A note on language: Throughout this piece, you may see references to Multilingual (ML) educators, teachers, families, students, learners, etc.; English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms or teachers; and English Learner (EL) educators, teachers, students, learners, etc,. These are used intentionally in different ways, as ML is the more assets-based term, whereas ESOL and EL are federally designated terms.

 

It’s Monday morning the week before winter break. Two students from a combined grades 1/2 classroom are standing in a small office on the first floor of White River School. There is a hexagonal table crafted from two rhombus-shaped tables in one corner, and a small white board on wheels in the other. Their Multilingual (ML) teacher, Amy DeMatteo (Literacy 2023), stands in front of them holding up small cards with an image and a word – present tense verbs. Their task? Make them past tense.

 

For native English speakers, this could still be difficult, given all of the irregular past tense verb forms and the multiple sounds of the regular -ed ending. For multilingual students, it’s even more of a challenge as they have not necessarily grown up hearing and using these verb forms. For these two students, it’s not quite a breeze, but they have clearly been practicing. They quickly move on to their main task – taking a look at the illustrations, copied from a picture book, that have been posted on the white board. Their job: create a sentence to match each illustration using at least one past tense verb to tell the story. The students take turns coming up with a sentence as Ms. D, as the students call her, writes out their sentences next to the corresponding illustration. Then they come up, dry erase marker in hand, to underline the verb and read it out loud. 

 

Exercises like these, explicit instruction in a grammatical form and then practice in a meaningful context, are at the heart of English Language Development instruction. And for many schools around the state, the need to provide this kind of instruction is increasing. You can read more about that in a post Amy and I co-wrote last spring. 

 

This is Amy’s second year as a ML teacher with the Hartford School District, but not her first time working with multilingual students, families, and educators. Prior to arriving in the Upper Valley, she was an English Learner (EL) educator in Seattle and worked as Director of EL Instruction for Boston Public Schools. Working in Vermont is different, and as the needs of rural communities with low incidence of ML students continue to shift, leaders and educators at all levels are working together to figure out how to respond. 

 

Instruction

 

White River School is a preK-5 school in White River Junction, serving a student population with 52% qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program. Amy works with students in grades PreK-7 this year, since she also teaches at the middle school. Most are designated as English Learners (ELs), while others are former ELs and one is a native English speaker who benefits from the same supports her multilingual classmates receive. Amy caters the instruction to the needs of these students, taking into account their English language proficiency levels, literacy skills (in English and their native languages), the content they are learning in class, and the progress monitoring she has implemented in order to define language goals and determine the pacing of when and how the goals will be explicitly taught. 

 

This means she is sometimes supporting students with the language demands of adding and subtracting using a number line, or supporting students in specific grammatical structures like past tense verbs and how to structure questions. Other times or with different students, she is supporting phonological and phonemic awareness, providing instruction in a mix of literacy and vocabulary skills – such as when students drew a picture of an animal and wrote about it using words like tail, fur, and scales. For more proficient students, she brings in multicultural texts and incorporates direct vocabulary instruction, fluency practice, and oral language development while connecting to the content students are learning about in their classroom.

 

The small nature of the school, and the low number of EL students, means she has some flexibility in her groupings. At times she is pushing into classrooms to support students identified as language learners, as well as other students who may benefit from one-on-one or small group support. Other times she pulls different combinations of students based on their needs, as described above. She has also partnered students across grade levels who benefit from the socialization as well as learning from each other. Regardless, the collaboration with classroom teachers is key, as is the support from administration to consider what will be best for the students. For example, in the past EL students would be distributed across classrooms in a particular grade level. This can lead to feelings of isolation and make it difficult for the ML educator to effectively and efficiently push into the room. This year, all of the ELs in grades 1/2 were placed in the same classroom, meaning Amy can work more closely with their teacher and those students. As an added bonus, all of the EL students in that class know each other from before they immigrated to the U.S. They can make immediate connections, and other students in class quickly welcome them as a new member of the community.

This school year, the kids and the teachers recognize the meaningful, special opportunities presented by having multilingual students in their classroom. 

