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Talking Delaware English Learners with Oribel McFann-Mora of DELLTA

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East Dover Elementary School teacher Oribel McFann-Mora is president of Delaware English Language Learners Teachers and Advocates (DELLTA) and one of the architects of the recently launched Delaware English Learner fact sheet series, along with the Delaware Hispanic Commission, the Arsht-Cannon Fund, and the Rodel Foundation.

 

We caught up with McFann-Mora to talk about the road ahead for English learner advocacy in the First State.

 

What’s one thing you wish every Delawarean could know about EL students/the EL community that you serve?

There are undisputable benefits in fostering inclusive, diverse, multilingual, and well-educated generations of Delaware students. It’s our responsibility to do our best for all our students, ELs included. They’ll be the ones making decisions that will affect our collective future.

I personally have many success stories involving some of my former ELs. Some have started their own small business, others are well on their way to becoming our next generation of leading scientists, artists, athletes; the list goes on. All of them have in common gratitude for the opportunities they received at school. Many have thanked me for “all I did for them.” It warms my heart, but I always reply that I don’t know what they’re talking about—they did all the hard work; I was just fortunate to be around. As a state we can do more to ensure that all EL students have the opportunities to have this kind of success.

What could Delaware leaders and policymakers do to better support the EL community?

I must share that personally I’m not into politics; all who know me will tell you that I’m a positive and to a good extent naïve person. As a rule I see the good in everyone and in every situation. Also, I’m—to my husband’s horror—an organized and methodical problem-solver. He asks, “Why do I have to number our grocery list? It’s absolutely unnecessary.” My answer: “It must be done so you know how many items you need total and you can easily pinpoint if you’re forgetting one of the items” (he’s yet to agree with my logic).

My point is that in my straightforward way of thinking, prioritizing and funding adequately our Delaware ELs’ educational and linguistic needs is long overdue. We owe it to our EL students and their families. We have to get all stakeholders on board. We must work as a team and create actionable steps. We can’t wait any longer.

What progress have you seen in Delaware?

It’s important to note that we’ve made progress in bringing our EL needs to the forefront. ESSA does well at shining the light on making our ELs’ achievement a priority. Our state ESSA plan sought several stakeholders’ input in its development phase. DELLTA was part of that effort. But we have much more to do and work toward if we are truly planning to close our ELs achievement gap and ensure their linguistic progress.

Tell us a little about DELLTA. What’s your goal and how to you work toward it?

Our current purposes are:

  1. To advocate for appropriate legislation, sufficient funding, and community involvement for English Language Learners (ELLs) throughout the state of Delaware
  2. To promote improvement in the education of all phases of English language acquisition and proficiency
  3. To create an awareness and appreciation of the contributions that linguistic minorities bring to Delaware and the nation
  4. To promote and support the professional development of educators of English Language Learner
  5. To recognize the achievements of linguistic minority students through the scholarship grants
  6. To provide opportunities for group study and discussions of challenges ELL educators encounter
  7. To assist as a resource in posting the latest educational ELL research
  8. To provide a forum for presenters in the fields of English language acquisition
  9. To network with other educational associations

We meet several times a year with DELLTA’s executive and advisory boards and hold two membership meetings in the school year.

We’ve been working hard to recruit teachers of ELs throughout our state. We’re very fortunate to have a cohesive and dedicated group of professionals that are experts in the English learning and language acquisition fields. We’re made up of active EL teachers, expert retirees, and experts in the English learning and linguistic fields. Our collective input and perspective is essential to understand Delaware ELs’ education and needs.

We welcome all those (including non-educators!) with a strong desire to further ELs linguistic and academic progress into our group.

Why is it important for teachers to also be advocates?

Many times, the parents of English learners do not have enough English skills, nor are they aware of their rights to advocate for their children. The ESL teacher has to be their advocate. For many students and families, the ESL teacher is the main link between their world and the English speaking world. We can research problems and questions for our families and help them get the services they need. How many ESL teachers have reached out the school nurse to give an eye exam to one of our ELs? Our nurses then help the families get eye exams and glasses locally.

