'I feel like I'm failing them'

Chatham ESL teachers struggle to overcome remote, hybrid learning challenges

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Last year, ESL teacher Diana Ciro watched with pride as her shy students presented a Day of the Dead altar to their entire school. But now, after several months of remote and hybrid learning, she worries about just how far behind they’ve fallen.

Ciro is the only English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Silk Hope School, a K-8 school located in Siler City. This year, she’s teaching ESL to 23 Hispanic students between the 1st and 8th grades. Some, she added, are also EC students.

“It’s definitely very hard, very challenging,” she told the News + Record. “It has proven awful for the kids because they’re falling behind, most of them. The lack of contact and socialization — it’s been awful. We cannot hide that. That’s the reality.”

For some ESL teachers across Chatham County, remote learning has been a disaster. Teaching ESL involves a lot of body language, specialized attention and immersion — and beyond depriving teachers of those tools, remote learning has also forced them to grapple with students’ limited technological literacy and motivation.

ESL isn’t a Spanish class, Ciro said,  though many Chatham ESL students speak Spanish. It’s language support for any students who are still learning English — and it's a challenge to make it work virtually.

There are several different ESL teaching models, Ciro explained, including the “pull-out” and the “push-in” models. In the first, ESL teachers pull their students out of their main classrooms to work with them separately on specialized language skills. In the second, teachers go into classrooms to support their students and co-teach with other teachers. Ciro’s classes align with the “pull-out” model; in other schools — like Jordan-Matthews — teachers use a combination of models.

Teachers instruct students in English, designing writing, reading, listening or speaking activities from content their students are learning in other classes.

“You should generally speak at least 90% in the target language,” said Juliana Maul, an ESL teacher at North Chatham Elementary School in Chapel Hill. “Most of the day, ESL students are not isolated from ... English speakers. We’re more in the classroom and surrounded by that and even working on skills with native English speakers.”

Jordan-Matthews ESL teacher, Wendi Pillars, said there’s also a lot of repetition, modeling and visuals.

“There’s a lot of acting out and being silly,” she added. “If we do it right, we’re exhausted by the end of the day. People are like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ We use our hands a lot.”

Normally, Ciro would see all of her students every day for 30- to 45-minute blocks. They’re divided by grade level instead of English-language level, which requires her to “differentiate” a lot between students and challenges her students to work harder.

“It’s very personalized,” she said. “My largest group is four kids. It’s almost like one-to-one.”

But in March, the move to remote learning brought things to a complete halt: When schools first closed, none of Ciro’s students had internet connection. Her students’ teachers began emailing and calling her to say her students weren’t attending their Zoom classes or completing their homework.

“So I had to say, ‘Hey, you have to cut (them) some slack. These kids have no connection,’” she said. “And they don’t have connection because — I mean, either you have internet connection, or you pay some bills.”

Even once students received county hotspots and laptops, neither they nor their parents really knew how to navigate virtual learning platforms or use the technology itself.

“(Parents) know how to go on Facebook,” Ciro said. “They know how to text, but that’s it. Even the kids, that’s something that I think we all have learned is that we kept saying, ‘Now these kids, I mean, they come with (the) technology gene, like they have it. They know.’ No, they don’t. ... They had no idea, and even less my students.”

She found herself making home visits to sort out technology problems; she also created and sent little how-to videos to all of her families through WhatsApp. But the challenges took a toll on her students, who she called the school’s “most vulnerable population.”

“Some other kids are completely disengaged,” she said. “We haven’t been able to contact them. They have just stopped answering questions, answering the phone. … And they’re falling behind by the minute.”

She tries to work with her students on Zoom between two to three days a week, but it’s complicated since they’ve got other classes and her EC students have to work with their own teachers. She doesn’t assign grades or homework, just a few activities — but she said language learners need more than that.

“We need to learn with our bodies, and we need a lot of hands on,” she said. “That is so hard. Because I mean, you can see it, but if you don’t make that connection, it’s hard to learn it and acquire it and to internalize it.”

It’s been even more challenging for her three “newcomers,” who recently arrived to the U.S. from Guatemala. The parents are Indigenous people, she said; although they speak Spanish, that isn’t their native language. So in her weekly house visits, she said she had to use “even more basic language” with both parents and students to explain to her new students how to use the technology, type and access their school emails.

“They (the kids) don’t read. They don’t write,” she said. “So can you imagine? I mean, so it’s been very hard. But I mean, we’re getting there. At least they are joining their classes.”

Hybrid learning has helped a bit, she added, especially for the newcomers. Her 1st through 5th graders now come in about twice a week, and more students are set to return Dec. 7.

“Right now, we’re (her newcomers) working on the alphabet, and they’re doing so much better because here I have puzzles,” she said, adding, “They are seeing it, and they actually have the pieces here in their hands ... and that makes it more meaningful.”

‘They’re more engaged’

So far, hybrid learning has also lifted the spirits of ESL teacher Juliana Maul’s students.

Maul is one of three ESL teachers at North Chatham Elementary in Chapel Hill, where she’s taught for about four years. Between the three of them, they serve about 100 students, and this year, she’s teaching about 30 in the 2nd and 5th grades.

