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As students return to in-person classes, some California teachers are focused on giving English learners lots of time to talk and write about their feelings.
In order to learn to speak, read and write fluently in English, those students need many opportunities to practice interacting with their peers in the language. A lot of English learners didn’t get enough of that practice during distance learning.
During the pandemic many school districts lacked adequate plans to support English learners, according to a report by Californians Together, a nonprofit focused on educational equity for students who are learning English as a second language.
As students come back to school, experts say teachers need to pay special attention to providing additional language support for English learners and making school a welcoming place to ease the anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic.
Some teachers are doing both at once.
Charlene Fried teaches high school English learners at Sierra Vista High School in Baldwin Park Unified in Los Angeles. On the first day of class this month, Fried asked her students a series of questions, such as: How do you feel coming back to school? What’s something you fear? What is your dream in life? What is the most important thing that you want to learn in this class?
Fried let them each answer however they wanted — in one or two words or in complete sentences. Afterward, they discussed which words came up most often. The main point was to build trust, but also to start to get them talking and listening to each other.
“Even with the senior English class where they have to do heavy-duty research, we do everything orally first,” said Fried, who also teaches in the teaching credential programs at Cal State LA and Loyola Marymount University. “If we’re doing claim and counterclaim for a research paper, we will do it orally first — I make a claim, you make a counterclaim, I make another claim, you make a counterclaim. Because I really believe for all kids, but especially English learners, that if they’ve been able to do it orally first, that they feel much more comfortable.”
Building trust from the very first day helps the students break some fear or embarrassment they might have about speaking aloud in English, especially after a year and a half of learning from home. It also helps students feel comfortable at school.
In her first week of school, Annessa Bock talked about self-awareness with her third- and fourth-grade students at Edenvale Elementary in Oak Grove School District in San Jose. She made a graph with them writing down words to describe what it looks like and sounds like to be aware of your feelings. She said this kind of lesson is important for her students, especially now as they return to school buildings mid-pandemic.
“For a lot of the kids coming back to school this year, we knew it would be scary, frankly. My third graders really stopped their official brick and mortar education in the middle of first grade,” she said. “A year and a half to them is super long, like a lot of their life, depending on their age. They have been home so long and hearing how scary, how unsafe, and now suddenly, ‘Here, put this little mask on, you’re going to be fine, off you go,’ can be traumatizing.”
About 60% of the students at Bock’s school are English learners. The school uses curriculum and approaches developed by Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) that can be used for any students but have a special focus on English learners. The organization prepared toolkits for returning to school after distance learning, with lesson plans for kindergarten through sixth grade. From songs for teachers to sing with their students to journals and research projects, the lessons focus on ways to get students talking and using vocabulary that helps them express their feelings.
“We wanted to make sure that when students came back, they were given every opportunity to be in classrooms where it wasn’t going to be the teacher who was going to be talking all the time,” said Marna Ledesma, coach program coordinator for SEAL. “We knew it was important for students to talk and have opportunities to talk. We also realized that English learners could have lost progress they had been making in terms of learning English.”
The units have a strong focus on social-emotional learning, helping students share how they’ve been feeling during the pandemic. Ledesma said when teachers do activities like circle-time or community meeting, it’s important for English learners to have visual cues and words that they can use to start their own sentences, in addition to time in small groups to practice expressing themselves out loud, so they feel more comfortable participating in the larger group.
“Students need the language to be able to communicate their feelings, and they need opportunities to be able to do that in classrooms,” Ledesma said.
To make her classroom especially rich with language for her English learners, Bock has everything in her classroom labeled. She draws pictures as she explains concepts, in addition to writing down words. She also uses a technique called “total physical response,” in which children use their bodies to make movements to go with words and phrases they learn. For example, her class is learning right now about growing as “conscious, active community members.”
All of those words may be new to some of her students, so she talked with her students about each word and its meaning and wrote down the definition. Then she asked for kids to act them out. One student raised both hands above his head with closed fists and yelled, “Active!”
At Marguerite Montgomery Elementary School in Davis, teacher Edith Suarez plans to organize what she calls “Socratic seminars” for her sixth graders. Between one-third and one-half of her students are English learners, she said.
In the seminars, students pick a topic to discuss, such as whether students should get paid for getting good grades. They read an article about the topic, then sit in a circle and discuss it and debate the pros and cons. When they participate, they are given a token, and when they participate again, they put the token down. The idea is to both encourage students who don’t often participate to do so, and to encourage students who participate all the time to sit back and listen to their peers.
“They go on to middle school, and I really want to push them outside of their comfort zone, so that way, when they are asked to speak in front of a class or in front of their peers, they have some type of experience sharing their thoughts,” Suarez said.
Many teachers say the pandemic taught them the importance of reaching out more often and more meaningfully to families. SEAL recommends teachers interview families about their experiences during the pandemic and about what they do together at home, and make sure to acknowledge the importance of students’ home language and culture, which was so present in many of their lives when school buildings closed.
“It’s important to acknowledge and value the learning that happened at home, that wouldn’t have happened if they were in school,” Bock said. “The child who learned how to make tortillas with Abuela, the child who learned how to run a cash register because they went to work with mom every day, those are things that are really to be valued and are life skills.”
Conducting interviews with families helps teachers get to know and understand their students better, which also helps engage them in the classroom, said Ramona Torres, who teaches third grade at Marguerite Montgomery Elementary School in Davis.
“It helps tremendously,” Torres said. “It lets the students be the experts. If a student is very into gardening, they’ll be the experts for the class. If a student has a parent that works in fruits or in law, they can talk to the whole class about what they know.”
Daniel McDonald, who teaches fifth grade at Taylor Elementary School in Oak Grove School District, said he has a playlist of songs for the morning and the afternoon, when the students are cleaning up. He lets the students pick their own songs to add, and sometimes they ask him to add songs from their own culture. “Can I put Indian music?” one student recently asked him. “Of course!” he answered.
“It’s so cute to see their little faces react when their song comes on,” McDonald said. “It’s validating for them to listen to songs they might listen to in the car with their parent or guardian.”
Allowing students to use their home language in the classroom can help them learn English, said Fried, the Sierra Vista teacher, but many teachers don’t understand that. She said a former AP calculus teacher at her school had several English learners in his class.
“And he said to me, ‘Aren’t you teaching them English? Every time I put them in groups, they speak Mandarin.’ And I said, ‘How are they doing?’ He goes, ‘Well, fine.’ He didn’t understand the idea of home language reinforcement,” Fried said. “I can teach you in English. I can put you in little groups, and you can work in your own language. And then we can come back together and put it together in English.”
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