By Laura Alvarez, author, teacher, researcher, and professional development provider
As educators, we currently face an unprecedented challenge: continuing to provide rich learning opportunities when our physical school sites are closed. While most schools are going online, many students do not have internet access or computers at home. These inequities threaten to further exacerbate equity gaps for our students who have historically not been well-served by U.S. schools and who must rely on our educational institutions, including recently arrived immigrant students, or newcomers.
I teach 8th grade newcomer students in Oakland, California. Like many districts across the country, Oakland Unified closed quickly in response to an urgent public health emergency. We did not have the time or resources to send students home with internet-enabled devices or thoughtfully-formulated distance learning plans. We are now scrambling to support newcomer students, most of whom do not have internet access at home, so that they can continue their learning. My students are recent immigrants from Central America and Mexico who are beginning to learn English as their second or third language. Some speak indigenous languages and have mostly learned Spanish in Oakland. Some had interrupted schooling in their home countries and arrived as emergent readers. These are not students who have time to lose. If their peers continue learning grade-level content online, my newcomers will fall further behind academically. Because as a nation we are at the early stages of grappling with this new challenge, I can’t pretend to provide a set of best practices or recommendations. Instead, I offer three important considerations that I urge us to attend to as we strive to create quality distance learning experiences for our newcomer students.
First, we must consider how newcomers will access online learning opportunities. This situation has made it all too clear that internet access—while taken for granted by many of us—is not universal. It is something we pay for as a private utility, as are the computers and other devices we need to engage with the online world. While I hope this crisis will push us to call for universal, free internet, we are not yet there. Many of our newcomer students, as well as many other poor and working-class families, do not have high-speed internet and computers.
How can we provide equitable access to learning opportunities?
Several internet companies are currently offering free, short-term service. Ironically, signing up for free internet requires filling out an online form, and making sense of this form requires high levels of literacy. At many schools, teachers and staff are helping families complete these forms and distributing Chromebooks. In the meantime, most of my students’ connection to the internet is via cell phone, which necessitates rethinking the online platforms we use and selecting apps that can be used easily on mobile devices and on the web once students have internet and Chromebooks. I’ve learned that some commonly-used apps like Google Classroom are awkward to navigate via phone. Instead, my colleagues and I have been experimenting with an app called SeeSaw, which is easy to use on different devices.
Beyond simply getting online, access means understanding the lessons and assignments that are posted without the teacher there to provide clarification and one-on-one support. Newcomers with beginning literacy skills and emergent English will struggle to navigate text-heavy applications and online directions, so I’ve opted for an app that allows me to post video, audio, and print directions, as well as example work. In addition, we need to consider how students will complete tasks. Typing an essay on a phone is onerous; writing it by hand and taking a photo that can be uploaded or sent via text is more feasible.
As a teacher, I often focus on my role in supporting students’ academic development, but this crisis has underscored how school provides so much more than that for my students. School provides a routine, a place to socialize, food, and mental health services. Many newcomer students have experienced trauma in their home countries or in the dangerous journey here. Many are reunited with parents they barely know, who may have new partners and children, and are navigating challenging family dynamics. To continue essential social services, my district is providing free meals and groceries, and school-based therapists are meeting with students via phone and video appointments.
What about our role as teachers?
Teaching is fundamentally social and emotional work. Our students need to feel connected to us as human beings and buy into our classrooms as a place where they will feel safe and can grow.
How can we retain and deepen those connections now that we are apart?
Before jumping into academic work online, we need to provide students with a continuity of connection to their peers and to us. We are in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis, and immigrant families are in a particularly precarious situation, in terms of financial stability and access to health care. Our students need to know we care about them. In Oakland, we have spent the last two weeks checking in with families and making sure they are able to access food and other resources. Last week, I asked my students to complete a series of tasks on the SeeSaw app to check in with them and reconnect our community.
We do regular community circles in class, so I started by having students share how they were feeling and why. Students expressed feeling sad, lonely, bored, and confused. The next assignment was learning how to comment on one another’s posts. Students “liked” their peers’ posts, expressed empathy and concern for one another, and commiserated over missing one another and school. We then moved into sharing about special people in our lives and objects around our homes that are important to us. For all of these activities, I posted my own example, both to model the task and to create a human connection.
As we transition into a new form of engagement, we need to slow down and thoughtfully develop new routines that work for us and our students. Synchronous online teaching—like whole-class Zoom meetings—may be difficult for students who are borrowing a parent’s cell phone or are responsible for babysitting siblings and helping with chores. They may also be challenging for teachers who are now juggling work and caretaking responsibilities. Asynchronous routines, such as posting a set of assignments every Monday and allowing a few days to complete them, may be easier for everyone’s new reality.
To provide support, as well as connection, I am communicating with students and families via text and setting up regular “office hours.” As you establish routines, take time to explain them and teach new tools, just like you would at the beginning of the school year. The simple sharing assignments my students completed were also intended to teach different features of the app we are using: taking and uploading photos, writing notes, annotating images, and recording audio.
Learning a new language requires opportunities to interact with and make sense of the target language. How can we create routines for purposeful interaction when we are not in person?
First, try to build on and transfer in-person routines that were working before school closed. I’ve developed routines for a variety of academic practices and tasks in my class: active listening, preparing to read, reading text, analyzing the perspectives of characters and historical figures, summarizing and synthesizing text, and gathering evidence for argumentative writing. As we delve into new history content in a new online platform, I need to keep the routines as familiar as possible. Therefore, I will be using or adapting these same routines so that my students can focus on the content and language, not on new procedures. Because we cannot interact in person, I also need to think about how to create opportunities for dialogue and conversation, such as written chats, small group video calls, and one-on-one phone calls or text conversations.
Finally, teaching for equity always requires understanding our newcomer students’ contexts, what they can do and where they need to go next, and making responsive adjustments in our practice. This is no different. As we reconceptualize our practice, we need to continually assess, re-evaluate, and retool in response to how our students are engaging and what is and isn’t working. We can do this by looking at students’ work from a formative perspective and personally checking-in with students and families. As we reflect on and retool our routines, we need to ask: is this accessible to our students? Is this creating and deepening connections? Is it promoting interaction?
Laura Alvarez has spent 20 years as a teacher, researcher, and professional development provider focused on supporting bilingual and immigrant students. She currently teaches middle school newcomer students in Oakland, CA. Her most recent book, Supporting Newcomer Students: Effective Advocacy and Instruction for English Learners (written with Katharine Davies Samway and Lucinda Pease-Alvarez) will be available in May 2020 from Norton.