Bonus Summer Post: Tips for teachers to support EAL students on Zoom!

I originally wrote the following blog post and submitted it to Angela Watson in hopes that she would contact me to be a freelance writer for her Cornerstone for Teachers (formerly Truth for Teachers) website. She didn’t contact me. But I still like what I wrote. So I thought I might as well put it here instead.  It’s an article about how teachers can intervene to support an EAL student who is falling behind and not responding during online classes.

Check it out below and let me know what you think!

Overviewing the Situation : An EAL student is not responding to you in your Zoom class and you are not sure what to do.

“JaeHyun? JaeHyun? Hello? Anyanghaseyo? Are you there? If you are there, can you let me know by responding to me either verbally or in the chat? If you are having tech issues, you can let me know that too. I’m here, waiting. Ok?” 

There are myriad challenges to teaching over Zoom (as this NYTimes article explains). The one that has been the most difficult for me over the past year has been the non-responsive EAL student.  The one who has been struggling all semester, the one who is still at a beginning level of English proficiency, the one who is new and just came a few months ago from another country and is completely overwhelmed and confused. The camera is off, the mic is off, they don’t respond when you call their name, and they don’t reply to chats. Are they present? Are they not? Where are they? And how can we help them succeed?

Sometimes the student comes back from wherever they are if you call them enough. Like Asa. Frequently, he shows up late to my class and then disappears. But then I move him to a breakout room and call his name, over and over again, quite loudly, and he emerges. My persistence pays off.  Incidentally, when I ask Asa where he has been he always has a good excuse. He says, quite honestly, that he was “eating lunch” or “trying to get my younger brother out of my room”. Or he tells me that he “needs a minute” but “will be right back.” No problem. I can handle that. At least he responded. In fact, I don’t even mind having a conversation with him about his lunch while he eats it (it’s an excellent way to build rapport, in my opinion.) 

No, my problem is not the students like Asa. It’s the students like JaeHyun. The students who are falling through the cracks and slipping through our fingers, despite our best efforts to engage them. The students who are checked out of Zoom calls, and who don’t complete the work. Those are the students I worry about when I wake up, when I’m brushing my teeth, when I’m on my way to work in the morning. All the time.

Why do some students check out? 

Well, I have been hypothesizing about this with my fellow teachers for a while now. It could be that they are playing video games. Or that they don’t have a steady WiFi connection. Or that their tech skills are limited and they need more instructions about how to log in to such and such an app. Or that they don’t have a quiet place to work. Or that they just don’t understand English well enough to follow what’s going on. Whatever the reason may be – and it is probably a factor of multiple barriers co-existing at the same time – some students are just checking out. And those are the ones who need support and connection the most.  

Way back in September, it became clear that JaeHyun was going to have trouble with online learning. He was new to our school from Korea, new to India, and new to English. He had no friends or support system. He was isolated, alone, and trying to adjust to life during a pandemic as well as life in a new country. He was unfamiliar with Google Classroom and using an iPAD, and he didn’t have steady access to WiFi in his home. I knew I needed to act fast and use my resources in order to help him succeed.

When thinking about equity and access to education, it is of importance to note that the pandemic has only served to increase inequity in our classrooms. The students who are the most likely to be disengaged and to fall behind are students of color, English language learners, and students living in poverty. See the article from ProPublica called “The Students Left Behind by Remote Learning” for more on this. 

As teachers, we don’t have much control or power when it comes to eradicating systemic racism from a policy perspective. But we do have control over what goes on in our classrooms and, to some extent, in our schools. And we can do whatever it takes to try and engage students like JaeHyun. 

Some background information and context:

I teach grade 7 English Language Development at the American Embassy School in New Delhi. It’s an international school that mostly caters to the children of American and other countries’ diplomats and foreign service workers. All of my students are English language learners (mostly from Korea and Israel), and the pandemic has been challenging for them. Stripped of the language immersive environment of the regular school day, they have struggled to learn English and build content area skills over Zoom. 

There are so many barriers that have interfered with my students’ language learning this year, and yet so many of them have persevered and found strategies to help them be successful. But there are a few, like JaeHyun, who have made atypical progress in terms of language growth. In order to best support them, a multi-pronged approach is needed.

