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NWP and PAWLP, Pandemic and Protests – A Reflection By Janice Ewing

            As I’m writing this, our country is on fire, literally and figuratively, in numerous ways. At every moment, we are faced with critical choices — how we collect and process the onslaught of information and images, how we respond or are silent, how we act or do not. Many of us have experienced the paring down of priorities. As the pandemic took root, the health and safety of our families, our students, and larger communities were at the forefront. We also saw clear evidence that racial groups were not impacted evenly by Covid 19, due to systemic issues like unequal access to healthcare and environmental conditions, including the likelihood of living in a high-density area and/or doing essential work, availability of paid sick leave, and other factors. This virus is new; these issues are not.  Concurrently, we saw repeated examples of Black Americans’ lives being threatened and taken in rapid succession; this is also tragically familiar. It’s clear that health and safety are not now, and never have been, equally attainable goals for all. Some of us are experiencing the dangers of heightened health risks, protests with violent reactions, the militarization of the police, and the empowerment of vigilante groups as a shocking upset of our equilibrium. For others, safety in public spaces could never be taken for granted, due to race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation or gender presentation, disability, or other factors.

            Connection with others has remained a priority for most of us, but we might find ourselves looking through an altered lens, reevaluating which of our connections and groups seem relevant in this time and space.

             With whom do we need to connect more frequently or deeply?

            Are there family members, friends, or acquaintances we need to distance ourselves from?

            How do these acts of addition and subtraction change us?

                        The National Writing Project (NWP) and the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP) have long been sources of learning, support, and growth for many of us.  With the pandemic, most if not all NWP sites have had to make adjustments. As was the case for many groups, our transition was quick and non-negotiable. When West Chester University closed the campus in March, our face-to-face activities came to a halt. A 40th anniversary celebration was put on hold. Thoughtful and sometimes painful decisions were made as to which programming would transfer well to an online format, and what to pick up again next summer.

             Our monthly children’s book writing group, which had been meeting face-to-face, now meets via Zoom and has decided to continue meeting over the summer, which we have not done in the past. Facilitated by Dana Kramaroff and Matt Bloome, this group contains an eclectic group of writers who focus on different age groups, genres, and formats. As NWP people know, roots grow deeply in a writers’ group.  This time and space, on the first Saturday of the month, provides opportunities to share vulnerability, challenges, questions, and strategies. We celebrate each others’ efforts, big and small.

            On the third Saturday of the month, we have our Social Justice/Anti-Bias Study Group, which has also moved to Zoom. In this group, facilitated by Liz Mathews, we read a variety of texts with social justice themes, co-construct meaning, share personal connections, and work towards turning our learning and thinking into action. We will also continue to meet during the summer, and would be interested in hearing from other sites that might have similar groups.

            In recent posts at this blog, several colleagues have shared how they have created or maintained authentic communities within the constraints and opportunities afforded by online learning. In a recent “Write Now” newsletter, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl shared “Resources for Justice and Peace” here. We encourage our readers to peruse these resources and share additional ones, from other valued professional and collegial communities, as well as their own inquiry.

            We don’t know what the new school year will look and feel like.

            What will change because it has to? What will change because it should? What will remain the same?

            What will our agency as educators be in participating in these decisions?

            How will our identities as teachers change? What core values or practices will remain, even if the logistics are different?

             Maybe more important than where will we be is who will we be? How will we respond to the curriculum of the present, and the past that led to it?

            What other questions are you reflecting on? We invite you to share your thoughts.

Janice Ewing has been a reading specialist and literacy coach, and an adjunct instructor in the Reading Specialist Program at Cabrini University. She is currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. She also values her memberships and participation in ILA, KSLA, NCTE, PCTELA and CEL. She and her colleague, Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).

Distance Learning for English Language Learners

by Peter Suanlarm

Is it possible to incorporate distance learning with teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL)? By asking this, I realized that this question opened up an intended can of worms for me. For example, giving students a worksheet and then documenting their scores just does not work for someone who can’t understand you in the first place. Teaching ESOL students oftentimes requires a much more hands-on approach whereby any information delivered in class would have to be deliberate. This includes acting out every word, anticipating questions about the not-so-obvious nuances of the English language, annunciating clearly every syllable, reading every word very slowly, repeating directions over and over again, and so forth. Distance learning just seems incompatible with delivering effective instruction to ESOL students.

This past year was my first year as a teacher of English Language Learners. I wrestled with the steep uphill learning curve in tailoring a curriculum to 25 to 30 different languages and cultures over grades 7 through 12. My responsibility included skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking the English language. I had hoped my experience as a secondary English and History teacher and my own life experience as an ELL would help me navigate this new challenge, but I was only half right.

My educational background allowed me to know where the students needed to go, but it didn’t necessarily prepare me for how to give them the means to get there. My own experiences did provide me with an understanding for how difficult it is to acquire the English language. The process was long and quite arduous and was extremely personal. It was my choice to learn English. It is in my understanding of where ESOL students need to go and how difficult it is to get there that informed me on how to incorporate distance learning into teaching ESOL students.

Here are some insights from what I learned during the past month or so:

First, ESOL students must want to learn English for themselves. It really does not matter why they would want to learn English but, in the end, they must choose to learn English. It is the job of an educator to show reasons for the necessity of being able to communicate effectively. Self-advocacy and self-determination will go a long way to help students be responsible for their own knowledge in distance learning.  

Second, ESOL students and their teacher have to understand that learning requires the use of senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell). Lessons should be diverse and hands on. Although question-based lessons are great assessment tools, project-based assignments often produce the best results for me because it allows for asynchronous learning. Thus, students are able to take in information and express knowledge at their own pace. Perhaps, fluid or negotiated deadlines would allow students to take responsibility for their own time management skills.  

Third, ESOL educators must be available to answer questions by email, phone, and video conferencing office hours. Questions may come at any hour and educators must be ready at all times.

Lastly and possibly most importantly, clear and simple communication is the key to getting any student to do work in distance learning. If students cannot understand the directions, they will not do the work. This is even more important when it comes to ESOL students.

Although many of these insights may not differ much from other subject areas, teaching ESOL forced me to create lessons based on more tangible and reachable goals. I had to ask myself what do I expect students to learn during these unusual times and what kind of lessons will the students be able to do independently. Like most of you, I have mixed results in getting ESOL students engaged but will keep experimenting and growing as an educator.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What does distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? What digital programs are you using? What lessons have you tried out? How has distance learning questioned or improved your best practices? How might distance learning improve and/or challenge your teaching in September 2020?

Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like to find out more information.