Distance Learning For Children From Non-English Backgrounds Isn’t So Easy

Distance Learning For Children From Non-English Backgrounds Isn’t So Easy
Erica Wilde waving to her student before dropping off the books. (Photo via Wilde, with permission)

BROOKLYN – The coronavirus pandemic closed all schools causing students to take part in distance learning. But learning from home isn’t easy when parents can’t speak English.

Fatima Uddin has a son that attends P.S. 217, an elementary school on Coney Island Avenue. Since schools closed, he has been learning through Google Classroom. His teacher puts assignments and homework up, and he completes and submits them through there. But when he’s not doing that, he’s playing video games, eating, or asking his mother for the millionth time for something to do. Uddin doesn’t know how to help him.

“When he’s in school, he would be there for about seven, eight hours. Now, he’s at home. He will spend a few hours online doing his work and then he is free,” Uddin says in Urdu. “After that, he sits in front of the TV and plays his games. And then he will get bored and will keep asking me what he could do. I wish he can learn more online, as he did in school. I wish I can teach him schoolwork, but my English is not good.”

Erica Wilde is an eighth-grade teacher at P.S. 99 in Midwood. A few weeks ago, she was chatting with one of her students on Google Classroom. The student mentioned that she did not have any books at home. Wilde emailed everyone in her building asking for any young adult novels. Soon enough, people started leaving books outside Wilde’s door. Wilde then drove with her sister and dog named YumYum and dropped the books off outside the student’s door.

“Teaching through this quarantine is fascinating. I’ve relied heavily on Google Translate when emailing my students’ parents. Unfortunately, it’s not always accurate,” Wilde explained. “Sometimes I’ll email my students and ask them to translate for me. That helps a little. My students speak a wide range of languages including Urdu, Tajik, Uzbek, Ukrainian, Russian, Albanian, Mandarin, and Spanish. I may be a polyglot by the time this is all over!”

As for attempting to teach her English Language Learners (ELL), Wilde has been posting simple assignments.

“I try to make my directions very succinct. I’m happy if I get any form of a response from them because then I know they’re at least trying,” she said. “I’ve called a few students on the phone to try to explain simple assignments. I find that works well. Plus it’s nice to hear their voices!”

Photo via Wilde, with permission.

During the pandemic, a group of college students created a program called EduMate NYC, where they virtually volunteer as tutors in school subjects and test preps. They also help with college applications and essay writing. And it’s all free.

“After the spread of the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of NYC public schools for in-person learning, our team was passionate about helping out our younger peers to close any gaps left by their transition to digital learning,” they say. “Not only can digital learning be incredibly difficult for students, but it can also be quite taxing on parents who are suddenly expected to help supplement their children’s education. Low-income students and their families are burdened disproportionately as a result.”

All K-12 students from NYC public schools, or their parents on their behalf, can sign up to be matched with a tutor.

According to Shahana Hanif, who is running to represent District 39, distance learning is a huge transition, “especially for students from working-class families, living without privacy, or a separate study space.”

“Since the start of social distancing, many Bangladeshi students and parents expressed anxiety to me around missing assignments because they had no device (iPad or laptop) or adequate access to internet to begin remote learning,” she said. ” Some had me reach out to their teachers to excuse them for missing classwork. I urged parents to go easy on their kids, and on email, I urged teachers to do the same.”

“The overall sentiment of students I’ve spoken with is they miss going to school. For them, being away from home and exercising their independence is important.”

The City also has resources available to assist both students and their parents with distance learning. For example, if a student requires a device with internet access, they can request one here. There are also activities for students based on their age levels available on the City website.  Additionally, there are powerpoints in various languages for parents to help them understand how distance learning works. Here’s one in Bangla.

“While none of us could have predicted even a few weeks ago that we would launch this dramatic new transition in education, I could not be prouder of the way our educators have come together to ready themselves to teach your children from their own homes. And I could not be more grateful to all of you for your faith in our educators, and all of the hardworking staff at DOE,” Chancellor Richard Carranza said.

“This will not be perfect. Nothing can ever replace a talented teacher in a classroom. We know the challenges and inequities our students face. But over the past week, I have seen DOE’s 150,000 staff rise to this challenge in astounding ways. Your faith in them is deserved and earned.”

Uddin knows things won’t be the same. She said she now spends her days trying to figure out how to be there for her son. She may not know English, but she said she does know how to be a mom.

“I hope this coronavirus finishes fast,” she said. “I hope my son can go play with his friends after school. And I hope every child stays healthy and safe.”


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