Sunday, September 20, 2020

Communication Is Possible Despite Language Barriers

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Developing relationships with students in a remote or socially distant environment is awkward, but it's especially difficult connecting with English learners with whom we don't share a common language. This year, I've been asked to make phone or video calls to newcomer ELs whose teachers aren't able to communicate with. And I'm happy to take on this extra work. While I get pulled primarily for translation, I take the opportunity to develop relationships and help ease the anxiety of having to learn remotely, in a new country, and in a new tongue. 

During the five years, I got to serve as a Secondary ESL teacher, overcoming language barriers became part of my job description. Although I am fortunate to be fluent and literate in Spanish, many of my students were not Spanish speaking and I found myself in the same predicament as many of my colleagues. But I will say that as challenging and daunting as it may seem, linguistic barriers are not impossible to overcome. 

While it's wonderful to have a human translator, they aren't always available. However, there are several tech tools at our fingertips that work fairly well. And even when the translation isn't perfect, they get the message across. One thing they do translate is your willingness to make an effort to connect and communicate. And that, in it of itself, speaks volumes. 

Image by Sayyid 96 from Pixabay

The following tech tools are free and easy to use. If you are not familiar with them, I encourage you to check them out.

  • Google Translate. This familiar tool to many of us can actually be a teacher's best friend. It works on any type of device. Messages can be keyed or spoken and likewise, translations can be read or listened to. If you use the app on your mobile device, it will also let you scan text, instantly producing a translation. Google Translate is my go-to tool when in a pinch and no human translator is available. If you are meeting with a student over Zoom, you can copy the translation from Google Translate and past it in the chatbox. 
  • Talking Points. A text messaging tool that allows educators to connect and communicate with students and their families. It's free for teachers, though there are premium features that schools can pay for.  Although I've never used the tool myself, it's a staple for many ESL teachers, and everyone I know who uses it gives it rave reviews.
  • Remind. Many educators use this app for communicating with students and families, but don't often use (or may even be aware of) its powerful translation feature. With a simple tap, messages can be translated into any of 70 different languages. 
  • Microsoft Translator for Education. A site that provides free resources and tools for captioning and translation in the classroom, but what I love the most is its conversation feature that provides real-time translation. There are many ways this tool can facilitate conversation when there is no common language. I recently sat in a demonstration during a PD session and was very impressed.
There are some meetings that necessitate a professional translator, but for most of the daily interactions that help us build relationships with students, technology tools like these are more than adequate. While they may not be perfect at times, more often than not they translate accurately and are tremendously helpful in bridging communication gaps. 

Image Credit: wilgengebroed

Bottom line, kindness and compassion are understood by all. A warm smile and friendly demeanor can express more than words can say, despite a language barrier.  There are many teaching strategies that can help with making content comprehensible, but as Dr. Comer alluded, relationships are essential to learning. And it's difficult to develop a relationship, much less a significant one, if there's no communication. Technologies like the ones I listed not only translate, they also let the student know that you are their ally, not just their teacher, giving them a sense of safety and belonging, which will likely help them work to potential. 

If you aren't already, I challenge you to take small steps to directly connect with students with whom you don't share a common language. You'd be surprised how far even just a greeting will take you. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Until next time, remember it's the tidbits that make it all grand. Take care.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Overwhelmed? Think Three Ts

Being stretched and stressed seems to be part of a teacher's job description. Few teachers are able to work a 40-hour work week and achieve a healthy work/life balance. Some do, but I think it's safe to say that most educators' plates stay way full. And as if there wasn't enough already, along came Covid. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been a source of enormous stress for everyone, but especially educators. It's now September and while the curve has flattened in many areas, the virus does not seem to be going away anytime soon. But learning can't wait and we are moving forward with safety protocols in place. Although North Carolina is on Plan B which allows for in-person instruction with social distancing and other safety guidelines, our district has opted to start the school year with K-12 remote instruction and it's been quite overwhelming. But whether we teach remotely, face-to-face or in a hybrid model, there are new technologies, routines and requirements brought on by this pandemic and it seems every single educator is barely keeping their head above water. Some changes are temporary, but I highly suspect much of it will stick. Needless to say all this newness is causing educators to be stretched very thin - especially for those that have children at home. A lack of work/life balance can adversely affect not only our teaching, but also our health. I'm concerned that if we don't make some adjustments the exhaustion and stress can be just as hazardous as the virus we are trying to steer clear of.  

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While you may think there's little you can adjust, think Three T's: Toss, Tweak and Treasure.
  • What can we toss? If you are a tech enthusiast like me, you may be quick to jump in and try the latest toys to help stay remotely connected. But if we are not careful, those tech tools or novel strategies that may seem very promising may not actually be very beneficial and take us away from that which is priority. So, if it's not mandated by your school or district, it's not essential to remote learning, not required for your curriculum, and/or not really making teaching and learning more effective, toss it (or save it for later in the year). 
  • What can we tweak? Is there a routine or strategy that can be implemented a little differently? Perhaps there's a step you can omit? Could you record your lessons and use a tool like Edpuzzle that helps with checking for understanding, automatically grades and integrates with most learning management systems? There may be something you've successfully implemented in the past that perhaps can be digitized and used in remote learning. Reach out to a colleague or an instructional coach for time-saving tools, tips and pointers. Sometimes slight tweaks that can make a huge difference. Watch "212 - The Extra Degree."
  • What do we treasure? Our greatest treasures are people and relationships. Students are the reason we do what we do, but we also need our colleagues, parents and other stakeholders to keep us moving forward. But there are also some tech treasures that while initially overwhelming are winning our hearts and are becoming a staple in our practice. For us, district-wide implementation of Canvas LMS and Social & Emotional Learning, as well as school-wide implementation of Zoom are proving invaluable. And the consistency has been well-received and appreciated by students, parents and staff, most notably the use of Canvas. Prior to Covid, we were free to use the learning management system of choice (or none at all, although most used either Canvas or Google Classroom). Nevertheless, it's been exhausting as we've had to work through the summer in order to prepare for changes implemented this fall. I will say that we need to be careful to not throw out the baby with the bath water as things start to normalize. Before we consider tossing something new, we need to give it some time. As we become more familiar with new technologies, new curricula or new routines, the more speed we'll pickup and the more comfortable and relaxed we will feel. Much of our exhaustion is due to all the newness teaching in a pandemic has brought us. 
We are now in our fourth week of school and we are starting to adjust to this new normal. So if you are just starting the school year, please know that things will get better. Social media is loaded with posts from teachers venting their frustration and exhaustion. But as I read every post, I'm also encouraged by the unwavering commitment and dedication.

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Most of us could have never imagined having to teach through such challenging times. And while we may feel as if we barely have time to breathe, rethinking and prioritizing our workload will not only be good for our health, it will make us better educators, and impact our personal lives as well. Being intentional and reflective, figuring out what can be tossed or tweaked will help us to find the treasures in our practice that will restore our energy and love of teaching and learning. 

Stay positive and hopeful, my friends. I still believe good things will come of this. If you have helpful tips and strategies to help keep us strong, please reach out or simply comment below.

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