There are so many cases and examples of this type of advocacy that happens locally. At the state level, DELLTA reaches out to our legislature to advocate for specific EL funding for our students, as well to change laws to protect and help them.

EL teachers truly understand the challenges our students must overcome daily. It’s our responsibility to speak up and advocate for what’s right for our ELs.

We want our ELs to be successful linguistically and academically in our pre-K-12 schools, but we also want them to be college and career ready. To accomplish these lofty goals, we must seek and heed everyone’s expertise in the field. Advocating for ELs is not an EL teacher-only endeavor; it’s a team effort.

Is there anything from your background—either personally or professionally—that drives your focus and passion for this work?

I am a proud Mexican-American and a former EL who dreamed big. I basically put all my eggs in one basket. I didn’t have a backup plan. You know, I’ve heard this is usually not very wise. I completed all of my education by making it a priority and by being fortunate of having a number of outstanding teachers, professors, instructors, friends, and family who supported me along the way. I am the one sibling in my family with the highest education degree. It’s a great source of pride for my family; actually, mostly for my mother.

Often times, I tell my K-4 ELs, “you need to work hard because when you go to college you need to be as ready as you can be.” You see, I want my students think of college as something completely within their reach, as opposed to something foreign and unattainable. I do realize that perhaps college isn’t suitable for all my students, but I do want it to be an option if they’re interested.

What are some factors, in your experience, that allow EL students to thrive?

From an EL/ESL teacher perspective there are many factors that allow EL students to thrive. For example, a safe and nourishing environment in school, where the classroom teacher works closely with the ESL teacher to provide the necessary modifications to the lessons and incorporating appropriate learning strategies to allow the student to learn while developing his second language acquisition skills is a major one. Academic and emotional support at home encourages the student to learn. Valuing the student’s uniqueness and their heritage is an important factor, as is using the first language as much as possible in their education when it is viable.

Additionally, it helps to view our Delaware ELs as everyone’s responsibility. Once we all recognize the assets and needs of our ELs, we can then move on to how to ensure that they’ll thrive and succeed linguistic and academically.

How could Delaware schools utilize additional funding to further support EL students?

We need adequate and sufficient funding specific for the needs of our ELs. We’ve said it before and will continue advocating for it. For years, schools and school districts in Delaware have had discretion in how ELs educational and linguistic supports/programs are delivered, and basically because of limited funding specific to ELs we’ve found ourselves doing “the best we can with what we’ve got.” This is simply not a promising system and approach. We’ve tried it for many years with the results we many of us know: Our ELs continue to still lag behind their non-ELs peers. We need specific funding to meet their education and needs.

As a result of the dozens of years of collective experience acquired from teaching our ELs and working with their families, as well as research conducted in the field, DELLTA members have pointed to the following list (not all inclusive) of best-practice places where every school could invest to support EL students, families and educator:

  • Research-based successful programs and supports that truly deliver the best education for our students. A well-developed ESL/EL program should be backed by sound student success data to ensure it meets the local needs of the EL population served.
  • Highly qualified ESL/EL teachers at every school. At this very moment we have ESL/EL teachers in Delaware serving 100+ ELs. How can one teacher adequately serve these many students and their families effectively? Recruitment and retainment are key focus areas, and we need new teachers (in-training) in teacher preparation programs taking courses, at least one course, specifically dealing with teaching ELs. Unfortunately, most new teachers are simply not prepared to meet the needs of our ELs.
  • Quality ESL curriculum and resources. A highly qualified ESL teacher can work hard day in and out but if the curriculum and resources available are sub-par, the expected progress will suffer.
  • Quality EL databases and systems in place at the state level that sync to the state’s other technology systems. I’m personally fortunate to have access to the much of the technology I need pertaining to my ELs. However, some of the systems we use do not sync with other systems we use, resulting in us having to do some work twice or compiling data that may not fully accurate. In addition, not all EL teachers have access to the databases that other do. It just seems to vary from school district to school district.
  • Parental involvement, such as through Parent Academies, Adult ESL Literacy classes, school/district events, parent-teacher conferences, and other programs.
    • Quality and readily available translation resources at every school and school district, especially for parent or community events. Parents may hesitate to attend school related functions if they aren’t proficient in English and there’s no one to offer them translation support.
  • Quality professional development opportunities for ESL/EL teachers and regular education teachers. Experienced and new teachers alike will tell you that quality PD opportunities will improve their teaching, and prompts us to take a step back and reflect on our teaching practices. We believe that we need to continue developing and offering quality PD for both EL and regular education at the school, district, and state level.

