What's the Plus?
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What's the Plus?

Remote Learning Is More Than a Digital Divide for ELL Students

By Lisset Rosales

I fell through the cracks as a child learning English in the US in the 1990s. My experiences as a bilingual student were quite traumatic. Back then, my English-only teachers had decided that rigorous curricula would be placed on the back burner, and that English-only initiatives were a priority. I fell further behind as I was pulled out during academic content. The effects of all this were failing grades from assignments I could never make up and assessments given in a language that I was still developing. Being bilingual in the 1990s seemed to be a deficit; a cognitive impairment. Yet, I went to school every day in the hopes that I could change the lives of my family and my own. Just like English language learners (ELLs) today, I was silently confronting the status quo.

Many ELLs today continue to grapple with similar challenges. They are given two choices: endure through the academic hurdles and succeed or retreat and become another failing statistic. My students who qualify for free lunch and who speak Spanish are already at a disadvantage in our education system. They must fight a silent battle against inequity every single day and remote learning is making this battle so much harder.

Remote learning works when a child has access to technology and parent support academically and emotionally, is not worried about their basic needs being met, and is only responsible for their learning. Yet, most of my ELL students are not in this situation. They either don’t have internet or technology access, most of their parents are worried about paying their bills and putting food on the table, and they have become the designated caretakers of younger siblings. They must share small living spaces with not just parents and siblings but also grandparents, uncles, cousins, and aunts. In these spaces, my students cannot get a “Buenos días” or good morning from their smiling teacher, see their friends, or take a break from responsibilities at home.

For these students, remote learning has turned into much more than a digital divide. While we were still in school, Brenda always had a smile on her face. She worked hard and always turned her homework in. Once remote learning started, I started to see a change in Brenda from very few responses to none. After a series of persistent messages, I finally got a hold of her mom. I asked, ¿Necesita ayuda? ¿Como le puedo ayudar? Do you need help? How can I help your family? Brenda’s mom was in desperate need of help. She had lost her job and did not know how she would feed her family and pay the bills as a single mother. I realized there and then that for Brenda, remote learning was not the main concern; it was survival. As best as I could, I collected essentials and dropped them off at their door. Shortly afterwards, I received a message, “Dios la bendiga.” God bless you.

As a community, we must stay connected with our students and families. We must provide parents with accessible resources and connect with community organizations to support those who might have language barriers or be uncertain as to how or where to call. Organizations like the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) have programs like their Immigrant Family Resource Program (IFRP) which provide low-income immigrant families and other limited-English speaking people with resources and support in times of need.

As teachers, we must also continue building relationships with our students and their families and be culturally and socioeconomically sensitive to the lives of our ELL students. We cannot assume and we must not be afraid to ask. We need to be the liaison to counselors, social workers, and nonprofit organizations that could further support our students.

Districts should use sound data to target areas where ELL students predominantly live and make the resources that would help students succeed easily accessible. Most importantly, as educators we must be empathetic and put ourselves in our students’ shoes. The simplest thing we can do to support our students is to simply care. Asking Brenda’s mom questions about their well-being helped strengthen the relationship we had and allowed my student to once again have a glimpse of hope during these stressful and uncertain times.

Lisset Rosales is a 3rd grade bilingual educator at Cleveland Elementary School on the Northwest side of Chicago. She is a 2019–20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.

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