How the pandemic has reshaped learning: My experience with high school newcomers

Editor’s note: As businesses begin to re-open and COVID-19 restrictions ease, many teachers remain at home working to salvage the school year for their students. Today we offer an essay from Ginny Clayton,  who teaches English Language Learners at Cary High School.  Her first block class,  ESL Applied, is a year-long class designed for newcomers with interrupted formal education.

In this first-person account, Ginny discusses some of the challenges in transitioning to online learning as well as reasons for hope. Her students are represented by their first initial to protect their privacy.

Ginny Clayton

Hello and Goodbye

K.’s first day in U.S. schools was March 11, three days before closure due to COVID-19.

Because the factors that uproot children and families from rural Central America do not operate on an academic calendar, adding students late in the school year is not uncommon. It’s challenging but has its benefits: The whole class gets to review the basics, and there are enough helper jobs to make everyone feel needed.

K.’s classmates happily gave her tutorials on many tasks: from annotating handouts to checking grades online to operating the classroom coffee pot. A minor miracle occurs when students take on such roles: In a flash they jump from believing they know nothing to realizing how much they’ve actually learned in the short months they’ve been at school. They tell the newcomer not to worry, that she’ll get it soon, that she’s in a safe place now. K.’s first week was going well.

It had also been a good week for my second- and third-year students. For the first time, we had a 100% pass rate on the weekly vocabulary quiz. Three students had gone after school to the big new public library nearby and gotten their own library cards. They were proud of themselves and excited to start visiting regularly.

Now it feels like all the progress we were making has been pushed over a cliff.

Friday, March 13, was a whirlwind. Gov. Cooper had not made an official recommendation to cancel schools, but the writing was on the wall and a buzz was in the air. Two pre-service teachers who were visiting that morning were kind enough to run my lesson so that I could scurry around to various classrooms collecting current student cell phone numbers. (Teachers know how ephemeral those things are.)

The ESL team and school staff at-large tried one last time to make sure all our students were signed up for Remind, Google Classroom, Khan Academy, whichever apps we were putting our faith in to carry us through in case of closure. For me it was Duolingo with its cute owl mascot who sends insistent push notifications if students aren’t meeting their points goals. “If we don’t come back Monday,” I told the class, “then the owl is your teacher. Obey the owl.” It felt like a lot was riding on that little bird.

The Transition

Our first two weeks out of school were consumed with reaching out to students. Are you OK? Are you still here? Do you have food? Are you washing your hands? Is anyone in your family sick? What are their symptoms? Are you working? Where, and how many hours, and how far apart from other people? Have you heard from so-and-so? Do you have a computer? How many people use it? We shared information as we learned it from all the wonderful community organizations who were jumping into action to provide food, health care, and emergency aid.

These conversations with families underscored for me the fact that immigrants, already an important part of our community’s economic bedrock, were keeping it going. I talked to people working in childcare, cleaning, construction, landscaping, retail and food service who did not have the luxury of staying home. 

The third and fourth weeks out of school were about gearing up to start online learning. Our administrators ensured every home was contacted and we started on plans to distribute technology to students who needed it. They kept us apprised of the unending state and local updates.

Teacher-superheroes helped one other to learn new online tools and remap the entire second half of our courses. Overnight I went from never having made a video call to scheduling regular Google Meets through my online work calendar. The connections with colleagues were fortifying as the separation from students began to ache a little.

A panicked message came one day from former student J., a senior, only weeks away from graduation, saying his restaurant job had disappeared and he didn’t know if he’d be able to finish the school year. To earn the same amount of money for rent he was now working seven days a week in landscaping.

When he later learned that his passing third-quarter grades meant he would graduate early, he was overwhelmed with relief. At the same time it was an anticlimactic way for J., who has lived thousands of miles from his mother for four years, to finally realize the dream she had for him of high school graduation. Seniors will be honored in due time, but for now they’ve been pushed from the spotlight they usually occupy at this time of year.

The Learning Curve

After learning as much as I could about this new virtual reality, my next step as a Newcomer teacher was to figure out how to adapt and then explain it to students who would be working on smartphones with limited data.

In a way, this has always been my job: Assess what students can already do, then bridge the gap to content objectives so they can be successful in their various classes. Teach whatever background knowledge they need so that they can complete an assigned task. Then break down the task from three steps into 15 so that no one gets lost.

During five years working with newcomers I’ve gotten good at this. Whenever we take notes, for example, I draw a piece of notebook paper on the board so that everyone remembers that the wide margin goes at the top, and the holes go on the left. Your name and the date go in the upper right-hand corner. Every time. We practice it. They learn it.

