Barbara Lora is an English acquisition language coach for Brockton Public Schools (BPS), where she has been an educator and advocate for multilingual families for nearly 20 years. A native Spanish speaker whose parents hail from the Dominican Republic, she is also a Spanish-language document translator for the district.
In this article, she shares some of her experiences and "a-ha" moments from her work with multilingual families during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can hear more from Barbara in this Education Week webinar, Supporting English Learners This Fall: Focus on Assets.
Part I: COVID-19 Outreach
What were some of your key responsibilities early in the COVID-19 pandemic?
As the only certified bilingual teacher in my building at the beginning of the pandemic, I had a lot of contact with families. For example, we contacted families to figure out what their needs were. Did they have access to Internet? Did they have technology? Did they have food? Were they working? Was anybody sick? What started with just a few phone calls to my own students ended up extending to the full building. Our bilingual community facilitators were swamped, so I did what I could within my building.
In the meantime, as a document translator, we started realizing how much information needed to be disseminated to our parents ASAP. And so, as many flyers were going out, we were trying to figure out if all of our families could access this information. We couldn't send or post it on a school website unless it was translated. And how would they know where to find it if the website is only in English? So there were a lot of really technical, but important discussions that were going on about how do we make sure that information is equitably disseminated across our district to all of our families?
In addition, I was mindful of the incredible stress on families. We saw a lot of breakdowns. At the end of one class, all the parents jumped in and literally started asking questions and talking. The next thing you know parents were crying with each other and I thought, "This is what the parents need."
For me, through it all, there was a lot of intersection -- working as an ESL teacher, as a bilingual contact for families, as a teacher learning new platforms, as a family member due to my shared guardianship of my nephew, who happens to receive MSN services, and as a Latina. All of my multiple identities were coming together, and there were so many crossroads and important discussions happening.
What were some tools that helped you communicate with families?
I realized quickly that my families needed visuals. If they don’t have the experience of working with technology or couldn't read words in English on the laptop, explaining what to do wouldn't be very useful for them. And so I started thinking about the tools that my mom uses, because I am a child of immigrants, and I do have a lot of family and friends who communicate with their families in other countries. I started thinking, "What do most of my immigrant families and friends use? What are they familiar with?"
One tool I knew they were using WhatsApp. Whether I was speaking in Spanish, or in conversational Portuguese or Cape Verdean Creole, I could say, "Do you have WhatsApp? I can show you this right now." And the phone call would switch to WhatsApp or FaceTime, and I'd show them my screen. They would show me what their issues were on their laptops, and a lot of our conversations started that way.
And it was nice because parents that may not have met me or seen anybody in person had a face, often a familiar face. That means a lot, to feel that there’s some warmth and connection there. And so that sort of helped guide me and I built relationships with families that maybe otherwise I wouldn’t have. And they had my phone number. They also felt comfortable enough to come to the school and ask for Miss Lora. I don't teach their kids, but they asked for me because they now had a name and a face. That was a silver lining that emerged from our hard work during the early days of the pandemic.
Can you tell us about the family tech support days the district held?
Once the new school year started with full distance learning, we realized that the needs of our families had switched. We had worked hard on food access, device access, and Internet access. But our families really needed support around the learning platforms and staying connected to the technology their children were using. At first, it started informally. I would go out on my lunch breaks or even on weekends to swap out computers. If I noticed a student hadn't signed into class for a few days, I’d email the teacher or I’d find a facilitator and we’d find out that their Internet was down or that they just needed to update their computer and didn’t know how, or the parent maybe was at work and there was no one to bring the laptop or swap it out. A lot of us throughout the district (support staff, interventionists, teachers, district directors, facilitators, advocates, and principals) were going to homes to help with technology, but it was in isolation and everybody was doing what they could.
Eventually, BPS decided to hold district-wide tech support events outside on weekends and evenings for parents to come and have multilingual tech services available. It was phenomenal. The tents were set up and word of mouth was great. Neighbors told neighbors and flyers went out, and all of a sudden we had parents that were coming in not just with their own kids, but with multiple children and their neighbors from their community networks. We had multilingual family outreach staff, multilingual tech staff, and interpreters available to answer families' questions.
There was a joyous moment at one of the evening events. Our director, Kellie Jones, was there and Soraya Calixte Presume was there, our family engagement specialist. I was speaking Spanish, and I heard Soraya speaking Spanish and Haitian Creole. And there was English and there was somebody translating in Cape Verdean Creole.
And I think at the most human level, we could all identify with our families, whether as a child who struggled academically or who didn’t have parents to always support them, or as an immigrant, or as a child of an immigrant, or as a mom. It was beautiful. Different races, different languages being spoken and we were all there helping. And at some point we hugged and there were tears because we thought, "This is what we signed up for. It’s not perfect and we’re still working, but we’re doing the work and it’s good work."
Part II: Family Engagement
What's one piece of advice you have for teachers new to working with ELL families?