Delaware’s Learning Curve on English Learners

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I studied Spanish throughout the entirety of my schooling. Even after the point when foreign language classes were no longer required for students in my district, I elected to study Spanish every year until I graduated high school. I entered the University of Delaware with a few AP Spanish credits to my name and declared a Spanish minor, spent time abroad in a Spanish-speaking country, and successfully complete the minor. Still, as a native English speaker, this did not come easy to me. I felt at many times like I was not making progress, or even slipping backwards, and I felt dependent on the ability of my instructors to help me navigate the class content. There were many times I felt lost, and appreciated when class ended to head to my next, English-instructed, class.

 

These experiences are the origin of my passion for advocating on behalf of English learners because learning a second language as a luxury gave me a small window into the world of an English learner—where  learning English is an expectation and necessity. I still find it very hard to imagine myself as a young student learning a second language (or third language! Or fourth, in some cases!) in a school system where I was a linguistic and cultural minority, where I was unable to ask my parents for homework help, and where the typical social and emotional challenges of fitting in and making friends are amplified.

 

It is with this in mind last month that I attended the “Success for All: English Learners Conference” at the Red Clay Consolidated School District alongside hundreds of educators eager to learn more about how to serve this growing population of learners. I was left with three major takeaways…and questions:

 

  1. I heard many educators speak to the value of bilingual educators and staff, including clerks in the main office, and that the amount of requests to these individuals for translation and interpretation was overwhelming. I was left wondering: How do we quantify the need to bilingual school staff? What are the retention rates for bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESOL) teachers? How do they compare to the average retention rates?

 

[Read: In Delaware, looking for language teachers who ‘don’t really exist,’ WHYY. Note: immersion programs described in this article are just one type of instructional practice that can serve ELs.]

 

  1. Educators want more information on determining language difference vs. disability in order to help correctly identify the services and placement that the child requires. While some ELs may also have special learning needs or disabilities, being an EL is not in and of itself a learning disability. How can we help schools and districts who may be underidentifying or overidentifying the number of ELs who receive special education services?

 

[Read: “Addressing ELLs’ Language Learning and Special Education Needs: Questions and Considerations,”¡Colorín Colorado!]

 

  1. In terms of the political climate, it’s been a hard year for educators of English learners who care about diversity, value multiculturalism, and are advocates for immigrants. We can all contribute to creating a culture that views ELs as assets, not deficits by looking at language as the solution, not the problem. In other words, we should avoid the tendency to simplify language, speak loudly, or too slowly; instead, providing ELs with meaningful context and language serves as a scaffold up to the next level. This seems obvious, but I had never thought reflected on this. What are my expectations for what ELs can understand and learn? What are my implicit biases toward cultural diversity?

 

[Read: Delaware Seal of Biliteracy]

 

According to the results of the TELL Delaware (Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning) survey, which was completed by nearly 40 percent of the state’s certified teachers, there is a large demand for continued and additional support for educators to work with ELs. Fifty-two percent of respondents reported wanting professional development on the topic of English learners. I saw this statistic personified at the “Success for All: English Learners Conference,” as well as over the past year the 15th Annual Delaware Policy and Practice Institute and the 23rd Annual Inclusion Conference, which also offered professional development for educators on the topic of English learners.

 

With the EL student population continuing to rise, we all have more we want to learn.

Resilience Film Screening: Recap

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Last week, about 100 people gathered in Theatre N for a screening of the film “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope” and panel discussion among local experts. If you weren’t one of the lucky 100, here’s a summary of the event, themes from the conversation, and ways to get involved.

