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4 Practical Ways to Make Instruction Accessible for Multilingual Learners

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Designing instruction that is accessible to English learners (ELs), or multilingual learners, is of the utmost importance. It’s simply not enough to make content available to learners. That’s like being given a car but no keys to use it. Equitable instruction is instruction that provides every learner with what they need for academic success.

In recent years, there has been a positive shift in the way educators view and teach multilingual learners—recognizing the linguistic, academic, and cultural assets they bring. The reality is that multilingual learners enter our classrooms with unique lived experiences and traditions that add value to instruction. Teachers face the challenge of ensuring that multilingual learners are gaining content and developing language without falling behind in either. Multilingual learners who experience grade-level instruction with additional linguistic support tend to do better in school and have a greater chance of mastery.

But how does that happen when we have mountains of content to cover and grades to gather? How do we create lessons that are accessible and meaningful for multilingual learners? What does that look like in the lesson plans and in instructional practice?

Methods That Make Instruction Accessible to ELs

1. Infuse instruction with peer-to-peer discussion and exploration. This student-centered practice allows multilingual learners to build their listening and speaking vocabularies as they negotiate meaning. There may be much content to cover, but hiding it behind a lecture that multilingual learners may not comprehend does little good. It’s important for multilingual learners to uncover their understanding through interacting with peers.

When I began carving out more space for student talk, despite the fact that quiet classrooms were encouraged by colleagues and some administrators, it was challenging for a few reasons:

  • Multilingual learners weren’t talking even when I asked them to. Lack of linguistic support, uncertainty about expectations, fear or anxiety about speaking in a new language, and other factors seemed to contribute to their silence.
  • Sometimes the talk was uncontrollably loud.
  • Conversations often seemed to stray from the topic.

You may be experiencing similar struggles. I found that structuring the peer discussion alleviated these problems and created an environment that controlled the chaos and provided routines and expectations that my students needed. My multilingual learners’ voices were being amplified, and it began to surface in their confidence, comfort, and writing, so I knew we were on the right track. Most of the challenges that seemed to keep multilingual learners from participating in speaking with peers were eliminated by my intentional and planned routines for speaking, such as these:

  • Using open-ended questions and posting them for students to see.
  • Providing sentence stems for responses.
  • Intentionally pairing students for discussion and modeling the routine.

2. Offer adapted or engineered texts when reading materials are dense. As multilingual learners get older, a common challenge is that content and reading selections become more complex. You can adapt or engineer texts, chunking them into pieces with annotations and synonyms, and even use a multilingual learner’s first language. Sometimes, adapting a text looks like providing a side-by-side of the original text:

  • Provide a similar text in the student’s first language.
  • Do a side-by-side of the original text and an audio version.
  • Give them a side-by-side of the original text and a text a few reading levels lower.

3. Provide daily opportunities for written expression in all content areas with the use of scaffolds and accommodations. Daily writing can be brief, such as quick pieces that are about 3 minutes or sketch notes using visuals and words. Multilingual learners benefit from seeing teachers model writing expectations and examples at various levels of proficiency.

Other scaffolds and accommodations for writing include offering sentence starters or paragraph frames and encouraging drawing, labeling, and use of the first language. Multilingual learners at beginning levels of English proficiency pull from all of their language repertoires to access their knowledge and demonstrate what they understand and can do.

Students will perform at different levels. It took me a while to realize that my students’ products didn’t have to be the same. I remember expecting all my students to write lengthy essays. One of my newly arrived multilingual learners could do that, but not in English yet. He wrote his first essay primarily in his language. Stepping outside of my comfort zone was at first a challenge. How was I going to assess writing that I was unable to read? Through collaboration with colleagues who could read the language, I was able to assess my student’s writing. Some teachers in similar situations have used apps to translate students’ writing.

4. Utilize classroom resources. Resources such as word walls, anchor charts, and translation dictionaries can enhance multilingual learners’ understanding of concepts, especially when they include pictorial or visual support. The most effective resources act as co-teachers when we’re unable to assist multilingual learners as they work independently. But even this doesn’t happen by magic.

Teachers can directly teach students how to use these resources by referring to word walls, anchor charts, and dictionaries:

  • When modeling academic language and effective communication, use words from the word wall.
  • When reading aloud, use and point to a strategy from a reading anchor chart.
  • When modeling writing, show how to use a translation dictionary, thesaurus or other dictionary.

When we model for learners how to use resources and remind them that they can use them too, they are more likely to do it independently.

