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Beyond Crises: The Reawakening of Classrooms

Margo Gottlieb sees the new school year as an opportunity to close educational equity gaps and engage communities

It’s summer 2021 and as educators, we might be thinking beyond crises and concentrating on the extent to which the transformation of our practices of the recent past will have a lasting impact on teaching and learning. As our classrooms reawaken, having a schoolwide plan or a theory of action (a hypothesis that projects what will happen when educators agree to implement a set of evidence-centered strategies) will be helpful in tackling the web of educational inequities that still exists. After all, it is our vision to have our multilingual learners and other minoritized students thrive this upcoming school year. So where do we begin, and how do we achieve our collective goal?

In reimagining educational life beyond crises, this article attempts to treat some issues we face at the classroom level and offer ideas for renewal. The most pressing of these concerns revolves around co-constructing classrooms with multilingual learners to be more linguistically and culturally sustainable and, in doing so, connecting more closely to our families and communities. Divided into three parts, this article

1) looks retrospectively at where we have been,

2) shares insights into what we have gained, and lastly

3) explores how we can leverage these gains to increase the vitality and equity in our classrooms. It’s hard to imagine what this upcoming school year will bring, so let’s make a pact to maintain a strengths-based focus and an optimistic outlook.

Where We Have Been
No one has to remind us of what we have endured physically and psychologically over the last year and a half—a most overwhelming, perplexing, and challenging of times here and around the globe. Simultaneous crises during this period have been felt hard in the U.S., in particular the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest, failed immigration policy, and natural disasters. This upheaval to life as we have known it has exacerbated the inequities already present and continues to do so. Now as an educational community, we have the opportunity to help right some of these societal wrongs so that we can heal and flourish together. Yet questions remain for us to examine, such as:

What will be the aftermath of the trauma, stress, and anxiety of the crises on our students, families, and colleagues? In particular, how have these crises affected multilingual learners’ language, conceptual, and social–emotional development?
What will be the residual effects of ongoing racial injustices on our schools and local communities? What can we do to mitigate discrimination so that our students can build positive self-images and relationships?

How will we provide for unaccompanied minors and other recent arrivals who have escaped from atrocities in their homelands? How might we better coordinate educational and social services for these students?

How will we ensure digital literacy for all students and embed it into curriculum, instruction, and assessment? How do multiliteracies become an accepted reality of classrooms, schools, and the digital world in which we live?

As we ponder how to confront these ongoing dilemmas, we begin to shape a new way of schooling. At the same time, we draw from the students’ and families’ strengths to optimize opportunities and access for multilingual learners to grow cognitively, linguistically, and social–emotionally. Let’s look into our classrooms to see how we might tackle some of these issues and which strategies might be most effective.

What We Have Gained
With months of experience in remote, face-to-face, and/or hybrid modes of learning, teachers and administrators have proven that they can pivot on a moment’s notice to a new learning environment. In order to have a most productive upcoming year, let’s explore some of the advances we have made and how we might ingrain some of these more constructive aspects into school life. Even though the pandemic has highlighted pre-existing inequities facing our multilingual learners, in some ways it has shone a bright light on our minoritized communities. In doing so, COVID and the other crises have underscored the need to redouble our efforts to ensure that learning opportunities convert into learning gains for our multilingual learners and to continue our vital work in communities. 

Several positive residual effects of remote learning are emerging. Digital dependence has helped lessen pre-existing technology discrepancies in some districts. Educators have explored social–emotional supports with heightened attention to students’ and families’ mental health. Family members have transformed into stronger collaborators in their children’s learning. The pandemic has made it clear that learning occurs inside and outside of classroom walls. Leveraging such changes has begun to build educator awareness of how to address the inequities at hand, with hope for encouraging results in the long run.
The following six areas highlight some of the strides that we have made over the last year and a half as an educational community as a whole and for individual schools and classrooms.

Heightened attention to communication
Communication—the exchange of information between educational stakeholders, including students and students, teachers and students, teachers and families, students and families, and schools and families—has markedly increased. Remote and hybrid learning have been a stimulus for more individual contact among these people vested in education. Teachers have redoubled their efforts to communicate with families of multilingual learners in the languages with which family members are most comfortable to check on the academic progress and well-being of their students. These improved communication channels have resulted in relationship building and growing trust between educators and families of multilingual learners.

Improved access to technology
Equipping multilingual learners with technology devices may have been a far-reaching educational goal, but the pandemic accelerated district and school priorities in funding, distributing, and maintaining working tablets and computers. Coupled with this effort have been expanding families’ access to bandwidth, improving reliability of internet service, and even increasing the availability of hotspots for students. The importance of digital literacy stemming from the interaction of literacy and technology has come to the forefront. As a result, in some districts, students and families have become more adept at using and integrating information obtained from multiple technology-related sources (including videos, computer programs, and e-books) and in constructing digitally driven products (as in multimedia projects, interviews, and iMovies).

Stronger family–school–community ties
The crises have brought us together as co-dependent and interconnected human beings. The outreach that has occurred to ensure that students and families receive necessary social and health services has created a closer bond. The ingenuity of schools, classrooms, and communities in stimulating learning in multiple languages and in nontraditional ways has spurred thought and action. Online parent academies have popped up, for example, and family members have come to see school as a welcome resource. Having the classroom extend to families (e.g., learning-by-doing daily activities, sharing objects and cultural artifacts, exchanging recipes) has stimulated student engagement and the connection between home and school.

Increased collaboration
Principals and other administrators have become aware of the challenges of teachers during times of crises. Teachers, in turn, have become more sensitive and responsive to the life circumstances of their multilingual learners and their families. Families have become more apt to reach out to teachers and schools, seek resources, and share their histories. Multilingual learners have been building new interactive skill sets with their peers. Collaboration among stakeholders (one of the “big ideas” of the WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework, 2020 Edition) helps promote a common vision and commitment of all educators to educational equity. In essence, increased collaboration underscores the social nature of learning and contributes to the humanization of education.

