This year, I’m in a new position as the Director of English Language Learners for my school. Part of this role involves leading a team of teachers who serve students with limited and interrupted formal education. These students are newcomers to the United States, coming from places where schooling was either inaccessible or non-compulsory, and therefore they’ve had little exposure to academic language and literacy in their native languages.
In educational terms, these students are referred to as Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE). Our program organizes SLIFE education into two groups – Spanish and multilingual. A majority of our Spanish speaking students come from the Dominican Republic, while our multilingual students have a range of first languages including Somali, Haitian, Cape Verdean Creole, Tigrinya, and Vietnamese. The SLIFE classes are substantially separate settings, with small class sizes and intense support (2 teachers to 15 students). Our team of educators is responsible for teaching content area material, as well providing English language instruction and supporting native language literacy. However, academic teaching is not enough.
We are also responsible for responding to and advocating for services for individualized needs of each child in the SLIFE classrooms. This year, we have students struggling with homelessness, sensory processing problems, hearing impairments, oppositional defiant disorder, and in a majority of cases, the effects of trauma as well.
Despite these challenges, our team is determined to ensure that these students have a strong sense of belonging in our school community, and to foster a belief in our students that school is a pathway to success. When our principal requested that I develop a plan as part of a school-wide data improvement initiative, I chose to focus our team on three key areas aligned with school goals to meet student needs: attendance, social emotional/executive functioning, and high quality academic work.
Our team monitors student attendance carefully and addresses absences immediately; academic failure and dropout rates for SLIFE students are incredibly high. We work closely with our Family Engagement Coordinator to ensure that both students and parents understand the importance of regular attendance, a primer step for staying in school. Our work in this area includes home visits and listening conferences. Both of these practices help our team to strengthen relationships with our families through better understanding their journeys and their immediate needs.
On a recent home visit to the home of one of our SLIFE students, we learned that the family had lived in a shelter for four years and had only recently obtained more permanent housing, albeit without proper heating for the Boston winter. At listening conferences, a parent is interviewed by one member of our team while others are charged with note taking and coming up with clarifying questions. Through these conferences, we learned that one of our 8th grade students is living with her mother for the first time in 12 years, and another student with slow speech development is being treated for a punctured eardrum, and has a history of early childhood ear infections.
Having this type of specific background knowledge about our students allows our team to advocate for and provide services that are better focused on students’ specific needs. As families trust that our school is a supportive and nurturing place for their child and that our team has their best interests in mind, they will work harder to ensure that their children attend regularly and be more responsive to inquiries about absences.
Explicit instruction in social-emotional skills ensures that our students are learning how to self-regulate behavior, and use problem-solving skills when faced with social dilemmas. This year, during our team’s professional development meetings, I am co-facilitating adaptation of lessons from the Zones of Regulation book for beginning English language learners. We have found that many connections exist between social-emotional skills and content area curriculum. This week, for example, through a lesson about calming tools, our team examined how deep breathing practice can reduce muscle tension and increase oxygen to the bloodstream. This provided a connection to a current science unit on human body systems.
While our students are coping with significant personal challenges, our team must still ensure that students gain academic skills that will help them succeed in a larger classroom setting. My responsibility is to provide 1:1 coaching sessions for teachers to support in planning of cognitively demanding end-of-unit tasks in each content area. During these sessions, we review grade-level district curricula, alongside Common Core standards for primary grades, and grade-level language skills from the WIDA Can Do descriptors. In many cases we design developmentally appropriate tasks that support students in meeting standards for lower grades. While this would not be appropriate for English language learners who have had regular schooling, it is important for our SLIFE students who are still trying to acquire foundational math and literacy skills to which they have not yet been exposed. For example, an end-of-unit task on the topic of geometry requires students to create models for a set of geometric shapes, count their sides and vertices, and measure their perimeter. While this is essentially a 3rd grade task according to Common Core standards, it presents significant challenges for our SLIFE students in terms of language comprehension and expression, and fine motor skills. Most of these concepts and tasks are unfamiliar to middle school students who have had limited schooling, and they need plenty of practice and repetition to master this kind of work.
My current position is the most difficult I’ve had in my entire career. It seems that there could never be enough time, money, or resources to support the needs of our students in preparing for college and career. However, when I return to the National Board’s 5 Core Propositions, I am reminded of the capital our team does have – a team of teachers who are committed to students and their learning, who engage in deep reflective practice, and who are members of professional learning communities.