Sometimes my husband (who is quite a bit taller than I am) drives my car, and when I get back into the driver’s seat, I silently thank the car designers for their efforts in assuring that I’m able to adjust the mirrors, move the seat up and forward, and even move the steering wheel—I need to see the road ahead of me. Everyone does. This analogy is how I visualize us as lesson designers for multilingual learners who need to see and have access to their grade-level curriculum. We design the lessons, and we can provide the access.

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6 Small But Mighty Ways to Make Your Students Feel Important

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When setting priorities, the prevailing wisdom seems to converge on the same fundamental insight: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Don’t make mountains out of molehills.

Inside classrooms, that advice falls short, according to hundreds of teachers who recently responded to our social media question: “How do you make your students feel important?”

In fact, “it’s the little things” that make all the difference to students, insisted educator Lauren Mooney, and variations on this competing advice—from emphasizing “small talk” to “highlighting student accomplishments, small or large”—appeared dozens of times in the social media threads, as educators zeroed in on tiny classroom moves that translated into big steps forward for kids.

So there you have it, new classroom adages pulled from the odds and ends of the thread: Go ahead and sweat the small stuff. You can’t get to the mountaintop without visiting the molehill. Give some love to the chaff. Those observations, plus six more super-smart insights from experienced teachers about how to make students feel important, in the notes that follow:

1. Listen, Talk, Shout

We’ve heard it from educators a thousand times: Observing even the simplest rules of social etiquette yields big dividends in schools. The word “listen” (and its many variants) appeared in the thread more than 75 times, often tucked into phrases like “just listen to students!” or “really spend time listening to them” that sounded, by turns, admonitory or encouraging. For many teachers, listening to kids was a whole-body experience: “nod your head” vigorously, suggested one teacher, while others recommended listening “with both your eyes” or giving it a try “with your whole self.”

Physical impossibilities aside, the point stands: While educators shouldn’t “push if students aren’t comfortable with it,” listening more actively sends a signal that you care. If you’re able to, “make eye contact; sit down next to them; kneel beside them; and ask them questions about what they have going on,” suggests teacher Heidi Baehman.

You should try to greet kids by name at the classroom door, in hallways, and anywhere you encounter them—and invest the time to get their names right, said dozens of teachers (it’s best to get “their personal preference” and “ask them to pronounce it”). “Aim to call each of them by name during each block,” and try to direct ”a single idea or sentence” to as many kids as you can, confirmed teacher Joel Garza.

Finally, to give kids an extra boost, consider in-class and school-wide shout-outs. Principal Shantelle Oliphant reports that “shout-out slips are in the office for all to access.” Once completed, they’re affixed to a hallway wall for all to see (pro tip: not every kid has stapler skills, so consider providing tape or putty). Heather Nicole Johnson’s teenage students love her “birthday shout-outs on the whiteboard,” and a principal in Philadelphia does it digitally: “I make a short video of the announcements every day. I shout out birthdays of students and staff. It is a small gesture that students look forward to,” said Twitter user pas_overton.

2. Check In, Follow Up

But social niceties aren’t enough to build true rapport, according to educators. To create more durable bonds with students, you need to nurture a rich dialogue over weeks and months, asking lots of questions and, crucially, following up to demonstrate authentic interest.

“I do a quick ‘question of the day,’” said Beth Geuder Calhoun. “Sometimes a silly question, sometimes a more serious question such as ‘what do you like about yourself?’” Other teachers took a less structured approach, touching base periodically to ask about upcoming events, siblings, cherished pets, birthdays, and student passions. The key, though, lies in actually “remembering little things about their life and then asking about it a few days/weeks later,” according to Andi Brier Morrison. Check in on a pet’s health or a recent school event they participated in, for example, or send a note home to acknowledge a life-changing event in the family.

To manage that with dozens or even hundreds of students, it’s OK to “cheat,” wrote educator Sir Mr. Shoe, drawing lots of virtual love from in-the-know educators. “Any time I hear anything interesting, I set an alarm for a class in the following week. So on Tuesday, shortly after my phone beeps, ‘Mary’ will be asked how yesterday’s ballet competition went.” Notes tucked away in your scheduler or calendar should work as well.

3. Dig Deeper

Sometimes, of course, kids experience life events that are hard to talk about, and identifying students at that critical juncture may be the difference between progress and a lost year.

When problems arise, start conversations about discipline with the question “are you OK?” suggests lzcoop, and make time to “read their assignments carefully; they often give you clues,” adds Susan Jane Craine Long, a retired teacher from Illinois, before suggesting a more proactive approach: “My students wrote in journals at the beginning of each day. I told them that I would not read everything, but if there was something they really wanted me to read, they were to turn down the corner of the page.”