 

However, this can also be one of the biggest challenges faced by teachers and school leaders: knowing multilingual students, especially those designated as ELs, need more support; it can feel like a burden. This is especially true when teachers have not been provided with training on how to support our multilingual students and families, or when the school and district do not have a plan in place for welcoming and instructing newcomers (students who have been in the country for less than a year and arrive with little or no English proficiency). Many districts are not prepared because they have not had to be. But, with recent demographic shifts, more and more districts have been identifying this as an area of need. And ultimately, everyone is better served when leaders, teachers, students, and families see multilingual learners and families as important assets to the community. 

 

Beyond Students

 

When thinking about supporting multilingual students, it’s important for schools and districts to think beyond the kids. In many instances, families are coming from places where the education system is completely different. They may not understand the opportunities they or their children have, or the implications of decisions they didn’t even know they could make. Fabiola Hammond (TIP 2023, MEd 2024) is a 2nd grade teacher at Dothan Brook School, also in the Hartford School District. As someone who moved here from another country, she has experienced this herself, with her own children, and has volunteered her time this year to support Portuguese speaking students and families from around the district. From open houses, to family information sessions and report card conferences, families may not even know to ask about these important events. Or, they attend but there is no one available to translate for them. Teachers try, but the intricacies can be difficult to capture.

 

The main thing that caught Fabiola’s attention when working with a few families during parent/teacher conferences this year was that the questions the families had for the teacher were not what she expected. The teacher was very well prepared to talk about academics and social interactions with other students. However, the families were mostly worried about how the children were adapting to the differences in the classroom environment, about the development of their language, and if they were able to “blend in”. 

 

When you choose to live in another country, there is so much more at stake than academics and regular school life. All of that (academics and social life) is, in a way, expected to come with time. However, parents mostly worry whether their child is able to belong and is able to make friends with other students in the class. A lot of what Fabiola does, then, when working with families, is to act as a translator, not only of language, but to make sense of their worries so the teacher understands where they are coming from, and to answer a lot of their questions based on her own experience moving here with school-aged children. 

 

It can come down to even small things, like snacks and lunch. The different expectations, aspects, and routines are many and difficult to even put into words if you have not grown up in the established system.

 

There’s also a difference in the sense of community in a larger sense. While families want their children to be part of the community, they don’t quite grasp that a lot of that is done through sports and community events. Most of those families, if not all of them, came from a big town where there are several different associations, clubs, and such, as opposed to a “rec department”. Therefore the urgency in registering your child for sports and/or camps, months in advance, is just not there, because families have not been told about these opportunities, don’t understand the deadlines or how fast they fill up, and have not been told the central role they play in the community. 

 

The same is true when families need support with housing or healthcare. Fabiola explains that it goes beyond just translating word for word. “I can translate an email that tells a family they must get their child vaccinated through the healthcare system, but if they don’t understand what our healthcare system looks like or how it works, that’s not going to be helpful.” Supporting families in understanding their legal rights is even more complicated. 

 

“During my brief time with them, I make myself available to translate and respond to questions regarding all of these different nuances of creating your home in another country,” Fabiola says.

Some districts have solved this dilemma by hiring a multilingual liaison, someone who functions as a point person of sorts, connecting families to different community services, ensuring translation is provided when necessary, inviting them to school events, and supporting communication between and among teachers and other school staff like administrators and the nurse. Communication is streamlined and information shared in a coherent, clear way. This allows the family to build a relationship and establish trust with someone as an entry point to doing so with the larger school community. 

 

One common mistake, says Amy, is assuming families no longer need the support once their child has tested out – that is, reached a certain English proficiency level and no longer receives ESL services. “The families are still navigating these systems. They might need support in choosing between a vocational or traditional high school for their kid, or applying for financial aid once they’re ready to go to college.” It’s important schools and districts recognize and continue to meet these needs. 

