Engaging EL Families In A Virtual World


Saddleback Educational Publishing Series conducts a webinar series to spread information and resources for online learning programs. The following article is an enhanced summary based on webinar Engaging EL Families in a Virtual World hosted by Laura Gardner on June 18th 2020.

Partner with Immigrant and Refugee Agencies

The first lesson that I think is crucial is the importance of partnering with the immigrant and refugee agencies in our communities. There are many different agencies that help communication and engagement through family workshops and education programs.

One example is EMBARQ, the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center based in Iowa. They have a YouTube channel and they post daily announcements and news reports in multiple languages. They provide reports and educational video clips in English, Burmese, Karen, two different dialects of chin, Lingala, Swahili, and other African dialects.

Tools To Communicate with Immigrant Families

Utilize a Variety of Messaging Apps and Social Media Tools

In many cases, certain countries gravitate towards certain tools. In the United States, we focus on Facebook. In China, WeChat is popular. Immigrants and their families often continue to use the same preferred social media or messaging application as their home countries’. Some families may be comfortable using Class Dojo and other educations that we use.

Try Whatsapp to communicate with immigrant families. I can speak from personal experience of having excellent relations with the Chinese community and one of the school districts I used to work in because I used WeChat. Suddenly I was easily able to connect with a whole group of Chinese parents and community community members.

Language Access: Interpretation and Translation Services

So, lesson number three is keeping in mind language access, and we’re talking about interpretation and translation services. It is important to acknowledge that parents have a right to receive information in a language they understand.

Resources For Parents Of ELL Students

As someone who used to coordinate English Learner family engagement for a very large district in Maryland, I understand that communication is easier said than done. But we must advocate for parents’ rights and keep them informed.

A document from 2015 was co-authored by the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Education and talks about information for the “Limited English Proficient,” meaning parents who don’t speak english. This document explains how schools and school districts can communicate with and provide information for these parents.

Ensure that Parents Can Access School Information

Ensuring that our parents have access to information through a variety of tools and learning how to best use them. I was doing training for Baltimore City Schools, and I organized the most meaningful communication methods. I would start with saying that a trained interpreter, face-to-face, or on screen to screen right in our virtual world, is most effective. Face-to-face interpretation is always the best option because it is personal and accurate.

Acquiring Language Interpreters for School District Communication Centers

Often, school districts don’t have good mechanisms set up for requesting interpreters. It may take a lot of time and advocacy, and there may be all sorts of barriers to actually getting a real, human being language interpreter.

Find a Language Interpreter for Meaningful Communication

But nevertheless, from a meaningful communication standpoint, that is the goldstar. I would argue that a trained interpreter by phone is the next best option. So, a lot of our districts do have either language lank, or language line, or a vendor that you can partner with. In many cases, you can get an interpreter in a minute or two by phone for thousands of languages.

Finding Trained Language Interpreters through Phone Vendors

Finding a trained interpreter by phone may be helpful because they are qualified and skilled at what they do. However, the experience is not as personal, you kind of have a random person talking to the parents.

Partner with a Bilingual Colleague to Deliver a Message

Next would be partnering with a bilingual colleague to deliver a message. The pros to working with a colleague who is bilingual is the personal, face- to face interaction. However, there is a good chance that that individual has not been trained to be an interpreter, and just because someone is bilingual does not mean they’re qualified to interpret. It’s an entirely different skill set to be moving from one language to another, versus attempting to put what someone is saying into another language accurately.

Some of the other cons are that you are very likely pulling that person away from their job. And so I always give the example of a Spanish teacher. Usually, they’re very helpful, and they’re willing to help. But what happens when that Spanish teacher leaves the classroom, their students are missing instruction and so we have to really think about that.

And then the last con, I would say, is that sometimes over relying on certain individuals, it really kind of takes away from our own process of building our own relationship with that parent or family member. So those are some things to consider. And then finally, I would put, now, again, I’ve worked in schools, I’m right there with you, I mean, I’ve used many apps myself, Google Translate, remind talking points, you know, what have you, I’ve used. I’ve used them all, but we do just want to reflect a little bit on, again, that level of meaningful communication. So the pros are that they’re quick, they’re free. Easy peasy.

  • Pro
    • Convenience
    • Face-to-Face personal interaction
    • Free
    • Easy
  • Con
    • Misinterpretation
    • Indirect translation
    • Taking away the Bilingual Speaker from their previous work
    • Over relying on certain individuals

Language Communications with a Bilingual Employee: the “Google Translate” Error

The cons, again, I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we put something on one of, you know, Google Translate or what have you, and we think it’s saying one thing, but it’s really saying something completely different. And we could probably have a, you know, talk about many hilarious stories over happy hour. So, you know, you kinda really gotta be concerned about that.

And also, one thing, especially for those of you who are administrators on the call, the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education, as well as the Department of Justice, there’s not a lot of clear guidance around these yet.

I know you can go to either the Department of Justice and the US. Department of Ed, and you can read there whenever there’s been a complaint. You can read their resolutions and their settlements. And I’ve seen some where they talk about not relying on Google Translate, and specifically spelled out the Google Translate can only be used in extreme emergencies.

Tip: Only use Google Translate in extreme emergencies

Resources to Train Language Interpreters

We have a lot of questions about where educators can get specific training around interpreting for the field of education. They ask what’s available for the legal field and if interpretative training exists. There are resources and organizations you can point to.

First, there are a couple of resources for those who are bilingual and are wanting to get trained as interpreters. There are also options for those of us who utilize interpreters.

There are two main organizations that train language interpreters. One is based in Georgia called Seso run by Ana A. Soler. Her organization does a lot of training, specifically in the school context. They get into the nitty gritty of education. For example, she’s very active on LinkedIn, and she posts about spending two hours with the Burmese community trying to figure out how to translate ADHD. I believe she offers training online.