4. Be Responsive

An investment in social and emotional work creates the ambient conditions for learning, but regular conversations with students can become tangible links to everyday academic planning, too. When you know your kids, you can adjust your curriculum to match student interests, provide alternative assessment options for kids based on preference, and do a better job differentiating at the individual level.

“Have a two-minute convo with each kid regularly. Ask: how are things going in their lives, what challenges are they facing?,” says user sksciteacher, and then “incorporate their culture and language in class.” You can also try surveys to gather student concerns more systematically, according to middle school educator prayer and pedagogy: “I do student surveys every nine weeks, and when I implement stuff from their feedback, I let them know I’m doing this because I heard them and they matter to me.”

By turning social insights into a tool to “build and mold your lessons and classroom environment around student interest,” educators reinforce a culture of safety and inclusivity “where students see themselves represented,” says teacher Amanda Michelle.

5. Democratize

Like any institution, schools can inadvertently reinforce artificial or arbitrary power structures, leading to environments that feel sterile, uninviting, or even hostile.

Subtle adjustments in perspective can communicate respect to students and humanize classrooms. Versions of the phrase “treat them like real people”—including “talk to them like humans,” and “treat them as a person first, student second”—occurred dozens of times in the thread. The dynamic should work both ways: students need permission to “access teachers as a person,” according to Kristen Yancey, and simple gestures like saying you’re sorry or sharing personal stories, as appropriate, can make a real difference: “I share my mistakes, my dumb decisions, my failures—and explain how that all led to where I am now. I fight to be human to them,” explained user Joy Joy.

Meanwhile, opening classrooms to student input and giving them meaningful roles signals that kids are valued co-owners of the learning space. Educators insist this is true across grade levels: In elementary school, Sue Silva’s kids take charge of simple things like “raising the blinds, watering the plants, or straightening up the art supplies”; in Laura Bradley’s middle school design lab, experienced students who are asked to help struggling ones “never say no, and walk back to their seat a little taller”; and you can “give students jobs in the classroom at the high school level so they feel integral to the community,” according to Lisa Marie.

6. Know When to Fold ‘Em

It’s taboo in a lot of schools, but it really shouldn’t be. Years ago, when I taught high school English and history, I would sometimes read the room and call it a day five minutes before the period ended. We’d just talk and joke around before the bell sent everyone scurrying. I think we all benefited from that decision—and I think the next day’s lesson went more smoothly.

I’m not alone. “I am real” with my students, insisted educator Jennifer Crutcher. “Some days I feel the room and know we aren’t going to get as deep into content as I want to, and I tell them that it’s OK.” Another teacher put it a little more colorfully: Sometimes you have to assess everyone’s body language and say “screw the lesson.” Teachers need to be able to exercise that kind of discretion, within reason, without second-guessing from other teachers, or the administration.

I caught flack for it way back then—but given the chance, I’d do it again.

Editor’s note: We made minor adjustments to quotes for clarity throughout the text of this article, replacing “them” with “students,” for example. You can visit the original threads here, and here, and here.

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How to Work Effectively With Interpreters

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There’s no question that our U.S. population continues to get more and more diverse. This change also impacts the demographics of our student population. Currently, more than half of the students with and without disabilities are from diverse backgrounds, while only 21 percent of our teachers are from ethnic groups that are other than White. Many of these educators don’t speak a second language. When schools need to communicate with their students’ families who don’t speak English or who can speak only limited English, working with interpreters is absolutely necessary.

Currently, there are no required certifications or licenses for language interpreters. Many states also don’t have specific requirements on the qualifications of interpreters, other than being fluent in the target languages. This lack of guidance can be detrimental, especially when untrained interpreters participate in specialized meetings, such as individualized education program (IEP) or disciplinary meetings.

If they are unfamiliar with terms that are used in these meetings or are unaware of the expectations of these meetings, their poor quality of interpretations may have a negative impact on families’ decisions about what’s best for their children.

I strongly encourage school districts to train their own pool of interpreters. Whenever schools need them, they can hire from this pool of trained interpreters. Yet, due to budget constraints, school districts are rarely able to do so. School professionals can use the following tips to ensure that they work effectively with interpreters in meetings to provide high-quality interpretations.

What to Do Prior to Meetings

Identify dialects. Often, when schools hire interpreters, they only pay attention to the languages that parents speak. Many languages, such as Chinese, have many dialects. It’s important for schools to identify parents’ dialects and ensure that the hired interpreters speak the same dialects fluently.

Arrive early. Schedule to have an interpreter arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled meeting. During this time, school professionals can prepare the interpreters by sharing the purpose of the meeting and expectations of their roles and responsibilities.

