Thu Pham - Blueprint for Action
As introduced and alluded to in the previous page, my project seeks to answer one central question:
What can BRYE do this summer to best serve the Dorchester community and create the best experience for staff, with over a year of virtual instruction behind us and a drastically different future ahead of us?
As I set out to address this question, I kept in mind the decisions and impact that I could make as a BRYE co-director. Although we are given some freedom to adjust programming year by year (especially during the pandemic), BRYE still operates under the umbrella of SUP and PBHA. Furthermore, BRYE should not stray too far from the Boston Public Schools and other stakeholders in Dorchester that serve our campers, in order to create consistency that the campers can rely on. With that being said, I see the largest areas that BRYE directors can affect are:
- BRYE-specific training, that will be spread throughout three weeks before camp begins
- Relationships with BRYE families, and how we engage with them
- Collaboration with BRYE SCs in curriculum development, including any feedback and resources that we can provide to them
BRYE is very fortunate to be in touch with so many different members of the Dorchester community, and I was able to tap into this network for this project. In total, sixteen interviews were conducted: five with former Senior Counselors (or SCs, four of whom taught online during the completely remote summer of 2020), six with the Mather School Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) teachers and curriculum coaches, and five with BRYE families. Interview questions varied by group, and it is worth noting that all interviews with families were conducted in Vietnamese. Qualitative interviews were best suited for this project for two main reasons: (1) I wanted to focus on personal and specific experiences, which would be best captured and feel most natural through qualitative interviews. (2) Aside from collecting information, some of these interviews had a side effect of strengthening relations between BRYE and community members, especially teachers, the group we are in proactive touch with the least. A survey or other data collection methods may have felt impersonal in comparison, especially when keeping the perceptions of the interviewees in mind.
(Note: I originally meant to have an even split of five people per category, but I got such positive responses from the teachers group especially that I decided to interview everybody who agreed to participate!)
Note: Direct quotes for this portion of the interview were not collected, as all interviews were conducted in Vietnamese. As a result, paraphrasing was the most effective way to summarize all of this information.
I asked BRYE families questions about two main areas: how they perceived their child was progressing in online schooling (and, if their child was still learning English, in ELL), and what BRYE could do to improve their children’s learning experience in BRYE.
Overall, BRYE Families did not offer much constructive feedback. When asked whether we could do anything more to support their child in the program, they expressed their gratitude for the care and fun that their children experienced in BRYE. As a result, I was not able to obtain direct, explicit suggestions about improvements to the summer program. One more concrete takeaway, however, was the overall sentiment that families expressed about not being involved in their child’s learning experience, both in school and in BRYE because they do not feel comfortable with the English language and the American school system. I did not include a question that explicitly asked about their comfort level with these areas. Rather, this was in response to the question of their perception of their child’s performance and comfort with online schooling, and what we could do in BRYE with this knowledge.
Mather School SEI Teachers
As some background, Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) is for students who are on English Language Development (ELD) level 1 (beginner), level 2 (early or middle intermediate), and level 3 (intermediate to high intermediate). SEI has entirely ELL students, when normally they are in classrooms with native English speakers, and the teachers are certified to teach those students. Students are usually placed into SEI after a diagnostic test when they first enter the Boston Public Schools system.
I asked the SEI teachers about their experience teaching (mostly) remotely in the past year. I began with asking how they felt when they found that school had moved online; their perception of the most difficult area of learning English online; tips they found useful for general pedagogy, student engagement, and family communication; and finally, their general reflections on what we can learn from this period of time as we enter a “new normal.” I report the most relevant findings below.
On the most difficult area of English learning online, teachers expressed frustration in almost all areas, but for different reasons. Speaking was one of the most common answers, as conversation comes “most naturally” in person, and online “removes an organic layer of interaction” with the students. Furthermore, it was difficult to get students to feel more comfortable speaking up. Some more individual issues included getting students to be comfortable with writing over Zoom, especially with reduced attention spans. Internet issues stood in the way of students seeing and hearing their teachers pronounce words correctly. Finally, not being there to help students with reading real-time and to explain any weaknesses in understanding has been a point of difficulty.
On useful strategies, teachers almost unanimously recommended several live learning tools, such as ClassKick, JamBoard, Desmos, which could help teachers see their students work on their assignments in real time. Because of these convenient features, they could immediately spot any weaknesses in their students' work and offer them specific help. Another strategy that BRYE has not made use of very much is the creative ways in which some teachers engage that with their students’ families. Aside from the regular texts and calls, teachers also work small, low-pressure ways in their curriculum for students to involve their families in their education. For example, they create assignments that ask their children to play games with their families, or ask them to help with the assignment (that does not involve a deep knowledge of English or school). Teachers have found that these strategies, though small, are extremely effective in getting both students and families excited about learning and being involved in the process. Finally, most teachers emphasized the importance of using breakout rooms and small group work to build community and help more introverted students express themselves.
