Going back to school in 2020 is proving to be challenging for students, teachers, faculty and parents alike, but ELLs are struggling with their own set of unique issues. I talked with Mary Austin, an ESL teacher in the Austin Independent School District about her own experiences this year in trying to manage a virtual classroom and how schools are rising to the challenge. Marissa teaches seventh graders at a middle school in Austin, Texas.
What are some of the biggest challenges English learners face?
Mary Austin: One thing I’m seeing, and this is happening in every house, is that middle schoolers are having to take care of younger siblings, especially if both parents are working. This puts a lot of pressure on them to keep up with their work.
As for my students, most of them come from families where their parents have limited proficiency in English or can’t speak the language at all. This makes it very difficult to communicate with them about their children’s progress and nearly impossible to come up with a strategy for helping them learn remotely.
Another thing I am seeing is that some of my ELLs move a lot. I have one student who has been in twelve different schools since Kindergarten. It’s hard to maintain a consistent strategy with all of that moving around. Their friends change, their teachers change, the curriculum changes, it’s hard on them.
What would you say is the biggest issue right now in supporting English language learners in public schools?
Mary Austin: The frustration level. If they’ve been identified as an EL there are certain tests they have to take and that can be frustrating because there is fatigue that they aren’t progressing as fast as they would like. Having computers and finding ways to develop the right apps at grade and appropriate interest level is something that we desperately need.
I see a lot of 7th grade students who are reading at a 2nd grade level. How do you provide them with materials that are interesting or engaging because they are developmentally thirteen but reading at a lower level? They don’t want to read a baby book.
What resources are most helpful in teaching your ELLs?
Mary Austin: AISD has closed the digital divide by providing every student grades 3-12 a Chromebook or an iPad which was not the case before the pandemic hit. WIFI and hotspots are still an issue though. Earlier in the year they were putting them on buses and taking hotspots into neighborhoods but now they are providing physical in-home hotspots for WIFI. The issue is you might have five kids sharing that one hotspot.
How does the district support your efforts to engage students?
Mary Austin: They try to provide programs like I-Ready which is new to our district. It’s a reading and math diagnostic tool that places students at an individualized reading level. It provides very specific lessons that meets the kids where they are and help them fill in the missing skills so they can advance. It’s a good tool but it’s our first year using it and there’s a learning curve for teachers and students.
How has Covid affected your students?
Mary Austin: Remote learning is really hard, but the good thing is that, due to Covid, everyone now has a device and hotspot to attend classes. Kids are showing up to meetings now whereas in the Spring they didn’t. So far, the numbers are really good. It’s surprising.
One thing that is hard for teachers in remote learning is that some kids don’t turn on their cameras. It’s their choice to have a camera on or not but what your missing is seeing the struggle on their faces that you would see in a classroom if they were having an issue with something. When you look at them in the classroom, you can tell who is listening and who isn’t. I don’t know if they are A. Listening or B. Comprehending. That’s true for all students, but especially for English language learners.
Editor’s Note: The name Mary Austin is used to protect the teacher’s privacy.