Students were learning to use their G-suite accounts, too, but on a computer. It’s totally different on a phone. The apps and websites even look different from one type of phone to the next. Some won’t load at all. Unfortunately, when it comes to this particular group and technology, working through confusion or small setbacks is not yet a strength. Without much background knowledge, it’s hard to come up with something logical to try after the one thing they knew to try doesn’t work. It takes practice, and trial and error over time, to build familiarity with using the device this new way.

So how do I help the process along? What’s the distance learning equivalent of showing someone which end of the paper to write on? It might be explaining a hyperlink. I learned that I can’t send a message, even in Spanish, that says, “Here is your video meeting link for second period.” I have to write, “Touch the blue letters at 10:00am. This is how you can talk to your teacher.”

Sometimes that’s not enough, either. I call the student and say, “Take the phone away from your face but keep listening to me. Look at the screen. Open the conversation from me. Look at the last message there. Do you see blue letters? Touch the blue letters one time with your finger quickly. A new screen will open. Touch ‘Solicitar unirse’. I’m hanging up now. Keep that screen open and wait for me to let you in. Don’t give up!”

As much as I wish it would, sending a how-to video or walking one person through these steps in a forum does not always do the trick. It’s easy to take for granted, but reading through someone else’s conversation to make connections to your own situation or following multi-step instructions from a video are skill sets that this group is still developing.

Many of the newcomers are at a delicate stage, academically and sometimes emotionally, where one-on-one attention will make or break the entire effort. Without seeing them in person, I can’t use my teacher’s instincts to gauge whether someone needs a push or a break. I have no idea what’s going on in a student’s home when they don’t complete an assignment. It could be anything.

If I were at school and saw a student not working, I would go to their desk and check on them. I’m still doing that now, but these days checking in looks like sending a text message, waiting to see whether it’s been opened, and hoping for a reply. It looks like responding to more than 200 screengrabs with captions like, “Now what?” sent by kids who are stuck and frustrated. It’s the same sort of individual attention I would give at school, but now the process is more tedious. It’s like I’m still tying my shoes, but now I’m doing it with only one hand. And thimbles on my fingers. And I’ve turned into a centipede so I’m wearing tons of shoes. The whole thing feels comically futile sometimes.

Reasons to Smile

It’s worth celebrating that the questions I field over time have shifted slightly from how to use the tech to the content they’re learning through it. For every three questions I get now about finding teacher class codes, I’m getting one request for help on a math problem.

Over time I predict I’ll slowly make it back to doing the kind of modifying I was trained for, the kind that’s about learning the content rather than just logging in to the content. More and more students are attending their class Meets, although it’s far from perfect. One student missed today because he stayed up watching movies. Another missed because she’d been up all night taking care of her mom who had a fever. At least the lines of communication are open, and students are getting the hang of where to find assignments and when they’re due.

I love to see students responding to one another’s questions online. They’re helping and encouraging each other. We’re still building community. I can’t high five or pat anyone on the back, but I’ve upped my emoji game quite a bit.

This morning E. was very excited to finally log in to Google classroom and meet online with his teacher. He messaged me that he was about to start his assignment and added in English, “Let’s go!” But he spelled it phonetically: “Desgow!” So today E. got a much-needed confidence boost, and I acquired a new favorite word.

Looking Forward

K. has been my student for several weeks now but she’s still waiting to start her second week in U.S. schools. She’s made do valiantly on her cell phone so far, and yesterday she got a computer from the school. The county’s huge investment in tech will benefit students, whether we go back to classes like before or spend more time distance learning, or a combination of both.

The capacity we’re building now for distance learning could lead to more flexible scheduling in the future for students who work or have significant responsibilities outside of school. Our leadership prioritized equity when they instructed teachers to make all delivery of new content pre-recorded. Live meetings with students are for check-ins and questions only. That way students can access material as they are able during the week.

When F. realized that this new schedule meant he no longer had to choose between working full time hours and keeping up with classes, it was an immense burden lifted for him. His life will get even better once he has a computer as well.

Maybe the students will come out of this feeling like they conquered something, because they did. This is not the first time their lives have turned upside down, and it’s not the first time they’ve started over. They keep trying, and they keep reaching out. I can only assume they’re drawing on some kind of resilience that my life has never required me to find. So of course we’ll keep reaching back.

Ginny Clayton grew up in Raleigh, NC attending Wake County Public Schools. She earned a B.A. in Spanish Literature and M.A.T. in English as a Second Language from UNC Chapel Hill. She has taught ESL for 13 years in the Dominican Republic, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Cary. This is her eighth year at Cary High School.

One Comment

  1. Heather Campbell

    May 13, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    I enjoyed your article. You really illustrated how the newcomers and ESL teachers are struggling to overcome obstacles to remote learning. You are right about the importance of celebrating the small victories and to trying not to be discouraged. Our students truly are resilient.

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