Supporting ELLs: Demanding Equity
Across the country, teachers watched effects of the global pandemic unfold with shock and trepidation. Like my fellow teachers of English language learners, I watched with an added layer of concern. Too often, ELLs experience situations at school where their educational rights are violated. During a pandemic, these inequities could be greatly amplified.
As teachers of ELLs, advocacy runs in our blood. I am a proud member of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) in Minnesota. One reason I am so dedicated to my union is because we fight for our ELLs, and their educational needs are prominent in our policy proposals. In February, we were in the middle of union contract negotiations, with our ELLs front and center. We were seeking more multilingual educational support professionals, who are a critical link between schools and families. We were seeking staffing ratios for our ELL teachers, so that we can ensure our students receive enough individual attention to increase their academic English skills. We were asking our district to provide these things for our ELLs, and we weren’t settling without them.
So as cases of COVID-19 first started to spread across China, and then Italy, the 3,400 members of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators went on strike. In addition to the proposals for our ELLs, we walked out to demand mental health supports for all students. We walked out to demand support for our students who receive special education services. The pandemic started to unfold at a pace that surprised the whole country, including SPFE. We knew we needed to settle and get our staff back into schools to prepare for whatever was coming. We didn’t win everything we asked for, but we won for our ELLs. We won a staffing ratio that will get closer to ensuring each school has the ELL resources they need. We won additional multilingual education support professionals. We won contract language that ensures our teachers of ELLs aren’t pulled from providing services to our students in order to substitute in another class.
Then we immediately had to pivot to helping our educators, students and families adjust to this new reality. Two days after we settled our contract, Gov. Tim Walz ordered Minnesota schools closed to help slow the spread of COVID-19. We immediately began the shift to distance learning. And our work of ensuring equitable access to our ELLs needed to start immediately as well.
Read this blog on the importance of ELL support from the Share My Lesson team.
Supporting ELLs: Shifting to Distance Learning
I often tell people I have the best job in the entire school system. I love language, and I spend my days helping students experiment with new forms of language and expanding their abilities in reading, writing, listening and speaking. Suddenly, my students and I found ourselves in a world where everything was different. How were we going to communicate? How could I check in on them to answer their questions about this quickly changing situation? How could I ensure their needs were being met?
Sometimes, it feels like every single thing about education has changed in the last few weeks. However, many things remain the same: Our students need equitable access to education, and our families need accurate information. These needs are true for every child and family, inclusive of all languages, immigration statuses, religions and countries of origin.
There are several steps we can take as educators to help ensure our students and families have their needs met. Having resources to reference, like this document (“Supporting ELLs During the COVID-19 Pandemic”), is essential. While it can feel like everything has changed, our students’ rights, and the laws that outline those rights, remain the same. I am using this guidance to help me advocate for my students.
Additionally, I’m focused on my families, and getting them the information and resources they need. In addition to partnering with multilingual education support professionals in my district, I’m using written documents I can share with families. Some of this information is captured in these Colorín Colorado tip sheets I use. Colorín Colorado has resources I’ve used for years during professional development with my colleagues, advocacy on immigration issues, and communication with families. I am so thankful they have resources that address the fast-developing COVID-19 situation.
I don’t think distance learning will ever be able to replace the magic that occurs in my face-to-face classes: the collaboration, the co-teaching, and the community we provide for our students every day. Nonetheless, educators in my school and across the country are doing what we always do—rolling up our sleeves and working relentlessly in our efforts to give students every educational opportunity we can.
You Are Welcome Here: Supporting the Social and Emotional Health of Immigrant Students
Supporting ELLs: Fighting for the Rights of Our Students
I will be particularly focused on a few areas. As the Dear Colleague Letter of 2015 detailed, our ELLs have the right to appropriate language, academic and social supports. Language, academics, and social emotional health are three essential tenets of any educational program. At all times, including during distance learning, my students need opportunities to develop their language skills. Because many distance learning lessons rely on students reading texts and responding in writing, I am also focusing on listening and speaking with my students. They need access to audio and video for directions and instruction, and they need to have structured and supported opportunities to speak, too.
My classroom teachers and I are collaborating on lessons that provide speaking elements; the best part of my week was listening to a recording of one of my fourth-graders describe what she’s reading, and what the characters sound like in her mind. The literacy tip sheets offered by Colorín Colorado are published in her family’s home language, so her parents can see more about how to support her as a growing reader.
Just one day later, the worst part of the week for my entire school was learning that one of our students experienced a racist anti-Asian hate crime while standing in her front yard. While she is physically all right, the trauma and fear our students and families—especially our Asian students and families—are experiencing during this pandemic must be addressed and considered in our instruction. The webinar “You Are Welcome Here: Supporting the Social and Emotional Needs of Newcomer Immigrant Students” addresses this crucial topic.
Supporting ELLs and their social and emotional needs, as well as their language development is in addition to our work supporting our students’ academic growth. Each of these elements is essential in educating our ELLs. When I feel like everything in the world has changed in a matter of weeks, I return to these elements, and center myself in the needs of my ELLs and their families. I know meeting those needs will be difficult during the spread of COVID-19, but I also know it is the most important thing I can do as an ELL teacher.
Erica Schatzlein teaches English Learners at a public Montessori school in St. Paul, MN. She is also Vice President of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, and a member of the AFT ELL Cadre.