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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Supporting Multilingual Learners ‘Through the Storm’ of COVID-19

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 24, 2020 12 min read
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(This is the sixth post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, and Part Five here.)

The new question of the week is:

How can we best support students when we teach online?

In Part One, David Sherrin, Lorie Barber, Janelle Henderson, and Cathleen Beachboard contributed their experiences.

In Part Two, Amy Roediger, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michael Silverstone, and Jeremy Hyler shared their reflections.

In Part Three, Matthew Johnson, Joseph Jones, T.J. Vari, Deb Blaz, and Cindi Rigsbee offered their ideas.

In Part Four, Nick Fotopoulos, Helen Vassiliou, Cornelia Okraski, and Sam Olbes discussed specifically how they were teaching their ELL classes online.

In Part Five, Maurice McDavid, Holly Spinelli, Ashley Wallace, and Kristen Koppers talked about what they were trying to do with their classes.

Today, we revisit teaching English-language learners, with commentaries from Sarah Said, Sandra Mings Lamar, and Linda Heafey.

But, first, a little more about my own classes and students....

Yesterday, we began in earnest to plan and apply online learning in our own area. I’ve previously shared my tentative plans, and much of it - though not all - continues to make sense:

I’ll keep readers posted as I make necessary adjustments....

Multilingual educators are sailing the ship into uncertain waters ...

Sarah Said currently leads a multilingual learning program in an EL education school in a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago:

I am writing this from the standpoint of a multilingual- and equity-program director. What is the first thing that I can tell you? I work in an awesome community where I spent a lot of time answering emails and texts that run along the lines of: “Hey Said, what do your students and families need?” Our school community really came together from teachers giving their kids “surprise phone calls” to parents donating extra cleaning supplies to our school to families stepping in to offer babysitting to other families.

When the Storm Began ... My School Community’s Story

We didn’t have much time to prepare. As educators, do we ever? But my school created a “Hybrid E-Learning Matrix” as many schools in Illinois did. The day before we had to officially close, our founding principal had students and parents take home e-learning paper packets and nonperishable food items for lunches so that they did not have to leave their homes to access their children’s breakfasts and lunches. We spent days after that communicating developments on school closure through our school’s messenger system, website, twitter, Facebook, and Talkingpts application. I have never worked on so much translation in my career. The Talkingpts application was really the strongest line of communication we had with our bilingual communities remotely.

Supporting Our Multilingual Learners’ in Advancing Proficiency Through the Storm

What did we do to support our learners academically? We first sent home supplemental activities (they can swap them out for an ELA activity on their E-Learning Matrix) for language-learners. Some of those activities were online activities through ELL A-Z and Seesaw that we could find. Others in upper grades were assigned chapter books at their reading levels that we assigned with a choice board that gave students the options of visual or written representations of their comprehension.

We also utilized self-made activities and twinkl activities as well as authentic Spanish texts from Reading A-Z to support native language. Newsela Spanish and English were also great supports. And, we also will give students an opportunity after spring break to create books on Writereader or make books (to be turned in when they come back on paper) while learning at home. We also did zoomchats one hour a day with each grade level to assure understanding. If a student couldn’t make the zoomchat and wanted support or didn’t have access to zoom, we made good old-fashioned phone calls.

What Worked...


  • Having printed packets available at school weekly for families without internet access or not enough devices. This was important for many of our students in and not in our multilingual communities. There are some who stay at caretakers’ homes during the day while their parents work. They needed access to the content.

  • The Open Up Resources Community! We are an EL education school that uses the EL Education K-5 ELA curriculum. This is an open-source community, We needed to align resources to our modules so that we could transition back smoother. The facebook community has provided not only our multilingual team but our whole team with ways to access our texts and ideas to supplement resources on the page.

  • Seesaw! For families with only one device, Seesaw supported their children because they could complete activities from a phone or small tablet as their siblings or parents worked on the home device. It also supported teachers with planning because of all the ready-made activities You can also “app smash” multiple apps including Google Classroom in Seesaw.

For Family Outreach

  • Many of our parents really liked the Google form we created for a family check-in. We sent out the form to check in with families on their health and emotionally. We also wanted to see that they had the resources they needed. The form was in English and native language. If a parent didn’t complete the form, I reached out and called or messaged on Talkingpts. We are beyond an academic institution, we are a community .

  • Talkingpts! It’s an application that works as a text message on parents’ phones. It enables two-way translation communication with families. You can send mass texts for free! It has been a LIFELINE in this situation.

  • Community get-togethers via Zoom chat! We held a story time for families on the application. A staff member would read, and children could see and interact with them. My first read-aloud was a bilingual read-aloud. We will try to hold these weekly through the social-distance period. Our art teacher created a project video that we made accessible through social media to parents.

  • We also created this list (based off the “amazing lists” online) of apps that are accessible to parents so that they can keep the learning going while we are on spring break. The list is in English and Spanish. It is also itemized by content area.

