An Open Letter from Lily Wong Fillmore on School Closures Related to Covid-19

March 23, 2020

When ELSF considered who ought to address our EL community in this unprecedented time, ELSF advisory committee member Dr. Lily Wong Fillmore was the clear choice. Throughout her career, she has been a tireless advocate for these underserved students, and her experience and perspective are invaluable at this time. We are proud to share her guidance in the form of this open letter for teachers, school administrators, English learners, and their families on responding to Covid-19 and supporting remote learning for ELs. The changes caused by Covid-19 are especially dangerous for ELs, and are likely to magnify the disparities our students face already, so it is critical that their concerns be prioritized right now.

Read this letter in Simplified Chinese.

Dear EL educators, families and students:

Like most old folks these days, I am sitting at home isolated from others trying to stay healthy and safe. But as an educator, I am thinking about our students, for whom the closure of schools to slow the spread of the dreadful virus in our communities may add up to an undesirable hiatus in learning—a break few students could afford. Knowing how committed teachers are to their students, I have no doubt that they are thinking about how to support learning despite the changed circumstances.

For me, the big worry are the students who will not be able to access the online learning resources that schools are working on. This concern was highlighted by Corey Mitchell in an Education Week article (English-Learners May Be Left Behind as Remote Learning Becomes “New Normal,” March 17, 2020). Many students lack the computers or internet services at home to take advantage of the on-line instructional experiences, but for English-learners, even if they had access would still be at a loss since they more than other students require support from instructional teachers or coaches who can make the materials understandable. Without such support, these students will fall even further behind in school, as Mitchell points out.

The question we educators must address is how to provide students access to instructional experiences without internet, and how to get them the interactional support they need from others while they are sequestered at home. Television offers one possibility, since cable TV is more likely to be present in homes than the internet. To teachers and school administrators: How can we use TV, especially stations that broadcast in languages spoken by ELs, to encourage family participation in educational experiences? Are there programs that offer educational content which we can encourage parents to watch with their children? Could we create multilingual TV learning guides which lists programs, times and channels that students and family members can watch? What should they be paying attention to? Would parents and other household members mind the family TV being pressed into service for student learning?

Speaking to parents now: What can you do at home to support your children’s learning—in the language you are most comfortable speaking, of course. Can you take this time out to share with your children some of your knowledge of subjects you are interested in, teach them skills—big and small—that you have found to make a difference in your life, and teach them something of the people, places, and events that have been important in your family? For example, one might begin with an object—a family relic (e.g., a piece of pottery, or an embroidered baptism dress, or a letter written by a relative in the old country), tell your children what you know about it—where it came from, who made it, when that might have been, how you came to have it now.

This is an opportunity to expand your children’s home language skills—if they have been schooled in English only, their development in the family language may be a bit rusty and their vocabulary somewhat limited. If you have books, magazines and newspapers in your language, read to them, and discuss the meaning of what you read with them. Will this put them back in the learning of English—absolutely not! It can only expand their knowledge of the world and enhance their connection with family members.

I hope that families will seek out educational materials on TV—shows like NOVA, Nature, and Planet Earth which are freely available on PBS and BBC. Some of these shows have versions in Spanish as well which is useful for Spanish-speaking families but watching them in English offers children an opportunity to share what they understand with family members who do not understand English. If the family has cable TV and on-demand access to such shows, parents can hit the pause button on the remote from time to time to ask children to explain what is being presented to family members who do not understand the narration. Do the children understand well enough to offer explanations? They will sure try, and perhaps that is what we hope will happen: the children will try—it might be a stretch to do so, but it is in that stretch that learning occurs.

And of course, most importantly, the school will be getting materials and assignments to your children to work on at home. I hope you will create a learning schedule and routines based on the instructional materials the teachers of your children are getting to you. Make a quiet place in your home where your children can work, free of other activities and distractions like the TV. This is easier in some homes than in others, but it is important that the children have a place to work and to learn. Be sure to check with your school regularly if you need help, resources, or learning materials. If you do not have a computer or a smart tablet such as an Ipad or Samsung Galaxy or whatever, your school may be able to lend you one.

For students: You are probably wondering—now what are we supposed to do? Not being able to go out or hang out with friends and do things together? School work to do by yourself at home? And you hear people are saying this could be an opportunity for kids and families to learn together. Hmm. So what does that mean? If you have younger siblings, you may need to help them with their schoolwork now and then. You are or will be getting school assignments and materials to work on during this unexpected and extended school holiday—but think about this: once you are done with your schoolwork, you’ll have time on your hands.

I was once a kid too—and when I was your age, I studied the subjects in school you are probably studying now. We zipped by topics so quickly that subjects blurred into one another. Every now and then, I would snag on something really interesting, and would wish we could slow down so we could learn more about it. Just think—you can do that now that you are expected to stay and learn at home! If you have a smart tablet or computer at home, and internet access, you can start looking for more information on the computer. I hope you share what you are learning with your family—tell them about it and show them the materials you turn up in your search.

These are difficult times for everyone—educators, families and students. It will take commitment, persistence, and creative efforts from all of us to ensure that students receive the educational opportunities and support they require and deserve. I hope you will join me in trying to find resources and think of ways to make sure that our children can continue learning during this period of necessary school closure.

Lily Wong Fillmore is Professor Emerita, University of California at Berkeley. She is a linguist whose work has focused on language and literacy development in English learners, and on the role of language in academic learning in school age students.

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