REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
In Vermont, in response to the growing threat of COVID-19, Governor Phill Scott announced that all PreK -12 schools should close no later than March 18th, 2020, and begin a maintenance of education plan. School districts, administrators and educators, scrambled to come up with plans for how students would continue their learning at home. In Winooski, Vermont, teachers worked long hours to create take home bags of independent math, literacy and reading work for students, photocopiers buzzed on overdrive, and administrators put their organizational skills to the test creating systems for food and materials delivery, staff and services schedules, and documents to provide evidence of continued learning plans. Everyone was balancing the pressures of work with the stress of safety and health concerns in the time of pandemic. Across the state, other schools, universities, and colleges were also adjusting to education from a distance.
On the 26th of March, Governor Scott announced the closure of schools for the remainder of the school year, shortly after his “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order. We had to come to grips with the fact that we would be teaching from home for a while. Teachers called students and families, to help them navigate this new reality, including offering tech support for downloading necessary meeting platforms and learning software, creating, revising and sharing schedules for class meetings and providing much needed social-emotional connection for students in this uncertain time. Schools were also asked to begin a continuity of education shift, generating systems for teaching and assessing learning for the remainder of the school year.
As all of this unfolds, educators are also aware of the reality that many families are facing: the challenge of juggling a house full of family members, working while providing childcare or helping one’s own child/children do their school work, dealing with unemployment and insecurity around food and housing, lack of access to technology or Internet. It certainly has highlighted deep inequities in our society. Studies reveal that blacks are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 (Gassam, 2020,) cases of discrimination against Asian Americans are on the rise (Liu, 2020), and non-green card holding immigrants or residents are prohibited from receiving government stimulus checks (Jarvie, 2020). Vermont refugee support agencies, such as USCRI and AALV, have helped spread information as quickly as possible in multiple home languages about the coming virus, and are assisting new Americans in filing unemployment and taxes. Many families continue to struggle and worry about getting their basic needs met. How can we expect high quality teaching and learning at a time like this?
About one month after Governor Scott’s first order, the volunteer lead affiliate organization of Northern New England TESOL (NNETESOL), provided an online forum for teachers to speakers of other languages (TESOL) around Vermont and New England to discuss remote teaching and learning in the context of COVID-19. The theme was “growth mindset,” as board members, representing different realms in English teaching, K-12, higher ed, adult learning, and teacher training, all explored new technology for a virtual professional development experience. More than 30 participants from around the state, from St. Albans, the Champlain Islands, Chittenden County, to Brattleboro, and some currently as far away as Florida and Michigan, gathered on Zoom on April 22nd. Zoom is one of the main video meeting platforms being utilized by educators around the state to hold live group lessons, staff meetings, and family and friend meet ups. Five Vermont board members, including myself, Sarah Forbes, Past-President, Erin Ross, incoming President-Elect, Beth Evans, Member-at-Large and NNETESOL legend, Elsa Richter and Adrienne Matunas, Vermont State Representatives, hosted the two hour session on Zoom that included audience polling with Polleverywhere, resource sharing through Padlet, and breakout rooms for discussion in small groups on Zoom. We regretted the cancellation of the national TESOL convention in Denver, and the loss of our annual collaboration with Saint Michael’s College at their Language Teaching Conference, and so decided to try something new and utilize our professional Zoom membership for something other than board meetings. The result was enriching, despite some minor technological hiccups.
In small groups, participants discussed current remote teaching platforms, equity issues faced by students and families around the state, how to engage students in online learning, the shifting expectations and goals for teaching and assessment during this time, and successful remote teaching activities. Bonus questions allowed us to reflect on how we are taking care of ourselves during social distancing. Even though we had a large group, the smaller group breakout sessions allowed for a variety of perspectives and equitable talking time. We realized that while continuity of education plans and English language learner (ELL) teacher expectations vary per school, district and context, we are all facing similar challenges and responding to them in creative ways. Especially apparent was the great effort to connect with students where they are at, surveying parents about what are the best ways to connect, via WhatsApp, Facebook, Facetime, etc., and when and for how long works for each child or family. Flexibility is the name of the game! Many ELL teachers in K-12 schools found their role to be one of supporting students in accessing classroom teacher activities or meetings online. One of our closing polls asked participants to comment on the silver linings of remote teaching and learning, and many emerged, especially around the unique opportunities to connect with family members of students and the new tech learning we are all doing. The key takeaways: we’re all in this together, and we’re doing the best we can.
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I'm Sarah Forbes. I'm the