As part of the distance learning plan, educators are finding new ways to provide the grade-specific English language development. (Courtesy photo)

School Superintendent: Addressing the needs of multilingualism during distant learning

Here in SFUSD we enroll students who speak dozens of different languages

I know I’m in good company when I say that one of the most lovable things about San Francisco is our diversity. People from all over the world call San Francisco home and our public schools benefit from this diversity. In fact, one of San Francisco Unified School District’s five core values is that we are diversity-driven.

Here in SFUSD we enroll students who speak dozens of different languages. Multilingualism and multiculturalism are assets we aim to develop and nurture in our students. They are an essential part of our graduate profile as we prepare our students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

As an educational institution, we are deeply invested in maintaining a comprehensive system of support for English language learners. Our district offers 50 language programs that reach 9,400 students, including students who are just learning to speak English.

During this time of temporary school closures, our mission is no different. As part of our distance learning plan to support the continued education of each and every student, educators are finding new ways to provide the grade-specific English language development (ELD) support that students receive while school buildings are open. Let me describe it for you here.

Making meaning

In designing lessons for all students and particularly English learners, we have considered what kinds of supports students need in making meaning of English. This includes slowing down, checking for understanding, providing scaffolding such as graphic organizers, vocabulary, and multiple representations (say directions, write directions, post directions).

Developing language skills requires productive talk between students and teachers. When students are not in classrooms, this oral language development must be nurtured in other creative ways.

Engaging learning activities and interactions that provide many opportunities for students to practice, hear and produce language and express their thinking, and support for students to do so with each other online or by phone is a critical component of distance learning.

Reaching different ages

To reach our youngest English learner students, in Transitional Kindergarten through second grade, teachers make phone calls in pairs or small groups to engage students in academic conversations, using a language objective. This is also time to check on social emotional support for students, and introduce new words or vocabulary.

For students in third through fifth grades, the Multilingual Pathways Department has adapted resources and created a sequence of daily assignments for the week that teachers at school can access. There are also two lessons a week that teachers can use synchronously with whole or small groups of students with emphasis in academic conversations.

All teachers and students in grades TK-five have access to lessons through a variety of technology platforms and applications including Google Classroom, Clever, Wonders ELD, Imagine Learning, Newsela, and more.

For students in sixth through 12th grades, the Multilingual Pathways Department has designed thematic units to be delivered for different levels of English proficiency. This high-quality, rigorous curriculum is designed to support language development by building on the experience students are having right now, and supporting them with new vocabulary and language skills that help them to make meaning and communicate about their experience.

Of course, the social and emotional wellness of our students continues to be our priority. The current situation we are living in right now is challenging. We are all being asked to do a lot and we know our students and families are doing the best they can.

Vincent Matthews is the superintendent of schools for the San Franicsco Unified School District. He is a guest columnist.

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