 

Getting Ready

 

This year, districts have been tasked with creating a Lau Plan – “a plan that outlines our ML policies, procedures and practices” explains Amy. While some districts with high numbers of ELs, such as Burlington School District, already have one in place, others don’t. These plans are named after the 1974 Supreme Court Case Lau vs Nichols in which a group of families with non-English speaking students of Chinese ancestry sued the San Francisco school district for not providing sufficient English instruction to allow them to meaningfully participate in the educational system. In their unanimous decision, the Supreme Court Justices ruled that this was a violation of the students’ civil rights per the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lau Plans, therefore, are meant to outline exactly what the district is doing to support students with limited English proficiency: the what, the how, the who, and the when. 

This is not an easy task for districts who have had limited numbers of ELs in their districts, let alone for those who may have welcomed their first ELs and multilingual families just this year. Stephanie Vogel, Vermont’s EL Program Director and currently the only employee in the AOE’s English Learners Program, has been supporting them through it. For example, she has been bringing together multilingual/EL specialists, curriculum directors, superintendents, and others from around the state for “Lau Plan Workgroup” sessions to dive into and fully understand what each section of the plan requires. They are using the Lau Self Audit Tool for English Learner Programs developed by Tamara Eklof-Parks, the Multilingual Program Coordinator for Essex Westford School District and a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy and Leadership at the University of Vermont. It is being published in American Educator. This self audit tool and rubric allows each district to evaluate how they are doing with supporting ELs, including resources and staffing, instruction, how to register families, a specific plan for newcomers, and more. The idea is for districts to get support from the state, through Stephanie and each other, in evaluating what they already do, identify what’s missing, and decide where they need to fill the gaps. In addition to these workgroup sessions, the state connects districts to mentors to help with the process. 

 

 

Moving Forward

 

There are currently a little over 1800 students identified as ELs in the state of Vermont. According to Stephanie, while the total population of multilingual students has not increased much over the past few years, their geographic distribution has changed drastically. In the past many families settled in Chittenden County. In smaller districts, if they had any, they were mostly Spanish-speaking newcomers. Now, districts across the state, many of which have never had a single multilingual student, are welcoming families from across the world in what she labels as micropopulations. They include families from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and beyond. And with current trends, the multilingual population is expected to increase in the state. Many districts do not understand the basic requirements for supporting MLs, nor do they have a plan in place for what to do when they get here. As a first step, Stephanie’s priority has been supporting them in crafting a basic plan for what happens when families walk into a school to register their children.

 

Another challenge is that there is no statewide database for communicating with local school districts, and no place where ELs, or their ESL teachers, are being counted, beyond the assessment platform. If lucky, Stephanie receives information from the home language survey program. This is part of why she advocated to hire a second person for the department who will focus on data collection while she continues her work supporting those out in the field, providing technical assistance and fielding requests from districts and educators. 

“All teachers can meaningfully teach a student with even the lowest English proficiency level if they are open to the idea and receive some training in how to teach academic English. And the best part is, learning how to teach academic English in your content area benefits ALL students, not simply the ELs.” – Amy DeMatteo, Literacy ’23

Amy has some ideas, too. She believes there is more that districts can do to support teachers who might welcome ML students, newcomers or otherwise, into their classrooms at any moment. “Some educators in low incidence areas have a misconception that educating ML learners is really done primarily by the ML educator, but just like students with special needs, this is not the case. All teachers can meaningfully teach a student with even the lowest English proficiency level if they are open to the idea and receive some training in how to teach academic English. And the best part is, learning how to teach academic English in your content area benefits ALL students, not simply the ELs.” She also shared an example of how her school recently used a case study to reflect on the complexities and the joys of working with ML learners. School leaders and teachers need to understand how to prepare for the unique needs of ML learners. A case study can be an opportunity to examine what worked, what didn’t, and how to establish better systems for next time.

 

Monica Nachemja-Bunton is a faculty member for UVEI’s degree and licensure programs. She has ten years of experience as an elementary educator and instructional coach, focused primary on multilingual learners. Last year, Monica and Amy DeMatteo co-authored another post that looked specifically at strategies for working with multilingual students.