Culturally Responsive Back to School Night

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The new school year is rapidly approaching and for teachers and administrators August becomes a month of both reflecting on the past year and looking forward to what lies ahead. Measureless time is spent on thinking about curriculum, lesson planning and student achievement. Yet one of the most important days of the school year is often overlooked or is an afterthought: Back to School Night.

In particular, schools with ELLs or students from families with non-English speakers have the additional responsibility of thinking of ways to make the event inclusive of families who, in the past, may have been marginalized.  Culturally responsive classrooms seek to provide equitable opportunities for learning.  Part of what falls under this umbrella is considering what active choices are being made to make families feel welcome at events such as Back to School Night. Below are some thoughts to consider on this topic.

1. Administrators, are translators on hand during speeches? Back to School Night often begins with a group session during which administrators and teachers speak directly to parents in an auditorium. Consider the families in your audience. If they do not speak English, an easy adjustment could be to provide those families with headsets so they can listen to a translation of what is being said by the speaker. Aside from the purchase of headsets, all that is required is someone to serve as the translator.  Staff members, college students, community members or even parents can be utilized in this capacity.

2. Teachers, have you prepared multilingual handouts for parents? Teachers often provide copies of pertinent information to parents to guide them through helping their children in the new school year. Even if you cannot personally translate, sites such as Google Translate can help communicate the message to families, even though it is not always a perfect translation. Parents volunteers, former and/or current students, college students and/or community members can serve as translators. As well, the federal government (and many state departments of education) provides various parent guides in different languages. These are free tools available for usage. Check the Office of English Language Acquisition for access to many resources.

3. Schools, are you serving food? To create a warm environment, schools often provide dinner, snacks or desserts for families. Have you considered the dietary needs of families based on culture or religion? In my experience, I have never heard parents complain that there were no special food options for them. However, I have seen on several occasions parents stand empty handed surrounded by other parents who were eating. As a vegetarian, I have found myself in that situation many times. I never felt negatively about the host, but I did feel slightly awkward. Sharing food is an intimate experience and when you are within that experience but unable to actually participate, there is an element of isolation for those people. Offering a variety of options can go a long way in showing families that thought and care has gone into your decision making.

Final thought
: The suggestions above should serve as a starting point when planning Back to School Night. None of the options above create any significant finance burden. They require not much more than thoughtful planning, which will go a long way in strengthening parental involvement in your school. 

5 Ways Administrators Can Support Their ELLs

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Even the most experienced and confident administrators can struggle with finding ways to connect with their ELL population if they do not have any previous experience with working with them at either the classroom or school level. Below are five key strategies that any administrator can easily begin using, whether her or his school has 20 or 200 ELLs. Commit to implementing just one strategy per week for five weeks and the improvements will be noticeable.

1. Learn a few key phrases in the students’ native language(s).  A little can go a long way. Even just learning a few greetings and words of encouragement can make a huge difference.  Regardless of where a student has come from, s/he knows that the principal is an important person in the school.  I have seen countless students want to interact with the principal but feel awkward because of the language barrier. If administrators can make the smallest effort to communicate with ELLs it will immediately begin building a bridge and make the students feel welcome.

2. Post multilingual signs throughout the school, including the entrance. A welcoming environment is critical for building a strong community within a school. Yet, oftentimes, signs throughout the school are only written in English. Including multilingual signs not only make ELLs feel welcome, it can also help them navigate the school building much more easily. Multilingual signs also send the message that not only does a school acknowledge the language needs of their students, but it also respects the native language of the student population and their families. 

3. Get to know your ESL teacher well. An ESL teacher is someone who has chosen a very specific path in her or his educational studies. S/he is not only familiar with appropriate instructional strategies for ELLs, but is also knowledgeable about current laws and procedures required by schools. This person is a very rich source of information and should be someone with whom administrators have frequent contact and communication. By planning, at a minimum, for bimonthly meetings, administrators are ensuring that the lines of communication are fully open and are also demonstrating to ESL teacher that she or he is acknowledged as a key member of the school community.

