The Language of Learning

This story was originally published in the 2019-2020 issue of Transform magazine. Read more stories from Transform.

As students file into a sun-lit classroom on the northwestern corner of the UNC Greensboro School of Education building, Ye “Jane” He, beams with excitement.

“These are the future writers of America!” she exclaims, scanning the group as they make their way to desks and open up their workbooks.

For their part, the students are quiet but confident, many nodding their heads with a sheepish grin in agreement with He.

But their stories will not trace their lineage to the great American writers of the past. Rather, they are helping to reshape our ideas about what an “American” story is altogether.

That’s because every student in this room shares the experience of being either a recent immigrant or refugee to the United States. And they’ve come together to share their experiences and engage in writing as part of Community Voices, just one of many ways the School of Education is changing how educators engage with English as a Second Language (ESL) and multilingual communities.

A New Vision for ESL

In addition to many other programs within the School of Education, He works as the Lead Principal Investigator for Project EnACTeD, an ESL initiative focused on engaging and advancing community-centered teacher development.

Thanks to a 2017 U.S. Department of Education grant, she and her colleagues are building Project EnACTeD into a multi-modal network of partnerships and programs. The goal of the project is to engage teacher educators, teacher candidates, families, and community partners in strengths-based teacher development to meet the needs of English learners and emergent bilinguals.

He and the EnACTeD team take great care to emphasize and learn from the skills these children and their families already have — instead of viewing English learners as lacking the English language proficiency that native English speakers might possess.

“What we’re preparing pre-service teachers to do,” He says, “is to use tactics that leverage what assets the students already have and build off that existing framework.”

To that end, Project EnACTeD employs Professional Development (PD) programming and ESL teacher education programs to focus on two key areas: research-based instructional practices that support academic language development and strengths-based family and community engagement efforts.

Project EnACTeD provides support not only to pre-service teachers in the School of Education, but to current educators looking to expand their ESL capabilities as well. That’s because He and her team understand that North Carolina is home to a thriving immigrant population, and the ability to teach ESL students will only continue to grow in importance across the state.

As Jewell Cooper, professor and associate dean in UNC Greensboro’s School of Education, notes, “If we are truly interested in the education of all our children, then we have to know who we are teaching. We simply have to look at the demographics of the state to know that we must meaningfully address the issue of preparing teachers to teach ESL students.”

In fact, recent state-funded research shows that in dual language programs with both multi-language and bilingual engagement, ESL students are maintaining or exceeding academic performance compared to native English-speaking peers. With that in mind, the School of Education now offers the first teacher education program with dual language concentration in the state of North Carolina.

Breaking Down Barriers

On the student and community level, the School of Education supports key ESL efforts in a variety of ways. Community Voices is one such program, operating as a free, immigrant- and refugee-focused subset of the Young Writers’ Camp, a summer writing program. It’s led by School of Education professors Amy Vetter, Melody Zoch, and Bev Faircloth as a part of a larger summer literacy initiative.

But Community Voices doesn’t just offer these students the chance to share their rich cultural traditions and vantage points with the wider world: it also gives School of Education students the ability to put their learning to the test.

“When we prepare teachers, the inter-cultural and linguistic competency is not necessarily focused on learning a new language or dialect — it’s about meta-linguistic skills,” says He.

While a teacher might not know how to speak Arabic with a student, for example, they are still responsible for finding resources and methods that can help relay information and instruction in a culturally-relevant manner.

“You can learn about a language’s phonetics or word structure. You can find out what challenges often present themselves with this language, as well as commonalities or assets that can be leveraged across the two languages during the process of them becoming bilingual,” says He.

And for students like Dominque Skye McDaniel, a third-year doctoral candidate in the School of Education, programs like Community Voices provide invaluable experience in learning how to build these connections.

In particular, she notes how it works towards the larger goal of bridging ESL and native English communities: “There are a lot of myths about ESL students. A lot of times they’re looked at through a deficit lens — as in, what skills are they lacking compared to native English speakers? But Community Voices helps them reposition their stories and reframe their identities in a positive, productive, and creative outlet.”

