clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Remote learning compounds longstanding challenges facing bilingual students like me

This next generation of English learners will face the challenges I did and more. Remote learning means they’ll need help with Internet and computer skills their parents might not be able to provide.

Ismael Perez at 8 years old at Senator Judith Zaffirini Elementary School in Laredo, Texas.
Ismael Perez at 8 years old at Senator Judith Zaffirini Elementary School in Laredo, Texas.

Leer en español

Sometimes, it’s difficult to consider being bilingual an advantage.

The road to achieving what is seen as a powerful skill leaves a mark. For a Mexican like me, it’s imposter syndrome.

Picture laughter erupting from a second-grade class after a non-English speaker can’t respond to a question like, “Is your birthday coming up?”

Or a 9-year-old practicing the word “world” for two weeks because it will come up in conversation some way or another.

Seriously. Try it. Your tongue does about four movements for a word with one syllable.

Ismael Perez’s kindergarten “graduation” photo.
Ismael Perez’s kindergarten “graduation” photo.

At 28, I’d say I’ve mastered my “white voice.” But there’s always some tension behind every word. Mess up an “s,” and the dreaded question will follow: “You have an accent — where are you from?”

I was always a step behind my classmates in the early elementary grade levels. It’s funny to hear, but grade school was harder for me than college. Homework rarely got done. The assignments were in a language my immigrant parents and I didn’t understand.

Still, everyone has some type of privilege attached to them. Even me.

This school year, the current generation of English learners will face the same challenges as well as everything the pandemic brings with it. Now, it’s not just about parents not knowing how to help with English homework. Remote learning also means students will need help with Internet and computer skills.

To bridge the digital divide that has made remote learning difficult, the Chicago Public Schools are offering free access to high-speed Internet service for students in need.

Oralia Villanueva, a bilingual teacher at Little Village Academy, said Internet access was just the beginning of the remote learning challenges back in March.

“Some parents were struggling with getting their Internet set up at home,” she said. “Some didn’t know how to connect a router. Others didn’t know what a router was.”

Families were brought supplies to connect to the Internet but given no help with setting it up because people weren’t allowed inside their homes.

After the Internet was installed, parents had to learn how to operate Chromebooks and to access Google Classroom.

Villanueva said it was difficult to reach some students during the last half of the spring semester. She understood why. Beyond the school work, the pandemic has affected children socially and emotionally.

Oralia Villanueva teaches a fifth-grade science class at Little Village Academy, 2620 S. Lawndale Ave.
Oralia Villanueva teaches a fifth-grade science class in February 2020 at Little Village Academy, 2620 S. Lawndale Ave.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Some didn’t have parents at home because the bills had to be paid. Others have lost family members to the coronavirus.

“All those challenges are a lot for an adult to deal with,” Villanueva said. “Imagine a student. And I’d just ask myself, ‘How do I help?’ ”

She hopes students and parents have become more comfortable with technology since the spring. She has been preparing for the fall semester by working on skills to make remote learning more interactive and fun for her students.

Learning a second language, dealing with technology and surviving a pandemic can be a lot for students to handle. But it is possible with a little effort and the help of dedicated teachers.

Hearing these words in particular from Villanueva released the stress and tension behind my worries: “Mistakes are proof that you are trying.”

Words any generation of English learners should keep in mind.