4. Know the accommodations that must be provided to your ELLs. More often than not, administrators did not specialize in ESL instruction at university. Most colleges with education programs now offer at a minimum coursework focused on working with ELLs. An introductory course can provide a solid starting point in understanding this growing segment of the school population. As well, several professional development providers offer both traditional and online seminars and webinars to begin building a foundational knowledge of these students. Some popular online training can be found through Learner’s Edge, Ed2Go and many more. 

5. Add at least one ELL-specific question to conversations with teachers and supervisors when discussing all aspects of teaching and learning. Often, discussing ELLs and their needs is an afterthought. Schoolwide decisions are made with only the general population in mind. By not discussing ELLs and considering their needs on a regular basis, it can be very easy for these students to become marginalized. Administrators, make a decision to include at least one question regarding ELLs in every conversation and planning meeting that occurs that will affect students. The question can be as simple as, “So how will this affect our ELLs?” or “Will this new plan/idea/resource suit the needs of our ELL population?” By including these questions you are saying very clearly that a shift is occurring, a shift toward a school that is increasingly inclusive of all learners. 

A new school year is just around the corner. If you are an administrator, consider making these strategies a part of your own professional growth plan for this year. If you need additional strategies or have any questions, please reach out to me for further assistance. 

4 Ways Teacher Aides Can Support ELLs in the Classroom

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While English language instruction must be provided by a certified ESL instructor,  some schools do at times make the decision to include classroom aides in ESL, Bilingual or General Education classrooms.  While typically grateful for the assistance, teachers often struggle with ways to best utilize classroom aides to enhance teaching and learning.  Below are four steps that can easily be incorporated into a teacher’s lesson plans and/or daily teaching routine to strengthen learning for ELLs by introducing a classroom aide into the setting.

1. Additional Images: A teacher who follows best practices knows that visual aids are a great tool to help make English more comprehensible for English Language Learners but in a classroom with mixed tiers or a classroom with both ELLs and non-ELLs, it can be time consuming to incorporate the amount of additional images that may be necessary for students at the lowest proficiency levels to strengthen their learning. A classroom aide can assist with this by proving those students with additional images at their desks, draw for the students or allow the students to include their own artistic representations before, during and after the lesson.

2. Build Background Knowledge: Teachers of ELLs know that with English learners building background knowledge is often more necessary than activating prior knowledge since many ELLs may have grown up in a country that is vastly different from the US. Allow the classroom aide to build background knowledge prior to formal lesson delivery. Short videos through sites such as YouTube or simpler, print-rich text can help your ELLs become better prepared to understand the lesson when it is delivered by the teacher.

3. Build in Increased Wait Time: One of the  first strategies teachers of ELLs learn is to allow increased wait time for ELLs. English Language Learners benefit from increased wait time because it allows her or him to process the question or prompt given in English, complete any mental translations s/he may need to perform, activate knowledge and vocabulary in her or his L1 and then formulate a response in English. Certainly this will cause a teacher got struggle to stay within the confines of the class period and/or struggle with ensuring that all parts of the lesson are delivered. Prior to the lesson, create questions that are to be asked of your ELLs. Give these questions to the classroom aide and have her or him imbed them into the support that is given. Have the student begin to formulate a response with the aide so that when you ask the question of that student s/he will have already begun thinking about it and processing a response. Essentially, you are providing additional time to formulate a response without taking time away from the regular instruction.

4. Repeat/Rephrase Important Terms and Facts: ELLs are faced with the double challenge of working toward developing their language proficiency while simultaneously trying to learn grade level content. When English proficiency is low, students will struggle with discerning the more important words and concepts from the rest of what is said. This can occur even in a class where the teacher is modifying for language tiers and/or employing sheltered English strategies. By providing a classroom aide with a list or chart of key terms and facts to use when repeating or rephrasing will help make the materials more concrete and minimize confusion for ELLs.

One last thought:

While a classroom aide is an excellent resource, it cannot be overstated that she or he is, in no way, a replacement for an ESL teacher. All decisions regarding support given by an aide must be initiated by an ESL-certified teacher and cannot serve as a replacement for a certified teacher. However, with the right guidance, planning and collaboration,  a classroom aide can become one of the richest resources available within the school.