Dr. Muhibullah Abdur-Rahman is an ELL teacher at Claremont Immersion School, a bilingual elementary school in Arlington, VA. Dr. Abdur-Rahman’s training includes a Master’s in TESOL, a Doctorate of Education in Applied Linguistics, a credential in special education, and certification in administration and supervision. He speaks Arabic and conversational German.
In this interview with Colorin Colorado, Dr. Abdur-Rahman talks about how he started working with ELLs, his unique perspective as an ELL educator with special education training, and how schools can most effectively navigate decisions related to special education and ELLs.
You can see more from Claremont Immersion School in our video series on dual-language instruction.
Meet Dr. Abdur-Rahman
When did you first start working with ELLs?
My earliest interaction with ELLs was at the start of my career as a middle school science teacher in New York City. As a science teacher, I was charged with teaching the curriculum to different groups of non-traditional learners within a general education classroom, some of whom were culturally and linguistically diverse students.
Although at the time I had not been specifically trained as an ELL teacher, the challenges related to meeting the needs of this population, coupled with my own personal interest in language learning, compelled me to further my studies in the subject at New York University (NYU).
Can you talk about why you were interested in pursuing credentials in both ELL and special education?
In my second year of teaching in NYC, I was tasked with teaching science to a self-contained class of special education students. Much in the same way that I was intrigued by the unique challenges faced by my ELL students, I was equally interested in the kinds of challenges that ED and LD students endured.
It was through this additional training that I could understand the implications of some of my students’ disabilities on their learning, as well as the importance of some best practices and instructional strategies for delivering a science curriculum in such a setting.
Can you tell us a little bit about your current role at Claremont Elementary School?
At Claremont, I work as an English Learner teacher with fifth-grade students. In previous years, I've worked with fourth-grade students as well. As an EL teacher, my primary responsibility is to support ELL students to ensure that they have the tools needed to access the curriculum and to ultimately become successful members of our learning community. Depending on a number of factors, this support can be provided in one or more ways.
Support can take the shape of teacher collaboration, whereby collective planning and/or co-teaching are tapped as a way of ensuring that the content is presented in accessible ways. There are instances where the needs of our learners dictate that other and more intensive forms of support are used, particularly as it concerns literacy development. In such scenarios, students are given small-group pull-out instruction.
What are some ways you build relationships with students and why does this matter?
I've always prioritized building relationships with my students, as I see it as key for meaningful learning to take place. On a macro level, schools should serve as safe spaces where students feel welcomed and embraced irrespective of factors that may otherwise distinguish them from one another such as race or socioeconomic status.
On an academic level, language learners, in particular, need to feel comfortable with the kinds of meaningful risk-taking that is critical for acquiring a second language. A great component of small-group instruction is that it offers the opportunity to connect with students in a more personal way. And, I often use my interest in science, travel, and language learning as a way to connect with students, while offering them a space to use language as a means of connecting with others.
What are some of your current areas of focus with your students in literacy?
At Claremont, we have students of varying language and literacy needs. A large portion of our ELL student population neither speak English or Spanish with complete proficiency (sometimes referred to in the literature as generation 1.5). And we find that some of our students come from homes where parents have limited English proficiency as well as varying levels of literacy in their L1, often Spanish.
This, among other factors, may contribute to where students are in terms of their literacy development upon arrival at Claremont. In general, I find that most students are in need of further vocabulary development as well as help with text comprehension. We do, however, have students in fifth grade who labor with decoding, and therefore would profit from more phonological awareness-directed instruction. In order to address this need, we've drawn on the 95 Percent Group reading program to help remediate some of the gaps in their phonological knowledge.
The Advantages of Having ELL and Special Education Training
What are some of the benefits of having ELL and special education training?
Having both of these perspectives has been quite advantageous. For instance, because we have, based on research, a rough approximation of the time it takes for students to acquire the basic social and academic language needed to be successful in school, when the expected progress has not been made by grade four or five, there are conversations that are naturally had among teachers. And having that additional awareness of those strategies that should be effective for struggling learners, along with knowledge related to second language acquisition, helps to bring meaningful insights to those conversations, especially when an underlying disability is suspected.
Fortunately, Arlington Public Schools has developed a questionnaire-like form that requires ELL teachers to confer with classroom teachers in order to try and discern any apparent gaps in students’ L1, L2 and/or content area knowledge. The goal here is to ensure that an underlying disability is not masquerading as interlanguage difficulties. This form was also designed so as to prod teachers to consider a host of other strategies in order to attend to any noted areas of concern.
Why is collaboration through a team approach so critical when it comes to identifying and serving ELLs with disabilities?
