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I entered my classroom in the Bronx, N.Y., for the first time this school year to find nine of my students spread out around the room, wearing masks and positioned behind plastic bubble shields. The nine middle schoolers were all English Language Learners (ELLs), and several had immigrated to the United States within the last year. They already faced enough obstacles in their pursuit of academic achievement — and now there was this.
The safety measures killed class discussion. Students couldn’t be physically paired together, and it was often too difficult to hear them talk from behind their masks. My preferred methods of building rapport with them were no longer an option either. Instead of huddling with my students, smiling and giving fist bumps, I sat in my corner of the room, providing feedback on their Google Docs from behind my laptop. Emojis weren’t cutting it. I saw apprehensive eyes peeking at me over masks, curious about me just as I was curious about them, but we never seemed to advance beyond our static stage.
As difficult as in-person learning was, remote days were worse. At times it felt like teaching into an abyss. Most students kept their cameras off and were too timid to post in the chat. Technology issues, common at my school, were most prevalent among ELLs: There were just too many ways someone new to the country and language could get lost in the digital academic realm.
Online learning platforms varied by teacher and class. Navigation tools on the iPads issued by the New York City Department of Education were kludgy and complicated. Add in some inconsistent Wi-Fi and the school’s expectations for our students became downright mean. For those who needed more time to finish tasks and tests due to language barriers, completing an assignment before class ended was just about impossible.
One student, reached at home by a guidance counselor and asked why he hadn’t been attending remote classes, responded, “Why bother?”
It’s easy to see why he would be so frustrated.
Yet leave it to the students to push and tug at these barriers, to find the cracks in these walls that we unwittingly constructed while trying to keep one another safe from the coronavirus. Two telling incidents occurred during my teaching this fall — one in person and the other during remote instruction. In these cases, the students themselves seemed to come up with ways to overcome the obstacles to learning and connection.
During one social studies class, I was off in my corner with my laptop when a student approached me. She came within three feet, then drew closer. My back tensed. I debated whether to remind her of the safety rules and send her back to her chair. But she and I had started to break the ice a little, and I didn’t want to lose what we’d gained.
The student, brand-new to the country, had been doing some good work in Google Docs for a research project on Mexico and had responded well to some of my feedback. Before I could make a decision about what to do, she said, “I’ve been to Mexico.”
What I understood from her was not that we need to get rid of social distancing in order to learn, but that we need to make sure that as our classroom environments are rearranged, we are careful about what is lost in the reshuffling.
I wondered why she’d crossed the room to tell me this. “Oh yeah?” I said.
“Just one time,” she said, “on my way here.” Then she started talking about her journey to the United States: She’d taken a string of buses and cars, and gotten so carsick she’d thrown up. She’d crossed the Rio Grande in a boat, then eventually reunited with her dad, her stepmother and stepbrothers in New York.
Good thing I shut up and let her talk. She was telling me something important. I was grateful she shared her story with me, but if I hadn’t examined why she was telling me, then I would have missed her point. She was constructing our partnership as student and teacher the way that she needed it to be, with this narrative about herself at its core.
There was nowhere for her to put this story in her worksheet, so she took charge and created her own space, breaking some safety rules on the way. What I understood from her was not that we need to get rid of social distancing in order to learn, but that we need to make sure that as our classroom environments are rearranged, we are careful about what is lost in the reshuffling.
The other incident happened during a remote class. While a small group of us waited in a Google Meet breakout room for another student to join, a discussion broke out about languages.
“I speak three languages,” said one girl as she snacked on crackers close to the microphone. In the background you could hear a sibling’s teacher reading aloud on another device, and clanging dishes in the nearby kitchen.
Again, I let the moment linger, following the students’ lead.
“Spanish, English and Quechua.”
“How do you say ‘Good morning’ in Quechua?”
“You say . . . punja!”
“I speak three languages, too,” said another student. “Spanish, English and Garifuna.”
“Buiti binafi” is how you say “Good morning” in Garifuna, she explained.
We all practiced saying “Good morning” to one another in these languages. One girl’s mother laughed in the background.
They were making connections left and right; they were rebuilding a classroom community dismantled by a pandemic.
What exactly was I witnessing? Or really, what was I experiencing? Yes, they were sharing with me who they were, in a way, and yes, maybe they were sharing with me their learning preferences, the need for discussion about their backgrounds. But what I felt was something different. They were making connections left and right; they were rebuilding a classroom community dismantled by a pandemic.
English Language Learners are always at risk of becoming “invisible” in the classroom — and that’s never been more true. The problems ELLs face are overwhelming, but if we listen to them, we’ll learn that the solutions start with repairing the connections broken by our newly created structures.
Eric Nolan is an English as a Second Language teacher in a public middle school in the Bronx, N.Y.
This story about English Language Learners was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.