Urgency is building to support EMLs: Takeaways from the 2018 WIDA Conference

In October, I attended my first WIDA Conference. Minnesota is a WIDA member state, meaning Minnesota schools use WIDA’s English Language Development standards and assessment known as ACCESS. WIDA offers many resources for implementing ACCESS standards, including “Can Do” statements, which offer an asset-based approach to educating multilingual learners. The annual conference brings together educators, administrators, and community liaisons to learn how to better support the fastest-growing student group in the country.

One of the sponsors, SupportEd, a professional development community, recently offered their own takeaways from the conference, and I’d like to modify and expand upon them.

1. Diversity Among Multilingual Learners

Emerging Multilingual Learners in our schools come from a variety of backgrounds: newcomers with little to no English, newcomers with some English background, newcomers with little to no previous education, to those born in the US who are more exposed to English and their home language. Not all EMLs are newcomers especially as immigrant and refugee families settle longer in the US and grow their families. Language development looks different for EMLs.

Traditional “ESL” and language programs may only serve a fraction of the students in classrooms today. Students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE, a formal definition in Minnesota) need unique supports that are different from EMLs who may be second or third generation. EML communities recognize the need for traditional EL programming for newcomers, but struggle with showing pride for their home language and getting “tracked” into EL programming when their children are born here.

2. Leadership

During this time of increased urgency around building on our EMLs’ strengths and ensuring their equitable education, the need to develop leadership skills is crucial. In doing so, we should examine who we are as leaders and what we bring to the table to best serve our EMLs and their families. (Taken from SupportEd).

I’m heartened to see many folks working on dissertations around leadership and support for EMLs. New staff at the MN Department of Education focus on presenting to leadership about this student group and how to meet their unique needs. Principals and other administration make the decisions that steer the culture and financial resources within a building or district. Yet, some of those in such positions are unaware of the best practices and support networks for EMLs in order to make decisions that will equitably serve these students.

3. Multilingual Learners and Translanguaging

Identifying students as multilingual learners and incorporating translanguaging pedagogy into instruction highlights a shift in perspective about how we think about language teaching and learning. The goal is to value and build on the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of each student so that all students self-identify as multicultural and multilingual. (­Taken from SupportEd)

If you are unfamiliar with translanguaging pedagogy, Dr. Ofelia Garcia—who was a keynote at this year’s WIDA conference—provides an explanation. While some language teachers may insist on staying in the “target language” when in class, the idea of translanguaging presents that all language is useful and that students ought to use them to their fullest extent in order to know them better.

Bilingual immersion education is a formal way to integrate both languages, but translanguaging can happen in traditional classrooms even when the teacher does not know the home language. Comprehending a lesson or reflecting in a student’s home language ensures stronger understanding of the lesson or activity and may provide richer answers. Teachers and leadership can work to include more knowledge about translanguaging in professional development so that teaching and learning is more suited to unique student needs.

Urgency for Multilingual Learners

While Dr. Ofelia Garcia was one keynote at the WIDA conference, speaking on translanguaging in the classroom, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings brought in the discussion on culturally relevant education and how using students’ full linguistic repertoire leads to equitable outcomes for EMLs. Both spoke of what a just world would look like and why we are not there yet:

“Categories of native, mono/bilingual are static constructions of privilege and exclusion that racialize the non-native which makes bilinguals seen as “Others.” In a just world, bilinguals would be given the same opportunities and monolinguals to perform with their linguistic repertoire to meet academic standards.” –Dr. Ofelia Garcia

“Some people are entitled to bilingual education: those with high status and sovereignty get it. The speaker. However, those with low status and sovereignty have not had equal access. Therefore we are rejecting the speaker, not the speech (language).” –Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings

The election has passed and a new administration will take place in St. Paul. The new Governor and Education Commissioner have an opportunity to strengthen the implementation of the MN Learning English for Academic Proficiency and Success (LEAPS) Act, passed in 2014, by setting the vision for multilingual learner success. Such success involves the three points outlined above: differentiation for multilingual learners, leadership to enact evidence-based practices, and using all linguistic skills for academic success. This vision must include more bilingual teachers, more and better teacher preparation and development, and a social movement to ensure this happens.

The MN Department of Education has recently done some work around categorizing the LEAPS Act so that school communities can transform it into practice: multilingualism as an asset, teacher/administration knowledge and skills, diversity among multilingual learners, and multiple voices engaged. MnEEP’s EML Network comes together as a statewide coalition to ensure multilingual learners experience equitable and excellent education where we plan to focus on a multilingualism campaign, a language roadmap, and additional work with the LEAPS Act. Join this movement by indicating you would like to receive updates on Big Bold Goal 4: Multilingualism for All.

Posted in Emerging Multilingual Learners, Our Voices

Aara Johnson View posts by Aara Johnson

Aara Johnson collaborates with English Learner teachers, coordinators, and communities to strengthen English Language Development and advocate for native language development and multilingualism for all Minnesota students.
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