Everyday Support

“Guilford County Schools here in Greensboro is home to more than 130 different first languages,” says He. “That kind of linguistic and cultural diversity provides an enormous opportunity to not only prepare our teacher candidates to work with students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, but to learn from these communities in return.”

Originally started as a collaboration with Allen Middle School in Greensboro, Real World English is one such opportunity, providing training and support to ESL parents who want to improve their own English skills. What makes the program unique, though, is that it focuses on practical applications of these skills, such as going to the doctor, communicating with a child’s school, or checking out at the grocery store. It offers a “two generational approach,” allowing for improvements in a parent’s language skillset to then be of assistance to their children when they are applying for college or a summer job, for example.

Real World English also removes the need for parents to find expensive child care if they want to improve their English skills, as the free program also offers engaging STEAM-based activities for their children (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics).

“As long as their kids are taken care of, parents enjoy having their own time to learn,” says Barbara Levin, professor emeritus of UNC Greensboro’s School of Education. Parents then emerge as role models because “their children, from little bitty to teenagers, see their efforts and their growth.”

In addition to the immediate impact the program has on immigrant communities in Greensboro, it provides real world experience for School of Education students, too, some of whom are not necessarily even working towards an ESL concentration.

Cooper notes that “engagement between our teachers and families who do not look or speak like them creates an environment where teachers and students are learning from each other in a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Real World English exposes pre- and in-service teachers to different cultural norms surrounding parenting and family relationships, helping them see that parents might engage with their children differently according to their own cultural customs.

“Parents of ESL students want to be as involved in the lives and successes of their children as much as any other parent,” explains Cooper. “And Real World English helps give them those core competencies in a supportive, equity-focused environment.”

Looking Ahead

Though Project EnACTeD’s grant runs through 2022, He is already looking towards building long-term sustainability. In fact, it’s one of the driving forces behind the work she and her team are currently engaged in. And because of its innovative, hands-on approach to ESL education and community engagement, Project EnACTeD is already garnering attention state-wide.

For example, He is currently partnering with educators at East Carolina University to extend the influence of Project EnACTeD’s Dual Language/Immersion teacher education efforts. Working in tandem with ECU’s Dual Language/Immersion Administration Certificate program, He and ECU professor Marjorie Ringler are working collaboratively with administrators and educators across the state who could benefit from a joint suite of professional development tools offered by both institutions.

Additionally, Project EnACTeD’s online professional development modules are scheduled to be offered through the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) online professional development platform.

“The ongoing collaboration with DPI has huge implications for the work of Project EnACTeD, as it would apply the program’s innovative methods and learnings to a much broader audience,” explains Cooper. “It will provide professional development opportunities for teachers in North Carolina to more effectively teach students whose first language is not English.”

From a research perspective, He and her team are eager to begin studying not just the direct impacts on teacher education (professional development opportunities or additional licensures), but also the impact on young emergent bilingual students. In the coming years, Project EnACTeD will dive into the data surrounding the educational outcomes of ESL students involved in the program. And as the team begins to quantify that effect into a measurable, analytical framework, they hope to apply those findings towards building a long-term shift in the way we teach English as a second language.

In their time spent working alongside immigrant and refugee populations in Guilford County, it’s hard for those involved in these many efforts to ignore the larger conversations surrounding these communities. They see firsthand how the politics of immigration drive what families do, where they go, and how their futures will take shape. And because of their proximity to those realities, the program is able to help prepare educators to see past political rhetoric to simply provide the best education they can.

“I think a lot of these discussions around the politics of immigration provide teachers with learning opportunities,” He says. “We start to surface and uncover some of the assumptions we might not even be aware of when we’re actually speaking with families one-on-one. That’s why so much of our programming strives to include community experts and their unique cultural expertise.”

They demonstrate to future educators that our communities are connected by a shared language of hope, aspiration, and curiosity, capable of learning and teaching in equal measure.

And that, He says, “is the kind of equity we should all be striving towards.”