The other organization is national and based in Maryland called Cross Cultural Communications. They have a 40 hour training program called The Community Interpreter that trains interpreters for social services, schools, and other community organizations. They do separate training for health and legal organizations.

I used to send my staff to Cross Cultural Communications when I supervised a lot of interpreters in Maryland. I would argue that we all need at least a little training on how to work with interpreters and how to build relationships with families when an interpreter is being used.

Tap Into the Family Engagement Field

Many educators are not aware of how family engagement has developed into its own field. We don’t say parent involvement so much anymore. We really talk about family engagement because it is inclusive, two-way and interactive.

Inclusive English Learner Family Engagement

The family engagement field encompasses conferences, journals, gurus, researchers, theories, and school systems. Family engagement may take place in a school’s central office or title one office where family partnerships are maintained. If you don’t have that, there are a number of national and state organizations to tap into.

Organizations for Parent Involvement in Language Education

Online Resources for Family Engagement

One goes by Nevsky, the National Association for Family School and Community Engagement. You can post questions and acquire insight and responses with lots of good ideas for family engagement in schools.

Online Conferences for Family Engagement

The Institute for Educational Leadership organization runs a national, family, and community engagement conference and the Coalition for Community Schools Conference. This year, these conferences merged together to form the Rise Up for Equity conference.

Lastly, there are a number of statewide family engagement centers in about 11 states. Parents and educators can make use of this resource instead of reinventing the wheel and sort of guessing what works best.

Balancing Basic Needs and Support for Child Education

All the families we work with are in the middle of this incredible balancing act. On the one hand, families are trying to provide basic needs and a sense of safety and stability for children. On the other hand, families are trying to support their children’s learning. For a lot of our families that are living in poverty, this balancing act is exponentially greater.

But, we always need to remember that parents have the capacity to help their children, regardless of their background. And so, again, it’s a little bit of a dance, right?

But sometimes we don’t not want to reach out to parents because we assume they’re not able to help their children, right? And that’s where we really get into this, this next lesson. I know many of us work with refugee families from the Congo or some of our families from Central America where Mom or dad has gone to school up until second or third grade.

English Learning Families Have the Capacity to Help Their Children

Families may not have a strong formal education background, but I would argue until the day I die that they have the capacity to help their their children, it just might look a little different than you or I, maybe our envisioning it, or, or just what we think maybe it should, quote, unquote, look like.

Cultural Elements in Education Systems

I have a comment here from Elaine where she says, “many of my families believe the teacher in the school takes care of the student during school hours, and the parents resume after that.” Families hand over responsibility to us. So, that’s a consideration. But, that certainly wouldn’t be everybody. But I thought that was worth mentioning, because that’s a common feeling among teachers.

There’s obviously cultural elements to that, right? In tons of countries around the world, the kid is the teacher’s responsibility in school, and parents don’t show up to school. In many cases, it’s seen as challenging authority, it’s seen as threatening. I think that’s partly why orienting families here in the US, especially our English learner, immigrant families, is so important.

Inform Parents about the Importance of their Engagement with Schools

I know in one of the school districts I used to work at, we spent countless hours on a multilingual orientation video that is still on YouTube. We had it in a bunch of languages, and we were providing some basic orientation material around school busses, or like, what the school nurses do, or things like that. A big part of it was devoted to parent involvement or family engagement in the US and really reiterating that we welcome families into the school and here are some of the types of things that we’d love to partner with you on. It is important to set that tone from the beginning.

Parents Should Control the Agenda for Communication Events

Lesson number seven is the idea that parents should control the agenda for virtual parent events. Parent information needs come first. I want to give you a really powerful example about this.

Virtual Parent Camps and Conferences for English Learning

In Virginia at Prince William County Schools, virtual parent camps are conducted. Parent camps and conferences are when educators and parents come together. Parents set the agenda and learn together, now in a virtual space. This was started in the English Learner office. They offered weekly virtual parent camps in English, Spanish, Korean, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

The camps were separate for each language group on Zoom. Their overall theme was learning as a family, they started with a very open-ended zoom conversation. Each week, parents and educators would develop distance learning practices. This needs to be done in various languages, and we need to always think beyond Spanish.

Family Engagement is a Process, not an Event

If you’ve ever taken any workshop that I’ve done, or the folks that have taken my online course, probably one of the biggest takeaways that I always say is that family engagement is a process, not an event or just checking boxes. It is the process of building interactive relationships that drive learning.

Remember Race in Language Education Systems

The last lesson is to remember race.

So on the one hand, when I was writing this article, I was thinking about, well, I’ve always thought about race, and this is not this lesson is not necessarily a lesson because of virtual learning, but it’s all happening at the same time. Right? And I think I just wanted to use this opportunity to reiterate, that we do have to remember race and that color blindness is really not helpful, particularly in education.

We really need to see all of our brown and black students and their families, and understand that race is a part of truly seeing and acknowledging someone.

I am trying to learn as much as I can every day and be better. I found a great resource blog called Scaffolded Anti Racist Resources. It points out resources to read, videos to watch, and podcasts to listen to.

It comes down to Advocacy for English Learning Families

The process of engaging english learning families comes down to advocating for their right for equality and information. We must figure out a way to best convey information to the english learning community.

Parent advocacy, community leader advocacy, and constantly framing english learning as an equity issue will grow the family engagement field and improve language learning. Every parent and family is entitled to quality family engagement. We need to support families and build genuine two-way relationships, especially in this new digital space. Look at the family’s strengths and what they can do. Utilize the tools and communication platforms that they are savvy and comfortable with. And communicate from there.