Furthermore, they included some more general advice, many of which BRYE has already tried to implement in classrooms. Regardless, they are useful to revisit and re-emphasize:
- Help students feel comfortable in the Zoom setting by asking them to talk about what they like. Try to incorporate subjects that they enjoy into curriculum-writing, even if those topics are not educational – it is possible to, for example, write math word problems about Fortnite.
- The importance of building an individual relationship between the teacher and student is more important than ever, especially in a period of such intense isolation and uncertainty. A better relationship also translates to more trust and better performance in the classroom.
- Students have grown to be very technologically savvy. It is useful to tap into that, as they feel empowered when they are asked to do something that they are good at.
- A lot of online tools are very useful as visual aids to students, such as instructional videos and even websites that simulate using physical manipulatives that students would usually have access to in-person.
I asked former SCs about their experiences teaching online: how they felt about teaching online when they first started, what support they found helpful (and not so helpful) when training for the job, and any advice they would give to incoming SCs in specific areas, including, but not limited to, math, English, science, and restorative justice.
SCs expressed their gratitude for how well-prepared they were to teach during the summer. They particularly appreciated training given specific to age groups and English levels, but felt that such differentiated support on a more sustained basis was lacking throughout the summer. I also received some more specific feedback that was individual to several SCs, such as needing more structure and concrete advice for designing curriculum, having a better sense of what would happen in the summer in the long run, and more advanced notice about several logistical matters in general.
Overall, SCs gave very specific examples about strategies that worked for them in class, which has inspired one of my main recommendations. They pointed me to a plethora of tools and websites that I was not aware of, even as an SC who taught online last summer. I was amazed by how well they adapted to the many challenges of last summer. For example, because our classes had a wide range of English levels among students, SCs significantly altered the structure of their class to be accommodating to all students, including communal reading, differentiated activities, and more intentional individualized time. Because many of the interview questions were intended to draw out very specific pieces of information, I will not quote and paraphrase so extensively as I did for previous sections. Many, if not all, of the SCs’ answers to the interview questions will be included in the deliverables created for the recommendations.
From these interviews, I have developed four main recommendations:
- During a normal in-person summer, we would be able to hold large gatherings in the evenings and invite the families to see what their children have been up to. We tried to transition similar events to Zoom last summer, but it is not as exciting to join a large Zoom call, where it is still easy to feel disconnected.
- In response to families’ general sentiment that they do not feel involved, BRYE can create low-pressure, casual ways for families to quickly see what is happening in camp. For example, BRYE can revive the family Facebook group and continue sending out digestible newsletters.
- BRYE co-directors can also work with staff to help them develop more creative ways to engage with families besides regular phone calls. For example, assignments can include games that campers can play with their families.
- When possible, BRYE co-directors should be strategic about providing language support (such as conference calls with the staff, the family they are responsible for, and someone else who can speak the families’ native language), especially when many families are more comfortable speaking in their native language.
ELL teachers and former SCs have been incredibly innovative and creative in surmounting the challenges that came with teaching online, especially to ELL students. Although there are some curriculum examples that are shared SUP-wide, these are often not specific to the population that we work with. This does not mean that incoming SCs will not have any freedom to design their own curriculum, but rather to provide them support and inspiration, especially when they are first beginning.
In weekly meetings, BRYE co-directors should include check-in questions that encourage SCs to share their most successful activity of the week.
I am working on creating a living, breathing document of best practices for teaching online, especially for our target population. The base of this guide will be created from the tips I collected from these interviews, and incoming SCs will be encouraged to add to this as they work this summer.
Many former BRYE SCs expressed that the most helpful parts of training included the teaching for ELL students, as well as the separate training sessions by age group.
BRYE co-directors should see if any other training (e.g. working social justice into curriculum) can include differentiated components.
In addition, BRYE co-directors, depending on how the SCs feel, can encourage and facilitate collaboration between SCs teaching a similar age group and/or English level.
BRYE co-directors can ensure that SCs feel comfortable with tools that allow them to monitor campers’ live progress and understanding.
BRYE co-directors should find creative ways for campers to work in small groups. Last summer, breakout rooms were rarely utilized because they required one staff member over a certain age to be in each breakout room with the campers. Often, this would mean that only one staff member was eligible to do this job, and for a few classes, this number was two members. It is possible for BRYE co-directors to revisit this policy, as teachers strongly emphasized the benefit of using breakout rooms, where students can make friends (which is quite difficult in a remote setting) and feel comfortable in a more intimate setting. Further, BRYE co-directors can be that second or third staff member in classes, if the policy is inflexible.