“I think definitely having hybrid learning, students are completing more assignments. So in that way, they’re more engaged,” she said. “They can’t be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t get your email.’ I told it to you in person. I think everyone would agree hybrid is better than all remote learning in the sense of growth and education.”

Normally, Maul would be co-teaching. She’d plan lessons with her students’ other teachers and provide them general literacy support. She would also provide additional support in “intervention blocks,” where students can seek help with particular subjects.

North Chatham’s also a bit different from most schools: They have a Dual Language Program, which means some students receive instruction that’s half in English and half in Spanish. Since most of her students are Spanish speakers, that has made it easier for them and their families to maneuver remote and hybrid learning.

When some found themselves struggling with remote learning technology, many families could reach out and get the help they needed.

“Because we’re dual language, almost half of our teachers are native Spanish speakers,” she said. “So it’s still a challenge because they’re not always the ones calling, but thankfully, we have a lot of teachers who can communicate with parents on a daily basis.”

Since the school board allowed elementary students to return under Plan B, Maul has been at school four days a week. Sometimes she’ll be teaching students face-to-face; other times, she’ll be on Zoom calls. Normally, she’d see about 100 students in a day, not all of them hers, but now she’s seeing about 30.

Despite eight months of remote learning, she said she doesn’t think her students have fallen any further behind than any other student in the U.S.

“I haven’t noticed that they have bigger gaps than other students do,” she said, adding: “I think the program that we’ve got, and the methods that we have for teaching are pretty effective. We’ve seen growth in our ESL students if you look at our school’s data, so that’s always encouraging.”

‘Miss, what is remote learning?’

In Jordan-Matthews, however, it’s a different story altogether. There, ESL students haven’t been in the classroom in months, and no one knows when they’re going back.

“(My students) still ask me on a weekly basis, ‘Miss, why don’t we go on back?’” said Wendi Pillars, one of four ESL teachers at J-M. “Like, ‘Last I know was January 15. It hasn’t changed yet.’”

Pillars has taught ESL at J-M for the past seven years. This year, she and the ESL team are working with about 130 students. She’s teaching two “standalone” classes with 27 and 21 students respectively. In a normal year, she’d be co-teaching science in classrooms with other teachers, too.

“But our space is pre-COVID,” she said. “(Our classroom) used to be the ‘Hangout space’ in the morning, which was really nice. The kids would come in there and they’d meet each other and connect before they go to First Block.”

Now during COVID, she sees her students via three weekly live Zoom sessions per class, where a sneak peek might reveal blacked-out cameras, silence and "a lot of prayer."

“We’re trying to channel some divine intervention,” she joked.

Since making the transition to remote learning, she said many students are no longer motivated to complete their work; others procrastinate on short assignments, and for the most part, she’s seen their drive to improve sputter and die.

“Curiosity is gone, I think,” she said. “Some students will ask right away, ‘What does this word mean?’ But I haven’t seen that as much where you’re like, ‘Do you understand what that word is?’”

And then some just aren’t there at all.

“We’ve lost a handful of students due to full-time work,” Pillars said. “Some of them have moved. Some of them are just MIA. We don’t know where they are.”

All of it has hit her pretty hard as an educator. She’s been trying new things as she can — different apps, participation incentives, and she’s even considering a Zoom watch party — but little seems to work.

“Uncertainty is hard because it pushes you to say, ‘Alright, I can’t invest my time or my energy in that bigger picture because if I don’t know when I’m going back, I’m just gonna hunker down and focus on the next day,’” she said, talking about some of her students’ mindsets. “... I feel like we’re failing them and not preparing them for what life will throw at them.”

Many have fallen behind: At J-M, students take four classes per semester, and she said “a handful” are failing a couple of classes, if not all four.

One moment a week ago particularly stood out to her. She was with her advanced class, talking to them about remote learning. She had asked them a question, and some responded in the Zoom chatbox, but it was mostly quiet.

“And I was like, ‘You guys don’t have any ideas?’ And then one of the kids said, ‘Miss, what is ‘remote learning?’” she said. Then she paused, lowering her voice. “And I was like, ‘Woah.’”

She’d been using that term since March.

“It just highlights where I assumed that they understood what remote learning was, especially as advanced learners,” she added. “But when he asked that, I was like, ‘OK, what else am I missing?’”

In the classroom, usually “body language nuances” would tell her right away if a student understands or is paying attention. Virtually, she said, “you don’t know what they’re doing on the other side of the camera.”

It's not all bad. She’s seen some students rise up to the challenge, she said; but most remain unengaged and unmotivated.

“I deeply, deeply believe that our students at the high school level would be far more successful than they are right now if we were back in person,” she said, though she’s worried what that might mean for some veteran teachers with health issues or those who live with older family members.

Despite the uncertainty, though, she said she’s still holding out hope for next year.

“We know that there’s a lot of unknowns, but we’re here,” Pillars said. “We’re here for the long haul and hoping for the best. We’ll keep trying. We’re stubborn.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.


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