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ESL and Bilingual Education students support local families during pandemic

  • ESL and Bilingual Education Graduates 2020
    Graduates:  Students in the ESL and Bilingual Education program pose for a group photo last winter.  
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With schools closed and students learning at home, most families are experiencing challenges as they work to support their children’s learning — however, this task is greater still for dual-language families. Parents who do not have access to the classroom language encounter a major barrier in assisting their children with distance learning. A group of students in William & Mary’s ESL and Bilingual Education Program have stepped up to provide a bridge for some of these local families, holding virtual office hours to support both students and parents during this time.

The program stemmed from an ongoing project of Katherine Barko-Alva, assistant professor of ESL and bilingual education. Over the past year, Barko-Alva has worked with a local group of Spanish-speaking women who were seeking to develop their English language skills specifically for the purpose of advocating for their children in the school system.

The project, along with other recent initiatives designed to implement sustainable, equitable and inclusive family-school partnership practices, are explored in depth in Barko-Alva’s new co-authored book, Equity in school-parent partnerships: Cultivating community and family trust in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms, now available from Teachers College Press.

Barko-Alva invited undergraduate and master’s students in education from William & Mary to volunteer with the group of mothers. Emma Wise, a junior majoring in linguistics, was one of the students who volunteered to work with this group of women on Friday evenings at a local church.

“It’s been inspiring to see this community of parents coming together to learn more about how to express their desires, concerns and needs for their children in school,” said Wise. “I feel lucky that I could be a part of this experience.”

When local schools closed in mid-March due to the pandemic, Barko-Alva and others working with these families knew that both families and teachers would need additional support as students transitioned to remote instruction.

Las Madres de familia (mothers) started reaching out to me, both because they missed the connections we’d formed during the group and because they were seeking to support their children with assignments and access to bilingual books,” said Barko-Alva. “Our group had built such strong relationships and trust, and our immigrant families bring a plethora of resources to our classrooms.”

She reached out to her Spanish-speaking ESL students to ask them to volunteer one or two hours per week to support a family. Four students — Cassy Pacheco, Karina Lizano-Blanco, Alba Fernandez, and Manón Diz — quickly volunteered to help.

“They jumped on board to support the project,” said Barko-Alva. “It was beautiful to see them volunteer so quickly, and it shows the compassion and dedication of the students we have in the School of Education.”

Karina Lizano-Blanco ’19, M.A.Ed. ’20 had been completing her student teaching in a dual language bilingual program in Newport News, so she was already well-practiced in supporting bilingual students.

“One of the things that I have focused on while working with these families is reassuring them that they are doing a good job as parents because this is definitely not an easy task,” she said.  “I’ve heard a couple of times now ‘I’m trying to learn English but I’m not there yet,’ but these parents are still looking for resources that could help them bridge that gap, which I think is quite admirable.”

Lizano-Blanco grew up in a culturally and linguistically diverse household herself, and knows firsthand the need for well-equipped and high-quality teachers to support this population.

“I’ve noticed that the parents seem almost apologetic about being linguistically diverse and not speaking English because they may believe that it creates a challenge for their child,” she said. “However, these kids are bilingual and already have a good grasp on English. School should not be ‘one size fits all’ and that falls on teachers, administrators and school systems to meet families where they are, because that’s what our job is.”

With a pressing need across the state and nation for ESL and dual-language teachers, the School of Education has moved quickly in recent years to expand its offerings in the area. The master’s degree program in ESL and Bilingual Education launched in Fall 2018 and later this week, it will graduate its second cohort of students. This year, the school also began offering an ESL and bilingual education track through its new B.A.Ed. program, allowing undergraduates to specialize in the field and gain teaching licensure during their four-year baccalaureate experience.

“The speed with which we’ve launched these programs and the high quality of the student experience is largely due to the excellent leadership of Dr. Barko-Alva,” said Spencer Niles, dean of the School of Education. “Her dedication is unmatched, and the warmth and compassion she demonstrates in her work is a model for us all.”

{{youtube:large|ymAPj0ydYHU, Students in the 2020 cohort of the ESL and Bilingual Education Program}}

Manón Diz is a junior majoring in French and Francophone Studies. Having taken several courses with Barko-Alva, she is now considering pursuing a master’s degree in ESL and bilingual education as a fifth year. “I think what draws me to this type of work is the opportunity to have a positive impact on children and families who are so often underserved, and who are often facing unique challenges outside of school,” she said. “ESL is about more than just teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students. It's also about supporting them and their families beyond the academic realm. We often say that ‘ESL is family.’”

For the students volunteering to help local families during the pandemic, seeing the challenges families are facing due to school closures has re-affirmed their desire to enter this field. They point particularly to the gap that will inevitably widen between students who have extensive support and resources in the home and those who don’t.

“It's frustrating and worrying to think about the implications this might have when it comes time to go back to school,” said Diz. “So this is partly what we are trying to combat by offering our time and resources freely to those students who need it now more than ever.”

The student teachers, along with Barko-Alva, set up regular office hours when they are available to meet by phone, video or messaging app with parents and students. They help students with the work provided by their schools and support parents as they communicate with teachers and advocate for their students. They seek to work with and learn from their community, joining efforts established by the ESOL team in Williamsburg-James City County Schools in order to provide linguistic support to families and teachers alike.

Guadalupe Rodríguez, who has two children in the local school system, says the program has been highly beneficial for her family. “We are thankful for the time dedicated to support our children with their homework. The support my daughter has received with reading and math has been so valuable.”

Barko-Alva has continued holding English classes via Zoom for the group of families on Friday evenings. She also partnered with Gladys Krause, assistant professor of math education, to host a Spanish-language webinar for families of K-12 students. The webinar brought together educators and health providers from different parts of the world to share ideas for Spanish-speaking families supporting their children’s learning in the midst of the pandemic.

Equity is a cornerstone of the ESL and Bilingual Education program, and Barko-Alva’s guiding mantra is “compassion and hope.” Students not only gain skills for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students, but also for advocating for the flourishing of every child.

“This experience has also shown me that no matter what people think, teaching in any capacity is not an easy job,” said Diz. “It's shown me how much a little time and investment can mean to someone who needs it most, and how fulfilling it can be for a teacher.”