Many school districts today set aside times for teachers to meet and engage collaboratively so as to ensure the kinds of conversations are taking place that are needed to reflect on what is working instructionally and where adjustments may be warranted. It is within these spaces that most of the meaningful discussions are had; a place for ideas to be shared, anecdotal notes compared, and ultimately a time and place where strategies and interventions can be devised. This ultimately allows for ongoing conversations to occur, while encouraging a kind of self-accountability concerning whether instruction has been meaningfully tailored to meet the needs of a student of concern.
Also, an equally critical component of this teacher-mediated collaboration is reaching out to parents and inviting conversation on issues, as we find that parents are important interlocutors and partners who can provide meaningful context along with possible solutions.
What do you think schools need to know about serving such as ELLs who receive special education services?
A key consideration that schools and school districts should prioritize is the development of a robust system to meet the needs of this population, from the identification process to servicing. Having a meaningful pre-referral process that relies on a multi-step process of interventions, grade-level and cross-departmental teacher consultations helps to mitigate the "Let's wait and see" approach as well as any premature rushes to judgment. In addition, having dually certified ELL and special education teachers in classrooms is a much-needed solution, which can be potentially accomplished through salary differentials, coursework reimbursement and/or other mechanisms for incentivizing further certification.
What lessons have you learned about identifying special education needs in ELLs?
There have been a number of factors highlighted to date in the disproportionality research (both referral rates and classification) of culturally and linguistically diverse students, perhaps too many to enumerate here. However, one often cited factor, and what I find to be especially interesting, is the role of bias and teacher perception, which effectively implicates teachers, at least in part, as being a potential driver of this phenomenon. One of the positive results of the added attention to the role of classroom teachers is the increased interest and uptake in more culturally responsive practices being adopted across school districts.
Lessons Learned on Equity and Access
What are some of your lessons learned in terms of partnering with families around the special education process?
As educators, we should be wholly committed to partnering with families to help best meet the needs of their children. This necessarily entails educating families concerning the nature of the evaluation process with the utmost transparency, making clear how it may serve in their children's best interest. However, we should consider the varying power differentials and various cultural factors at play in why we may not always obtain the desired consent to proceed. And while I find that families are, more often than not, receptive to the process, misconceptions and social stigmas abound. That being said, I would encourage educators and school districts to recognize the importance of not only seeing empowerment of families through the lens of information and knowledge sharing, but also as one’s right to non-participation. In other words, parents should be seen as primary stakeholders and allowed the space to make decisions without fear of judgment.
And we should recognize that non-participation could be due to a host of reasons, including mistrust for educational systems that have historically failed at equitably educating all students. I’ve personally heard a parent express reservation about proceeding with an evaluation for services, as she was concerned that her child could be "bullied" for having a special education classification, which she believed would further contribute to her child feeling withdrawn from school and the learning process. Whether real or imagined, these fears should be considered and addressed through empathy and dialogue.
One of your key areas of interest is the question of disproportionality within special education. How have your personal and professional experiences shaped that interest?
Growing up in a time and era when African American males were disproportionally referred to special education, this topic had always piqued my interest. And during my graduate studies I became increasingly interested in those probable factors that precipitated in linguistically and culturally diverse students being disproportionally represented across certain contexts. As an aspiring educator at the time, I also saw it as important to familiarize myself with such issues as a means of helping to build a more culturally responsive pedagogy. For me, these issues are very much connected to wider issues of equity for groups of students who have traditionally fared worse than their white counterparts academically with regard to the achievement gap.
Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic
What are some of the impacts of the pandemic you are seeing in the students you serve?
This pandemic has brought about an unprecedented disruption to learning. And in light of the primacy of language and literacy development during Pre-K to second grade, there has been a measurable toll on students’ language and literacy after 1.5 years of learning virtually. And so teaching this particular cohort of ELLs since the pandemic has been an interesting experience, to say the least.
Aside from the overall academic decline noted on some assessments since the return from virtual learning, some SEL-related challenges have been apparent. It seems that it has taken a full year for students to get re-acclimated to in-person learning in terms of distractibility, healthy peer-to-peer interactions, and adhering to routines. Academically speaking, I’ve found that some students have become somewhat resistant to writing-intensive activities. Other students, it appears, have demonstrably lessened reading stamina, which may be attributable to the amounts of screen time on devices during virtual learning and/or lack of reading.
Have you had any break-through moments or small signs of progress that encourage you in spite of this challenging situation?
Despite some of the setbacks due to the pandemic, I find that students are exceedingly resilient. Academic progress has been made in a number of areas. Most have returned with a kind of unparalleled energy and eagerness for learning that is really inspiring. Having worked at the high school and middle school level previously, this is what I find most rewarding about working with younger learners.