Expansion of curriculum
We have come to recognize important shifts in curriculum that stem from family, teacher, and student voices in support of linguistically and culturally sustainable classrooms and schools. Family members have contributed their expertise and “funds of knowledge,” all of which have made curriculum more authentic, community-based, and experientially relevant for students. Teachers have become empowered in shaping multilingual learners’ learning experiences around the students’ interests and likenesses. In turn, students have been encouraged to become agents of their own learning. Student voice and choice as part of assessment—embedded curriculum- from helping to craft learning targets to choosing evidence of learning—has come to incorporate multilingual perspectives (Gottlieb, 2021).

Enhanced understanding of linguistic and cultural assets
Finally, we have been making strides as educators in acting on the strengths of multilingualism and multiculturalism and utilizing these assets as a springboard to help shape positive identities of our multilingual learners. In accepting and promoting multilingual learners’ strategic use of multiple languages inside and outside of school, we can more realistically represent their lives, ways of being, and interaction with others. In better understanding the intersectionality of the multitude of mosaic pieces that constitute our multicultural society, we are better equipped to combat hate, bias, and discrimination. Shaping the identities of families, teachers, and students in educational contexts, as shown in the figure, has become an outgrowth of linguistically and culturally sustainable schools.

Shaping Educational Identity
Adapted from Zacarian, Calderón, and Gottlieb, 2021, p. 202
How We Can Leverage Our Gains
Having made strides in fortifying relationships among communities, schools, and classrooms, we now turn to what teachers can do every day to ensure the steady academic progress of multilingual learners, offer safe spaces for their social and emotional development, and empower students to become autonomous learners.

Adopt effective evidence-based strategies inclusive of multilingual learners
One might ask which evidence-based instructional strategies highlight what multilingual learners can do and how these students can meet grade-level expectations through effective scaffolded learning experiences. There is no one right answer to this question, as teachers work in many different settings with variability in geography (urban, suburban, or rural settings), demography (high, medium, or low concentrations of minoritized students), and instructional models/programs (dual language immersion, bilingual, and English language development). Here are some ideas for filling an instructional toolbox for multilingual learners.
Enact project-based learning that requires students to probe deeply using the languages of their choice, whether the final product is in English or not.

Integrate interpretive (listening, reading, and viewing) and expressive (speaking, writing, and representing) modes of communication and apply various interactive techniques (such as restorative circles, interactive round tables, Socratic seminars, and courageous conversations).

Use software that stimulates student engagement in learning (such as Flipgrid, Padlet, and Seesaw, among others) and inspires students to use their own and collective creativity with peers in coding to designing software.

Encourage multilingual learners’ access to learning in multimodal ways, namely graphically (e.g., graphic organizers and stories), visually (e.g., murals, videos, multimedia presentations), kinesthetically (e.g., re-enactments, dance), and auditorily (e.g., podcasts, audio books) in addition to more traditional print-dependent modes.

Offer opportunities for students to share their personal experiences, cultures, and languages (e.g., through journals, memoirs, autobiographic videos, and murals) as a springboard to further personalize their learning.

Foster engagement of multilingual learners in making decisions
Crises tend to draw everyone closer together through shared experience. We realize now that school as we have known it is forever changed. Let’s seize the moment and take time to listen to our students and be responsive to their feelings, needs, and aspirations. Let multilingual learners help shape their own destinies and identities as teachers guide students using these strategies.
Nurture students’ confidence and independence by offering multilingual learners more opportunities to interact with their peers in a variety of situations on a variety of topics.

Empathize and be compassionate while giving greater responsibility to students to own their data and show evidence of learning.
Ensure that multilingual learners have opportunities to achieve grade-level expectations as they collaborate in whole-class, small-group, and paired activities where they have options in accessing content (e.g., through visual, graphic, oral, or written representation).

Promote interaction among multilingual learners in one or more languages, including academic conversations on topics/themes of personal interest.

Dedicate time for student self-reflection and self-assessment on what they learn, how they learn, and how they react to their learning.

Invite students to take the lead in providing evidence of learning, such as in student-led conferences or teacher–student dialog.
Build on students’ prior knowledge and experiences, their linguistic and cultural assets, and the expertise of families to connect the known to the unknown as a preview to introducing new concepts.
Extend learning outside the classroom, such as by inviting students to participate in outdoor activities, internships, fieldwork, after-school programs, and clubs (e.g., coding, entrepreneurships).

This past year and a half has been extraordinary for educators (and all of us) in every sense of the word. We commend the incredible efforts of teachers and educational leaders who have shown remarkable flexibility in adapting to new teaching methods while being dedicated to the well-being of students and their families. With a new school year upon us, we must strive to ensure that our communities, schools, and classrooms remain interconnected and the relationships we have established strengthen over time. As we forge ahead in our staunch advocacy efforts, let’s make a pledge to be catalysts for change in overcoming the linguistic and cultural inequities that still abound.

Gottlieb, M. (2021). Classroom Assessment in Multiple Languages: A Handbook for Teachers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
WIDA (2020). WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework, 2020 Edition: Kindergarten–Grade 12. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
Zacarian, D., Calderón, M., and Gottlieb, M. (2021). Beyond Crises: Overcoming Linguistic and Cultural Inequities in Communities, Schools, and Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Margo Gottlieb, PhD, WIDA’s co-founder and lead developer, has authored or co-authored over 40 books, manuals, and monographs devoted to the education of multilingual learners. Her efficacy and advocacy efforts domestically and worldwide center on bringing equity to standards, assessment, and curriculum. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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