What I Have Learned so Far on the Voyage...

We are everything to families we serve. As teaching and leadership teams, we are everything to each other. School communities need each other. And online, our multilingual community of educators is amazing! On Twitter and Facebook, we really support each other in PLN’s. I was given the sweet reminder that our multilingual-learner communities of families are resilient, and they will not let a pandemic get in the way of their children’s learning. This situation brought me closer (in communication, but not physically) to the parents of the students my program serves. We’re developing a stronger sense of community. We are physically distanced but not emotionally.

Maintaining a sense of community

Sandra Mings Lamar, director of international programs for a small-town academy in Vermont, is a 2016 Rowland Fellow, a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in Botswana, and has been teaching second-language English-learners since 1989:

“Honestly,” I said to my 13 students from 11 countries, “if teaching was a job that was only online, I wouldn’t be a teacher. I am here for the relationships. I am here to be with you. I have taken online classes and I don’t remember the instructors or any of the other participants. To me, that would not be teaching.” This was on Thursday, March 12, as my school ran a practice drill of how school would work if it were all online. We decided that on Thursday the students would come to school and pretend they were at home working on line, and then on Friday, the 13th, students would stay home and do their work online. My students, though ELL, are all boarders, so this simply meant they would be in their dorms.

During the class period, the executive committee at my school decided that all boarding students would be sent home. We would close the dorms. The goal was to have all students from 22 countries back with their families no later than Monday, March 16. By Monday, the governor of Vermont had declared a state of emergency and required the closure of all schools no later than Wednesday, March 18. On Wednesday, March 18, we were asked to begin conducting all of our lessons online.

As more schools around the country face this reality, sharing ideas of what’s working and tips on what to do and what not to do seems like a practical way for us to help each other out. With a class of 13 students, I hosted a Zoom class meeting the first day of online school (March 18). All but three students attended. I just asked them to describe going home and how they felt. The conversation lasted 40 minutes. We conducted another meeting on Friday (March 20), and three who had not dialed in for the first meeting attended this meeting. Students compared how their countries were coping with the virus, from economic strife to quarantine to the level of citizens to take the CDC recommendations seriously.

Do whatever you can to keep a sense of community with your students. If unable to conduct meetings like this, I would be posting videos of myself in our LMS (learning-management system). Recognize that you are not an online teacher. You may never wish to be one. They are not online learners, either. Take it slowly. Everyone needs to get used to the new normal. Be sure your personality shows up. Work to keep them connected to each other. In addition to these video-chat meetings, I post a discussion board where they can share their thoughts. And we are reading a book together in real time. I have recorded audio of myself reading it, and they can listen to that or to a professional through Audible. Most are choosing my recording. The class should not be synchronous. They have other classes. Yours is not the only one. Take that into consideration when assigning work. Remember, this is scary and traumatic for most of them, be the helper, and keep the safe, connected community you had in your classroom available to them online.

Needing a “better approach”

Linda Heafey taught middle school ELA for 15 years and is now in her second year of teaching three levels of 7th grade ELL students in Peabody, Mass., using a pullout model:

My students and I left school 10 days ago on a Thursday afternoon as usual and received a phone call that evening that school would be closed on Friday. Over the weekend, the district announced all schools would be closed for an additional two weeks, and then our state declared that we would be closed for a minimum of three weeks. Teachers were allowed back into the building on Monday to pick up their computers and other materials and told that there could be no meeting or congregating. Via email, we were instructed to provide enrichment activities only at this stage, and that we may not teach new material, give assessments, or grade work.

Our middle school students use school-supplied Chromebooks and are familiar with using Google Classroom, so I use that platform to communicate with students. All are familiar with RazKids, Epic!, MobyMax, Quizlet, and National Geographic Inside. Each day last week, I created slide shows containing instructions for each activity—largely pulled from the applications I just listed— that I narrated using Screencastomatic because I thought it might be reassuring for my students to see my face and hear my voice. I feel this worked well from my point of view, but I saw little evidence that any of my students are accessing the materials, so I can’t comment on how it was received. I remain hopeful that engagement will pick up over the next week or two.

After spending a lot of time this week preparing a week’s worth of piecemeal, disconnected activities for students at two different levels, I have come to realize that I need a better approach, one which allows my students to choose what to spend their time on and when to spend it. I plan to develop a self-directed learning plan for students that allows them to choose their own paths. It will have several hours’ worth of activities that they can work through at their own pace. I’m thinking of a geography project for my beginners, perhaps focused on learning about the various countries whose national language is English. A guiding document will contain links to content and screencasts I create to show them what to do. I hope to incorporate FlipGrid, which we have some experience with, so we can share our work and maintain some sense of community. If engagement picks up, I also plan to try using Google Meet for students to ask questions and share progress with their peers.

My biggest concern is getting students and their parents engaged initially. I think it is going to require some very clear and direct messaging from the state and/or district, which may not happen soon.

Thanks to Sarah, Linda, and Sandra for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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