My family is on our 6th week of German school at home. I think everyone has had some interesting experiences because of COVID-19 and the precautions our respective governments have taken to avoid its spread.
In our home, I am helping to teach my children the German language, a language I do not know.
It's odd trying to help my children with assignments when they are fluent and I am far from it. Humorous moments abound.
My son Crawford had an assignment to choose a German book to read to us. We were so impressed that we recorded him reading it and sent it to our friends. During the reading, he seemed particularly amused; we later discovered that the book is a popular children’s story about animals and their poop.
Another day, my daughter was working on joining two sentences together using conjunctions. I was shocked when she proclaimed “damit” as one of the answers. Amused by my reaction, she explained that “damit” means “in order to” in German.
Ellie now says “damit” as much a possible, delighting in the fact that she can’t get into trouble for using proper German.
In addition to these comical situations, there have been tears shed (from the kids and from me) and great accomplishments. Through it all, I’ve been impressed with my children’s teachers' organization, communication, and teaching practices. Our German school is not using a virtual platform for instruction, as are many stateside schools. We have the option of receiving a digital wochenplan (weekly schedule) via email/school website or picking up a printed copy from the school. In the weekly plan, assignments are given from the students’ textbooks along with a few worksheets. This helps to alleviate the burden on some families regarding access to the Internet or technology resources. It has required effort on the teachers’ part to collect and give feedback on the material, but we have received excellent responses from them, and both my kids have progressed.
While I have enjoyed learning (and laughing) with my children, I have also thought about all of the ESL (English as a second language) families in America who might be experiencing something similar to my confusion with German. I’ve noticed that our hardest days are when I’m struggling with understanding my children’s academic language. I’ve also wondered if American teachers are finding innovative methods to better support English language learners and their families. I’ve jotted down some parent tips and teacher ideas that might help.
1. Create a daily schedule
Our little school of three at my kitchen table enjoys the structure of a schedule. We don’t always follow it, and deviating from it can create some excitement during this mundane time, but overall, I like having something to help me organize my mind and time.
2. Institute Brain Breaks
Though it varies with their age and individual learning style, children’s brains can only focus on individual tasks for a period of time before they become distracted, tired, or frustrated (and if you're thinking that sounds like you, yes, adult brains operate the same).
For my children, I try to keep learning blocks to 60 minutes total, containing 20 minute cycles of tasks. It might look like this:
20 minutes geometry
+ 20 minutes Deutsch
+ 20 minutes in daily journal
= 60 minutes of learning
Then we take a 20-30 minute Brain Break where we play outside, go for a walk, Go Noodle, have a picnic snack, or get out some Legos. I find it helps if I save all access to technology, like TV shows and electronic games (not counting Go Noodle), until ALL daily school work is complete.
3. Have all materials for learning in one location
My beautiful farmhouse dining room is now a haphazard collection of books and school supplies. However, everything we need is right there; no one is going to disappear for 30 minutes “looking” for something they need. I also gave each child a large plastic bin in which to put all of their materials. This helps contain the mess and provides structure to keep themselves organized.
4. Checklists are good for ALL
Whether your learners are type A (love the satisfaction of a check mark), type B (needing the structure a list provides), visual (wanting to see the tasks that still need to be done or have already been completed), or tactile (enjoy feeling the pencil cross tasks off an agenda), they can benefit from a work plan.
My son’s teacher provides his wochenplan with a space to check off assignments. My daughter decided that would be good for her, too, so we worked together to organize one. Now she not only has a visual cue for assignment completion, but also has developed insight into her personal organization needs.
5. Stay sane!
My top piece of advice: do what you need to do in order to stay sane. Sometimes, that might mean everyone gets to binge watch TV and not much else gets done that day. One day, it might mean that all electronics are unplugged because your kids aren’t doing what they need to earn TV time. It could be spending each moment with your children, soaking up every second of this time together. Or it could be enjoying a long bubble bath and a book all by yourself.
Your children deserve a parent who takes time and creates space for their own mental health. Doing what is best for YOUR family is the most important advice I can give.
Ideas for Teachers Assisting Families of Non-Native Speakers
1. Give options
My children’s teachers have provided flexibility in their German work. Ellie's work is differentiated: sometimes she completes the same assignment as her peers and sometimes she receives similar tasks that have been adjusted for an emerging learner.
2. Translate information
It will not be as accurate as an actual translator, but taking the time to use translation technology will go a long way in supporting non-native speaking families. You can use Google or Microsoft translate to put messages or information into the native language of your student’s family. It should only take a few seconds to complete a decent translation and it shows a commitment to open lines of communication.
Vary it! Phone, email, text: it is best to be flexible and persistent during this strange time. For ELL families, digital communication, like text or email, might be best because you can easily send the information in both English and the language spoken in the student’s home.
4. Provide support
Be sure to send home an answer key and/or be prepared to give near-immediate feedback on assignments. Some parents won’t know the correct answer for the assignments (this is me on pretty much every German grammar and spelling task, but I also struggle with the correct conversion of ratios). Thankfully, my children’s teachers are a phone call or text away. My son’s teacher will receive an iMessage image of his work, do the corrections via the markup tool, and send it right back. My daughter’s teacher called to tell Ellie know how impressed she was with her schoolwork. Support from the educator is needed in every home.
5. Send Love
My daughter's teacher left an Easter treat with each child’s school work. My son’s teacher assigns family game night as a weekly task. Educators know that school is about all kinds of learning: academic, social, and emotional.
Seemingly "little things" like sending a letter, driving by a students house, or a special phone call all remind your students that you care about them…and that’s the REAL reason all of us teach.
This is a time when we all are challenged to learn, grow, and adapt. What has been your biggest challenge? How have you grown? What adaptations have occurred in your life?