Q: Tell us about yourself, your background and language history.
Rachelle: As a Black and Latina woman with Native American roots and an urban upbringing, I learned early on the injustices my people faced in acquiring access and opportunities for advancement. Language was a focal point in my life. On my mother’s side, my family spoke Spanish, English, and what we referred to as Spanglish, a combination of English and Spanish. On my father’s side, I came to learn that Black communities had their own dialects of the English language. While in elementary school, I was discouraged from bringing Spanglish or other ways of communicating I learned from my father’s side into the classroom, or even from using them during supervised play. None of my peers were encouraged to speak Spanish or any version of English that was not mainstreamed. I came to realize as a young girl that those who did not speak English the way it had been deemed correct were treated differently. When I entered middle school, I noticed my peers who spoke languages other than English were in different classes, and by high school, many of my peers who were not fluent in English were found in the corner of my general education classrooms, quietly sitting alone, not engaged in the content or by the teacher.
Q: Tell us about your career as an educator.
Rachelle: After beginning my teaching career, returning to serve communities that I grew up in, I found policies for multilingual learners (MLLs) had made some progress. However, they had not changed much in the quality of programming. Years later, I moved into leadership positions such as team lead and, soon after, coordinator. When the opportunity became available to provide resources for MLLs, programming still seemed mediocre and mainly consisted of assessment compliance with little to no progress monitoring in between students’ initial placements and their annual language assessments.
Q: How have those experiences contributed to your ability to coach other educators?
Rachelle: I help them by identifying the most marginalized students in need of support and supporting them to take the necessary steps to improve student outcomes. This focus has been the core of my career. Years ago, I saw MLLs at my school, where I taught and served as an administrator, in similar conditions as I had experienced as a student decades prior. It was apparent then, as it is apparent now, that language-acquisition programs need to be revolutionized to better serve students, using innovative methods that engage students in acquiring English while honoring their home languages and cultures.
Q: I couldn’t agree more! Yes to revolutionizing language programs. For instance, during the pandemic we saw a number of issues with distant, online, and virtual English language instruction. Have you seen good examples of technology that supports English language acquisition?
Rachelle: Yes, I have observed a number of exemplary instructional practices using technology in English language programs. Assuring that instruction offers practice and application that includes all language domains can be challenging at first but soon becomes the expectation. It starts by thinking about instruction in innovative and unconventional ways—not simply using technology for the sake of using technology.
Q: How do you encourage educators you coach to think creatively about their language programs?
Rachelle: Educators I have coached, and colleagues across the nation with limited funding, have created progress-monitoring structures with goal setting alongside their students. They have learned how to engage students in a meaningful way in order to best support them. Students who previously lacked understanding of their language classification, and thus its meaning, now had clarity on their language-acquisition levels. They equally had agency in creating a road map for advancement and/or to become redesignated—and finally to have potential to graduate high school, college, and career ready, including with a Seal of Biliteracy.
Q: That sounds like you help them to use various data points, is that correct?
Rachelle: Yes, formal and informal data must be collected, analyzed, and prioritized. Student demographic data, student goal setting, annual English language proficiency scores, graduation rates, attendance, and school climate survey results are some of the data that I coach school leaders around. All of these pieces must be brought to the table as part of our coaching conversations. We also include stakeholders as part of our storytelling in an effort to be transparent. We have to ask and seek answers to questions that can tell us what the data means, what the data includes and does not include, and most importantly, whether the data tells the story that we expect it to. If not, what will we do about it?
Q: Nice! I’m sure stakeholders appreciate understanding these data stories. What recommendations do you have for the field?
Rachelle: As we see an increase in multilingual learners in school systems across the nation, we must get to know our students and the cultures they come from in order to better meet their needs. While many schools have an English learner plan, and it appears to meet the basic requirements on paper, it doesn’t mean that it is advancing English language acquisition. Furthermore, there is no one-size-fits-all program model, so this is why we must listen to learn from the students directly.
I propose a call to action for all educators and school leaders to think innovatively about the linguistic diversity of the multilingual learners they are tasked to serve. We need all educators to understand that students who are learning English as a new language deserve a quality education across all content areas, one that is comparable to that of their native-English-speaking peers. I ask school leaders to reimagine how they support the teachers who serve these students and employ school and district leaders to make high-quality language-acquisition programming a priority in their schools and districts.
For two decades, Rachelle Nelson has been involved in education reform to create innovative pathways to equitable conditions for Black and Brown communities. Rachelle has served as a community engagement champion with a focus on elevating underrepresented voices. She has experience as a general and special education teacher, director of student support services, principal, leadership coach, and chief academic officer.