English Learners Q&A

Spanish-Speaking Students Need Support. A New Podcast May Help

By Corey Mitchell — August 31, 2020 4 min read
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Geri Chaffee’s first live radio appearance came as a surprise.

As schools shut down to slow the spread of coronavirus, the sudden shift to distance learning left parents frazzled and frustrated. It quickly became apparent that, without in-person instruction, families of children who were not fluent in English faced additional barriers and schools would struggle to support them.

In Florida, where Chaffee lives, Spanish-speaking families had questions. But many of them had trouble finding answers because they did not speak or read English, lacked internet access or devices, or felt uncomfortable approaching school leaders to ask for help.

Concerned about the challenges that families faced in adjusting to distance learning, an acquaintance with Solmart Media, a company that owns Spanish-language radio stations in Florida, sought out Chaffee for advice.

“At that time, they were getting a lot of calls from parents, like, ‘What do we do? What does this mean? Hispanic parents, non-English-speaking parents. So, this producer called me and asked if I could do an interview,” Chaffee said.

Chaffee figured she was up to the task. With a master’s degree in educational leadership, the native Spanish speaker had home-schooled her bilingual, biliterate children with learning differences. She is also the founder of Dreamers Academy, a planned dual-language charter school in Sarasota, Fla.

During the interview, Chaffee recalled rattling off a series of tips to help families adjust to distance learning. Unbeknownst to her, the conversation was broadcast live to listeners across a 10-county area in the state. In the days after it aired, school administrators called her up or reached out on social media, asking for advice on parent engagement.

“Oh no, that was live,” she recalled thinking. “I don’t even know what the heck I said.”

That conversation spawned Por Nuestros Niños, a new Spanish-language radio show and podcast that aims to help families in Florida and across the nation navigate an uncertain fall after a tumultuous spring of distance learning. The show was borne out of the pandemic, but Chaffee expects it will continue even after students return to school.

Chaffee partners with Solmart Media for the weekly 30-minute national radio show, which now airs on more than 300 Spanish-language stations across the country. It features interviews with educators and leading English-language-learner researchers who share tips and insights on how parents can support their children.

Chaffee spoke with Education Week about Por Nuestros Niños, which translates to ‘For Our Children’ in English. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Education Week: How do you support Spanish-speaking parents?

Chaffee: There are the cultural barriers that we talk about on the show all the time. [Some families] are not going to go to the school and say, ‘My kid is not doing well. I can’t help them. I don’t know how to read or write in English.’ It’s almost taboo. We try to empower parents with information in a very casual conversation. Information, resources, tools that they can immediately put to use. We constantly remind them that they are their children’s first teachers and that the home is the first school and that, ‘We’ve got this. You can do this.’

Education Week: What are the biggest obstacles that parents encounter when trying to advocate for their children?

Chaffee: Parents don’t realize that they can go to school and they have a right to have an appointment and a professional [interpreter]. Not the custodian who is very nice and can translate. No, a professional [interpreter], an ESL person that’s bilingual. They don’t realize it. They can ask to speak to the principal, right? I’ve seen that happen just recently. I was translating for a mom that was very upset. And right there, we discovered that [her son] had been crying for four weeks because he didn’t want to be retained because his little sister who was also in 3rd grade and a twin made it to 4th grade. You can imagine this kid has been traumatized. Mom was able to express that to the principal while I was translating. And all I could think of is how many of these stories are there out there where parents are doing everything they can to help their kids succeed, but they don’t even know the tools that they have in their toolbox.

Education Week: What can schools do to support parents who are not fluent in English?
Chaffee: There’s this incredible desire that these parents have. If we take advantage of the fact that their children could be bilingual and biliterate and that they have parents that are doing everything possible, because they really love America, we have an enormous opportunity here. There’s a lot of room for improvement. Right now, you hear, ‘Oh, culturally responsive teaching and social, emotional learning,’ but it really has not translated into giving the teachers the tools they need. We need everything to be infused with equity and culturally-responsive teaching and learning.

To listen to the podcast, visit Chaffee’s web site https://www.pdo.org and click on podcasts.

Photo Credit: Por Nuestros Niños host Geri Chaffee

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.