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.  Read more


Want to improve NC graduation rates? Support English Learning Students and their teachers

Ginny Clayton

My name is Ginny Clayton and I’m a teacher at Cary High in Wake County. I’ve taught ESL for 12 years.

I don’t need to tell you that English Learners are in need of help. The NC Department of Public Instruction has been tracking data on this group for longer than I’ve been teaching. You know that their graduation rate is lower than that of any other measured group, in some cases far lower.

Allow me to use my experience to breathe some life into these statistics. You have the data, I have the kids in my classroom every day telling and showing me their struggles. They talk about the gangs in their home countries: “My teacher in El Salvador was murdered.” “My cousin’s hand was cut off.” “My father got death threats for prosecuting them.” They tell of surviving sexual assault on a city bus, in a park, in their own home. One boy cries at lunch over FaceTime. His parents on the other side of the world tell him a joke, and he laughs through his tears for their benefit. Another student has recently met his father for the first time in his life. The young man had spent years out of school taking care of his grandparents and running their farm while his father worked here. The boy is barely literate in his first language, but has a sharp mind and a broad vocabulary developed by listening to Bible readings in church. Now he’s here. He and so many others are ready to envision a future for themselves.

But realizing that vision is not easy. I can still picture the way a former student would listen carefully to my lessons while massaging her arms because working so many nights and weekends on a food truck had caused her to develop student painful tendonitis. She had no parents. No financial fallback, no cheerleader. Another was often absent on Mondays and Tuesdays because on weekends he traveled with his father to construction jobs. Upon returning he would always politely request his missing work and stay after school according to teachers’ availability to get caught up. His classmate is also frequently absent because he works nights in a restaurant kitchen, but he’s always ready for his tests because he takes his flashcards to work. He tells me he sits them on the cutting board while he’s prepping veggies. I tell him to please keep at least one eye on the knife. We teachers spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to instill grit into our students, but these kids have already got it, in spades.

Yet sometimes the emotional trauma, the stress, the physical pain and fatigue, hamper that intrinsic drive. They cloud that vision for the future. Which is why we must step up. English Learners need access to counseling in their first language and trauma-informed school personnel. They need to see adults in the school who look like they do. They need teachers trained in best practices for English Learners and class sizes which allow them to build relationships with those teachers. They need a school culture which celebrates and fosters a very enviable skill which they possess: bilingualism! Read more