Jan. 27, 2021
As we hit the midpoint of an unprecedented academic year, the global pandemic continues to pose many difficulties for education, especially for our youngest children. In California the vast majority of classrooms continue to be virtual, resulting in numerous hours spent huddled around a computer screen every single day. For dual language learners (DLLs), children 0-5 who speak a language other than English at home, the barriers they must navigate have been amplified during the pandemic.
The DLL population is the fastest-growing demographic in California and research has shown that DLLs succeed when they are engaged in meaningful asset-based learning. This entails a curriculum that focuses on what teachers and students bring to the classroom from their own cultures, and backgrounds. Rather than being characterized as needing “to improve” their language skills, dual language learners are viewed as an asset, bringing a variety of diverse experiences to the classroom.
Crucially important to DLLs’ education, however, entails providing children opportunities to use language in the context of their day-to-day lives, no small feat for educators utilizing virtual learning settings. While the challenges facing teachers and school staff during the pandemic are still ever present, inspirational educators across the state are rising above and beyond to meet these students where they are.
Sarah Henderson-Martinez is a lead preschool teacher at Garfield Community School in the Redwood City School District, where students have continued to thrive with appropriate staff support throughout the long ten months of the pandemic. She has observed that DLLs in particular seem to benefit from a virtual learning context where they are given ample opportunity to interact with their peers. She explains that her students are able to remain engaged through hands-on learning, such as planting potatoes and exploring the life cycle of plants—all remarkably done during their virtual classroom sessions.
“Students were instructed to bring a potato and toothpick to [virtual] class,” says Henderson-Martinez “and we tracked our potato growth and discussed it.” This joyful, and language-rich approach to teaching has transformed class participation. “I noticed a huge change in some of my introverted students,” says Henderson-Martinez, “I’m really proud of the community we built.” So what has been the differentiating factor for these teachers?
Alongside other educators in her district, Henderson-Martinez has been trained in the SEAL model. SEAL is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the success of DLLs by equipping educators with resources and tools and providing them with long-term and targeted professional development. The Redwood City School District has worked with SEAL for several years prior to the pandemic and has been cultivating a robust professional learning community across the district. This allowed them to readily pull together resources and pivot to a virtual classroom setting without losing their instructional vision of interactive language-rich learning.
All preschool teachers in Redwood City School District have a common thematic instructional framework and they are able to help each other plan for the difficult context of distance learning. In Henderson-Martinez’s case, her experiences during COVID-19 differed from many educators in other districts because she has felt supported by her colleagues and the district administration’s swift and decisive actions. This collaborative system, in turn, allowed school staff to focus on supporting their students and families.
Additionally, experts continue to advocate for family outreach throughout this critical time, especially for parents of DLLs. Alicia Raygoza, a teacher on special assignment and SEAL coach-facilitator at Mountain View School District in Los Angeles County, is having success using the technological connectivity of the virtual classroom to create more open channels of communication with DLL families.
There are significant burdens being placed on families, having to act as parents, tutors, and tech experts amidst the sudden transition to virtual classrooms. Raygoza has embraced the challenge and invited her DLL families to participate in the classroom curriculum as often as possible. “We have virtual libraries that teachers share, and families have the opportunity to contribute.” Raygoza says this presents the perfect opportunity for discussions around heritage and cultural traditions with DLL parents.
Like so many other educators, Raygoza can attest to the transformation of classroom settings upon receiving the professional development training from SEAL. Resources provided to educators, like the ‘Signature Units’ and Return to School Toolkit, have addressed the growing need to challenge the existing structures in place and update curriculum to be culturally and linguistically responsive. “These resources are not just necessary,” says Raygoza, “they are invaluable.”
In response to the growing population of DLLs, the state has recently moved forward an important new vision for how to support early childhood education, with the release of the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care: California for All Kids in early December of 2020. The plan includes a focus on ensuring that early education and care teachers enhance their understanding of dual language development and best practices for instructing DLLs.
It is widely acknowledged among experts that linguistic and academic development go hand in hand; DLLs cannot meaningfully improve one without simultaneously working on the other. Now, more than ever, it is critical for educators to connect the dots: for DLLs, language development must be coordinated within and across the academic content, even within virtual learning. Raygoza and Henderson-Martinez are two of many educators across California working diligently to make that happen.