So, what did I do? Here are some ideas and strategies that I tried that you could try too:

  1. Meet with the family and keep meeting with them:
  • I reached out to JaeHyun’s family and set up a 1:1 meeting with a translator present to express my worries and concerns about his progress. If you don’t have access to translation services at your school, you can use Google translate. It’s easy to use and the translations are decent. 
  • At the meeting, I outlined the expectations for JaeHyun’s participation in class and talked to the family about ways to maximize the home learning environment. I also encouraged the parents to improve their WiFi connectivity, if possible.
  • Then I showed the family how to use Google Calendar, Google Classroom, and a few other apps to keep track of JaeHyun’s progress. I also set up a 1:1 meeting between JaeHyun and our tech coordinator so that she could help him learn how to use the apps he needed to be successful.  
  • Lastly, I set up regular, weekly meetings on Friday afternoons with JaeHyun and his mom to check in and see how things were going. At those meetings, he completed a quick reflection form (in his home language) and set goals for the next week.

2. Help the student feel welcome in the community and provide them with opportunities to make friends:

  • I had to be really intentional about this. I asked another Korean-speaking student to be JaeHyun’s buddy and add him on KakaoTalk messenger. That way, if JaeHyun had a question about something going on in class, he could text his buddy in Korean.
  • I also encouraged JaeHyun to join a virtual club. He chose to join Guitar Club and he loved it. He could participate by watching and not having to say much (which is good for a student who is just learning English). He was also able to meet a few kids there and, once things opened up a bit more and they were able to go outside, they started playing soccer together (and playing their guitars) on the weekends. 

3. Build connections with ALL students during EVERY class:

  • I sought to engage JaeHyun during class through low-stakes games and activities that didn’t require much in the way of language.  This article, from the blog “Hooked On Innovation”, has some great tips to help students have fun on Zoom. I especially like Tip #16, which is “engage students in monster drawing”. Icebreakers and community-building activities are fun anytime, and especially during a pandemic. Our kids need to laugh more, and if not in our classes, where?
  • As mentioned previously, I often ask students what they are going to have, or what they have had, for lunch. It’s a great way to spark conversation and get students talking. It also honors their cultural background (which is especially important when working with ELLs) by allowing students to share a little bit about their own country’s cuisine.

4. Get support from your counseling team and administrators:

  • I referred JaeHyun to our student support team. Our counselor was able to set up a regular meeting with him to help him adjust to life at our school and process his emotions about being in a new environment. Socio-emotional support that is regular and ongoing is KEY to engaging students who are struggling.
  • I also scheduled a case management meeting with all of JaeHyun’s teachers to brainstorm ways to best support him. At that meeting, we came up with an action plan and a list of strategies to try. We met again six weeks after the initial meeting to check in on our plan, and to make any necessary changes and/or adjustments. 

Conclusion:

Interestingly, most of the things that I did to help JaeHyun were things that happened behind the scenes, outside of class, and offscreen. The most important lessons I learned from this case study are that when a student is non-responsive, it’s definitely a symptom of a larger issue. I can repeat someone’s name in a Zoom meeting until my face turns blue, but they usually won’t respond until the larger issues are taken care of. To deal with those, you need a whole lot of help and a whole lot of patience.

Changing behaviors takes time. Helping students feel welcome and included does, too. But just because the results are slow, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I spent months thinking about whether or not JaeHyun was learning. What I should have done was relaxed, trusted that my interventions were having an impact, and focused on connecting as best as I could, every single time. And if he didn’t respond one day, shaking it off, moving forward, and trying again next class.

It took a lot of hard work, patience, and effort, but JaeHyun is finally starting to participate more actively in my class. He doesn’t always have his camera on, but when we are in a breakout room working 1:1, he does. Plus, now when I call him, he almost always responds, even if it’s just to shake his head no when I ask him if he wants to share. But at least he is there, and I know he is there. And maybe, for now, during this late stage of a global pandemic in a year that’s been like no other, that’s enough.

(*All names have been changed)

Further your learning: Check out this 10 minute PD workshop I created with my MS EAL colleagues. It contains a few easy Zoom tips that teachers can use to engage EAL students during online lessons! Also, Tan Huynh’s Empowering ELL’s blog has some amazing resources for EAL and content area teachers!

What do you do to reach your EAL students on Zoom? Share your tips and ideas in the comments section below.