I think it's important for us as educators to remember that we are here to support our parents in their lifelong journey of educating their children - not the other way around. And this is something I talk about often with my families. I tell them, "As a parent, you are the first teacher. You are the lifelong teacher of that child. And we as educators are humble servants. We are helping you - it’s not the other way around. You know your child better than any of us. We’re your teachers for a little while and you are their lifelong support system. I’m just a little piece of that big cake." This is important to say directly to families because often culturally they feel that we are the experts as teachers, but reframing it for families and educators alike can be very powerful.
As a school district, we also work to educate parents on how they can support their children so that they feel that they’re part of a community and not so isolated, which is something that I think Brockton does a great job at. And none of us can do this work alone. We are all stronger to get collectively than individually.
You had an important "a-ha" moment early in your new coaching role. Can you tell us about it?
I remember in my second week of being a coach, I was working with one of our newer teachers who works with ELs. She is an amazingly enthusiastic and caring teacher who had spent hours dropping off materials to students and brainstorming creative ways to keep her students engaged and supported. The teacher shared with me some concerns about a specific student of hers, such as minimal involvement or consistently disappearing from Zoom just as assignments/tasks were beginning or when being called on to participate.
By the time we spoke, she had already communicated several times with the student's father and older sister. She had also collaborated with in-house resources such as a bilingual paraprofessional and the adjustment counselor. Being very familiar with the culture of the child, I offered some suggestions about how to broach her concerns with this student's father. I shared insight about cultural perspectives on education and how this family might view their role in their child's academic success. We spoke about the importance of building relationships of trust and respect and our responsibility as educators to take the first steps to create a power shift towards a more equitable dynamic, where our parents feel empowered to advocate for their children as their child's first, most valuable, lifelong educator.
I also explained that studies show that education is typically highly valued among immigrant populations, but not all parents/guardians know what is expected of them in American schools; so, like all parents, they do the best that they can with what they have and know... and they simply don't know what they don't know, until it's pointed out to them. We know that parents want their children to succeed, but some may need more explicit instructions on what their role is and how they can help, even as a limited English speaker.
I advised the teacher to be specific about what she is seeing in class, what her expectations are for the student, and to model one or two realistic things that the parent and older sister could do to help keep the child accountable at home (that did not require the knowledge of English or technology). I also advised her to use one of our staff members to translate, instead of leaving this responsibility to the student's older sister.
In addition, I shared an example of a student from another school who I translated for, who was not attending school. When he did, he logged off at a certain time and never returned. When I visited the home and spoke to the grandmother, I learned that the child did not understand that when the computer was off, he needed to return at a certain time. The grandmother also did not know the school hours. Once I showed her the class weekly schedule and explained to her and the student what the daily/weekly schedule was, the child's attendance immediately improved and has remained so since that one clarifying conversation.
When I saw my colleague taking many notes during our conversation, it occurred to me that my cultural knowledge base was much deeper than hers. The following week, I attended a meeting about this student with the teacher, adjustment counselor, bilingual classroom para, the father, student, and older sister. The teacher took time to demonstrate care and appreciation of the family. I watched and listened as she shared her computer screen with the father and took time to show him what his son was doing in class, where he was shining and where he needed to improve. I noticed that there was little expression on the father's face, until the teacher got to the part where she began showing him how he could physically check to see if his son was completing his daily assignments.
All of a sudden, the father's eyes widened a bit and he sat forward on his couch to see the laptop a bit more clearly. The teacher gave the student one task to perform daily. Every evening, he was to show his father the page on his learning platform that showed how many minutes of independent online work he had completed daily. There was no reading involved, just pictured and numbers. She explained to the father that this way, the child, the father, the older sister, and the teacher would all be able to see the same information. If the child did not complete his minutes during the day due to technology issues or any other reason, he could complete them during the evening or even on weekends to catch up. By the end of the meeting, the father's demeanor had changed. He had a smile on his face and thanked the teacher for the information shared. The teacher had empowered the father by offering him a clear and easy way to contribute to his son's academic success, without having to worry about language or technology barriers, and this was all he needed.
I then received weekly updates regarding this student and evidence of progress was immediate. The day after the teacher-parent meeting, the student reached his expected minutes of independent work online, and the trend continued. His on-screen attendance and participation increased, and he even started attending my after-school class this week for the first time (and he kept his screen on and participated the whole class time). This classroom teacher could not be happier, and she continues to thank me whenever we check in; to be honest, I am equally thankful that she was open to hearing my thoughts and taking my advice. These sorts of dialogues have taken place many times throughout my career here in Brockton and for this, I am blessed.
Not all teacher-parent meetings have worked out as quickly and wonderfully as the two experiences I mentioned above, but the majority have had positive long-term impacts in terms of helping build relationships of communication, appreciation, and trust. These kinds of experiences as culture brokers are what drive us to continue doing the work that we do. We understand that it is good, important, and necessary work. It is one thing for us to recognize how valuable our roles are within our community, but it is another, more humbling one, for our district to recognize how valuable our roles are within our community. Although it is far from perfect and there is still much work to do, I feel blessed to work in a district where diversity is appreciated and is being increasingly sought out.
Video: We are cultural brokers for our multilingual families and schools
Barbara Lora describes multilingual staff members' roles as culture families between schools and families, as well as Brockton Public Schools' efforts to support diversity and equity for students.