In the current coronavirus crisis, staff and administration of the SDP have been understandably concerned about equitable access for all students—-including those with special needs—— to online/virtual instruction. I am sure that the public applauds the SDP’s plan, in this rapidly evolving and unpredictable situation, to distribute computers and to work with Comcast to ensure internet connections in every student’s home, as well as the lightning turnaround in the production of educational packets and other resources for students in the interim.
Everything seems to be in flux, and policies and instructional approaches will continue to evolve to meet the challenge. One possible upside of the current crisis is, however, the opportunity to consider how, and how well, the District has been addressing the learning needs of English Learners (and other learners with special needs), and how it will accommodate these students’ instructional requirements through the online medium. The attention now being paid to these students may—-it is hoped——pay off in more appropriate instructional approaches and policies in the long term, as well.
As an expert in English Learner education, it has been clear to me that the
needs of English Learners have been poorly understood and only superficially addressed by the District for decades. Despite criticism and pleas from administrators, teachers, parents and community activists, little attention has been paid to this population in the development of polices toward, for example, assessment, content-area instruction, special EL program design, high school selection, or teacher development, to name only a few issues. English Learners have suffered through incomprehensible content-area classes; have been assigned homework and home projects that were not adjusted to their linguistic needs; have been placed in newcomer programs that do not ensure college and career readiness; have been assessed and graded without fair consideration of their linguistic levels; and have even been blamed for a school’s lack of stellar SPR scores. School administrators and teachers have not been held accountable enough for accommodating these students’ academic, linguistic and social needs, or even understanding what those needs are. It does not come as a surprise to most people that ELs, particularly those at beginner and intermediate levels, would not be able to handle the recently distributed educational materials designed for native-speaker students and would most likely not have parents at home who could help them in English- language assignments. I believe efforts have been made to provide some scaffolded materials packets, at least for high school students.
But that same level of concern for these students’ access to comprehensible instruction has been sadly lacking before this crisis. How many materials and assignments have been sent home with absolutely no consideration of the resources that children would have to complete them successfully? How many classes were delivered with no concern for ELs’ lack of listening skills or relevant vocabulary? How many times have newcomers been seated in the back of the room, lost in a fog of confusion or acting out because of frustration? How many parent conferences were missed by ELs’ parents because of a school’s unwelcoming culture? We can definitely do better, and perhaps through this current challenge, we will learn how to do that.
I have several suggestions for the move to create online instructional materials and experiences, suggestions that should also be applied more generally in improving EL education. This is just an initial stab at addressing the challenge.
First, it is crucial to involve veteran ESOL educators in collaborating to create or adapt materials (units, activities, projects) for learners at different levels of language proficiency, Grades K-12. Sadly, the majority of 440 staff in the multilingual office—-with some notable exceptions—- have little expertise or experience in ESOL instruction, as compared to master ESOL teachers across the city. We are wasting a rich resource if we don’t involve teachers—-and compensate them— in helping to create instructional materials for this new platform. At one time, back in the days when legal pressure was on the District to accommodate ELs, teachers were actively recruited to assist with creating curriculum and selecting materials. I understand that OMCP has already been working on some accommodations to the materials packets, and that should, of course, continue, but with much more active input from teachers.
Second, guidelines for content-area teachers working with ELs online should be published by OMCP, based on best practices from QTEL and, once again, drawing on the expertise of veteran teachers of sheltered classes, particularly soliciting ideas from QTEL-trained teachers. These guidelines should also contain a set of reminders about resources (online dictionaries, bilingual resources, etc.) that teachers may share with their EL students.
Third, I hope that ESOL class is not disregarded when thinking about online instruction. Because of an ill-considered move to push-in instruction in the last years, students have not been receiving much—-or any——targeted language support in many schools. With the online format, it would be possible for students to participate in ESOL classes at their level, in which students would be given the kinds of grammar, vocabulary, and reading support that once was
part of a fully developed and research-supported language program. If the SDP develops lessons for each grade, ESOL teachers could provide the kind of adjunct instruction——repeating the main ideas, reinforcing language of the lesson, providing more oral participation opportunities—-that is unfortunately not offered anymore in most schools. This face-to-face instruction (albeit by Zoom or other platform) could truly allow students to progress linguistically and find greater academic success. It is an opportunity not afforded many ELs during the “non-virus” school year.
Fourth, with computers in the house, parents will now be able to reach out to talk to (and see) BCAs (Bilingual Counseling Assistants) who might be able to answer questions and address their concerns in parents’ native languages. Many of the BCAs are assigned to various schools on different days of the week. I wonder if, during this crisis, it would be possible for the BCAs to be available to parents at all their schools each day during school hours—-or even, if BCAs could be listed for parents by language, and could be contacted by any parent in the District from that language background, if help is needed. Contact could also be made by phone, but in this lonely, scary time, seeing a familiar face should be very encouraging. And, conversely, BCAs could be encouraged (required?) to reach out to students from their schools, to check on their well- being.
Fifth, and finally for today, principals and assistant principals have never been afforded more than just superficial training in addressing the needs of ELs. Not only was SDP training never mandatory, as far as I know (so few principals attended sessions on EL instruction), but also state certification for administrators does not include extensive, necessary coursework on teaching students with special needs such as ELs. During this time when principals will be available online, as well, some Zoom training (mandatory) could be provided by qualified 440 staff. Topics for this training could include, for example: Linguistic and academic accommodations (through QTEL and other techniques); creating a culturally welcoming school (moving beyond the multilingual welcoming sign); how a second language is learned (and the time frame for language acquisition, i.e., students will not be fluent in a month); and linguistic and cultural information on immigrant groups in the city, to name only a few.
I am happy to offer my volunteer services in helping accommodate the needs of ELs during this time. Do not hesitate to reach out to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.