Three weeks ago the world of education was turned upside down. As they prepared to return from spring break, teachers and students found an unexpected message in their inboxes: you will not be returning to the classroom. There was no mention of how long this uncertainty would last, nor what “online learning” would look like (no one knew the answer to either of those questions … yet). Many school districts rose to the occasion like champions and did the unthinkable: developed a whole new system of eLearning in about 48 hours. But a certain group of students was left in the lurch.
Imagine coming to a new country, then being asked to sign on to new technological platforms with a keyboard that uses completely foreign symbols. The directions to sign on to those platforms read like a technical manual to fix the washer and dryer. This is the experience of many English learners. Perhaps for this reason, newcomers seemed to struggle more with eLearning than other groups as teachers reported students’ engagement online. In spite of these challenges, Frisco ISD (near Dallas, Texas) has found four solutions to foster newcomer engagement with eLearning, and they are simpler than one would think.
Explicitly Teach the Technology with Comprehensible Input.
We already know that English learners need visuals along with spoken and written English. A lot of online learning has removed the visuals and spoken English from instruction. The solution for this is to model how to complete the assignment and allow students to see your screen as you do so. There are many free applications available for this: Loom, Screencastify, and Screencast-o-matic are a few. After creating the “how-to videos,” I uploaded them to YouTube and made a channel specifically for my students. No matter what country they are from, every child and adolescent seems to be familiar with YouTube! Newcomer students have expressed relief and appreciation for these videos, even though they were created in an amateur manner.
Keep Lessons Simple
Frisco ISD encourages all of its teachers to use the same, simple online lesson template, which can be found on the schools’ websites. We focus on power standards and building on skills the students already have available to them. Additionally, parents who may struggle with English themselves need a simple, one-stop place to understand teachers’ expectations for their children. Here is an example from my ESL ILA class at Fowler Middle School.
|Day||Assignment:||Work to Turn In:|
|Monday||1. Watch “Intro to the Week” video by Mrs. Diaz
2. Login to our new Google Classroom: ESL ILA. You have received an email inviting you to ESL ILA on Google Classroom.
|None, but Mrs. Diaz will check that every student has accepted the invitation..
|Tuesday||Google Classroom Assignment: “What are Biometrics?” Watch the video: “Science of Innovation” on Youtube (with captions).||Submit the Google document: “Science of Innovation.” on Google Classroom.|
Incorporate Rich, Authentic Experiences of Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing Every Week.
The temptation exists with online learning to have students read an article, then write about it. However, all four domains of language must still be incorporated into online learning for optimum language growth. Fortunately, there are a plethora of applications that students may use to listen, speak, and record themselves. Students and teachers enjoy SeeSaw, Bulb, Flipgrid, Adobe Spark, and Nearpod to make videos and record themselves speaking.
When I’ve asked students to make these videos, sometimes they’ve turned in more than one video on the same topic. When I asked them why, students responded that after watching their video, they didn’t like “their voice” or how it appeared, and they wanted to try again and make it better. Recording themselves allows students to think reflectively about their communication skills, which is so important for all future-ready learners, not just ELs.
Create Meaningful Connection
As the shelter-in-place mandate (or stay-at-home orders) went into effect, all students suffered from the loss of their social connections. Yet new English learners’ loss may even be greater. Many have not been in the country long enough to develop strong social networks, and their families may live a sea away. Students are desperate to connect with others in a meaningful way. One former Fowler student did this by teaching the elderly technology. See: “Teens Help Seniors Stay Engaged by Offering Tech Tutoring,” (NBC-DFW News). Numerous studies cite how altruism reduces feelings of isolation. But if this is unattainable, a simple video conference in which a teacher tells his or her students that they are doing well in spite of all of these challenges makes such a difference for young people feeling isolated.
Incorporating these four simple strategies into online instruction will certainly increase student engagement. And if eLearning can be done well, we may find ourselves with unprecedented opportunities. As a newcomer sits in front of a computer screen, her affective filter is way down — in fact, non-existent. She feels free to pause her teacher’s discourse, to “rewind” it and listen again if she didn’t understand the first time. When she sat in the classroom and a teacher stood before her, she felt much too shy to ask her to repeat what she just said. Now the English learner is finally taking ownership of her own learning and asking reflective questions: do I understand what is being said? And, what do I need to do to understand better?
As the English learner begins to take greater ownership and self-advocate in eLearning, the teacher is also presented with an opportunity. The teacher finds her time and energy freed to teach higher-level thinking skills: how to think, and the nuances of language and culture. Perhaps this adventure in eLearning will fundamentally change the way we educators approach learning in general, and both we and our students will be better for it.
Elise White Diaz (M.A., Intercultural Studies) is an ESL teacher and language coach at Fowler Middle School in Frisco ISD. She has been privileged to serve various languages, cultures and socio-economic groups in Texas, California, and Honduras. Connect with Elise on Twitter @elisewhitediaz.