Why Resilience?
“Resilience” is a documentary by KPJR (the makers of “Paper Tigers”) that chronicles the birth of a new movement among pediatricians, therapists, educators, and communities, to delve into the science behind Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and using cutting-edge brain science to disrupt cycles of violence, addiction, and disease that cause toxic stress.

As we described in a previous blog post, Adverse Childhood Experiences are not an “over there” problem—ACEs are shockingly prevalent, in Delaware and around the country, and with children of all backgrounds. Attendees at the screening voluntarily and confidentially submitted their ACEs score. The tallied results affirmed this. 53% of attendees reported an ACE score of two or more.

A major theme of “Resilience” is just how prevalent trauma is—and that greater public awareness of these issues could lead to a shift in how we address them. If a young person experiencing trauma knew that other classmates experienced something similar—would that make it less scary? Would he feel more empowered to seek help? As better trauma-informed community members, might we start asking the question “what happened to you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?” when dealing with at-risk youth?

How do you build resilience?
The film identified that healthy, positive relationships are the number one source of resilience. A report by Casey Family Programs, Balancing Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) With HOPE: New Insights into the Role of Positive Experience on Child and Family Development elaborates on this point and urges a balance of trauma-informed policies and HOPE-informed measures.

The report summarizes research studies showing that the negative impact of adversity on childhood development can be remedied through:

  • Nurturing and supportive relationships
  • Safe, stable, protective, and equitable environments to develop, play, and learn
  • Constructive social engagement and connectedness
  • Social and emotional competencies

The HOPE model (The Health Outcomes of Positive Experiences), pictured below, takes an asset-based approach.

Additionally, attendees were given the Resilience screener which helps identify protective factors and positive experiences that can increase one’s ability to handle adversity.

How can we make this happen in Delaware?
Following the film, three panelists fielded questions and comments from the audience:

  • Aileen Fink, PhD | Director of Trauma-Informed Care, Delaware Children’s Department
  • Meghan M. Lines, PhD | Clinical Director, Nemours A.I. duPont Hospital for Children
  • Teri Lawler | School Psychologist, Stanton Middle School, Red Clay School District

And a few themes emerged from the conversation:

  • Resilience is learned: We are not born with the ability to overcome stress. It must be intentionally modeled and developed. In schools, there needs to be a common language for integrating social and emotional learning alongside academic learning.
  • Positive relationships are key. This includes a primary care doctor, educators, parents, grandparents, and others.
  • Parental involvement is essential: Support positive parenting practices with multi-generational, evidence-based approaches (such as home visiting) to build social, emotional, and executive functioning skills.
  • Meet students (and families) where they are: Listening is a crucial first step, rather than assuming. Children and families need to be engaged in their own social and emotional development, and interventions or services need to be tailored to their unique needs.
  • Recognize where data-driven decision-making is needed: Enable innovative interventions, keep track of what’s working for kids, and adjust or abandon strategies accordingly.
  • Coordinate services: Schools can be a hub for services, but educators can’t be expected to do it alone.
  • Siloes exists: One of the challenges will be coordinating and communicating across health, education, government, community, etc. Additionally, political will and availability of funding are challenges but not excuses.
  • ACES are a public health concern, and awareness building is needed. For instance, ongoing professional development for educators starting in pre-service is needed to first build awareness, and then build skills.

What’s next?

  • Encourage your colleagues to learn their ACEs or Resilience
  • Read more about Adverse Childhood Experiences Among Wilmington City & Delaware’s Children.
  • Share your thoughts! Tweet your responses to the following questions using #SELinDE.
    • What are you doing to build resilience?
    • What resilience initiatives are already underway in Delaware?
    • What else is needed to help overcome the effects of adverse childhood experiences?
    • How can we do to build on what’s working?
  • Visit http://bit.ly/RodelSEL to find additional information on national and state level data and initiatives related to Social and Emotional Learning.
  • Be on the lookout for the Vision Coalition of Delaware’s 10th Annual Conference on October 30th where community members will converge in Newark to explore the intersection of education and healthy communities.

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