wi-Fi-connected laptop cannot provide that type of support.
Therefore, it is our job to expand the scope of inequity beyond access to technology. The scope must now include adult supervision. This might just mean that we provide more time to work with children who need guidance in managing their time.
We did not do this when we first transitioned to online school on Feb. 2, 2020. I simply assigned work, created a checklist of work completed, and sent parents an email notifying them of their students' missing work.
Please do not repeat my mistake. My students' families needed less finger-wagging emails. They needed a partner during these uncertain times. My students needed a patient teacher to virtually sit beside them as they worked. Don't let a new virtual environment erase all of our effective practices. Hold steady to what has always worked with students: "leading with love; not lessons" (Ferlazzo, 2020).
Thanks to Shirley for her question and to Sarah, Carol, and Tan for their responses!
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