For specialized meetings, such as IEP meetings, inform interpreters that everything being discussed needs to stay confidential. Since specialized terms are often used in these meetings and they may not exist in certain languages, a glossary of terms and their definitions should be provided to the interpreters. Interpreters can get familiar with these terms to ensure that they provide accurate interpretations to parents.

Discuss communication preferences. In order not to overwhelm the interpreters with too much information to convey, it’s good for school professionals to discuss how often they should pause to allow the interpreter to interpret. The best practice is to pause after speaking three sentences. Professionals and interpreters can also set up hand signals indicating if they are talking too fast or that a pause is needed.

What to Do During Meetings

Speak with the parents. The meetings are scheduled for school professionals to meet and discuss issues with students’ parents. Because of that, when speaking, it’s crucial for professionals to maintain eye contact with the parents, not the interpreters, even when they know that the parents don’t understand them. This is a way of showing respect.

Pay attention to nonverbal language. Individuals from high-context cultures often communicate using gestures, body language, and nonverbal messages. Besides paying attention to the verbal messages from the parents and interpreters, it’s important for professionals to observe their nonverbal language. Did the parents look confused? Did the interpreter appear not to understand the original message? Did the interpreted message appear to be shorter than what was said? If professionals have any doubts, repeat the message.

Avoid overusing jargon and acronyms. Professionals often use jargon and acronyms throughout their conversations without even thinking about it. This can be challenging for interpreters who are unfamiliar with those terms. If jargon and acronyms are necessary, indicate what they are and their related meaning. This will be very helpful for the interpreters, especially if the terms don’t exist in the target language.

What to Do After Meetings

Hold debriefings. School districts often subcontract and work with specific interpretation companies, and it’s very likely that the same interpreters may be hired for future meetings. School professionals can hold debriefing sessions with the interpreters to discuss what’s working and what isn’t to ensure the quality of interpretations in future meetings.

Give evaluations. Interpreter accuracy is vital, and in order to make sure of that, parents and professionals in attendance at the meetings can evaluate the interpreters, to determine if the same ones should be hired again.

Parental engagement is one of the key variables to support student success in school. It’s especially crucial for those who have children with disabilities, because they’re the only ones who can advocate for the child and make decisions regarding their special education services and placement. Providing high-quality interpretation to families who are non- or limited-English speakers can enhance the communication between schools and home.

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5 Image-Based Activities for World Language Learners

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Teaching is an endless source of exciting and enriching discoveries. As a world language teacher, I’ve discovered, for example, the importance of providing activities that help develop world language learners’ viewing skills. Viewing enables learners to become reflective and creative thinkers as they see, analyze, and evaluate visual texts and other multimedia from the target culture.

When world language teachers tap into learners’ viewing skills, they also touch on other skills of equal importance, such as grammar, speaking, and cultural knowledge.

5 Activities That Combine Viewing and Other Skills

These classroom-based activities combine viewing and many other world language skills in one, and teachers can adapt them to other world languages. 1. Icons and pronouns. With the viewing part of this activity, learners study different icons from the target culture. This not only exposes them to culturally relevant materials but also allows them to recognize visual images in relation to other language learning skills, such as grammar and speaking. To develop learners’ grammatical skills, world language teachers can ask learners to use pronoun-fronted sentence patterns to introduce who or what the icon is.

In my Tagalog class, I use images of Filipino icons (national heroes, for instance) to review Philippine culture and history. Sometimes I use the same activity to engage learners in a naming game, where they identify as many icons as they can, provided that they use the required sentence pattern.

For example, I showed them a picture of José Rizal, national hero of the Philippines: Siya si José Rizal. (“He is José Rizal.”) The speaking part serves as the last skill to tap, since the teacher then asks the learners to say who the icon is.

2. Places and adjectives. In this activity, learners view images of places in the target culture’s location and later describe them using a sentence pattern fronted by an adjective. I use these images as material for my exit slips. For in-person classes, I print photos of the places and turn them into flash cards. The learners line up before exiting the classroom and give one sentence each about the photos.

For my virtual Tagalog classes, I download photos of the places and use them as my virtual background. Before each learner logs out of the online platform, I ask them to give a sentence with an adjective in the target language. Aside from thinking about the images they’re seeing, they’re also actively engaged in reviewing grammar, culture, and history, and further developing their speaking skills.

I once used a spectacular photo of Mount Mayon, one of the known active volcanoes in the Philippines, to draw learners’ attention to Tagalog adjectives. They then gave a sentence or two that described the volcano: Maganda ang Mount Mayon sa Albay. (“Mount Mayon in Albay is beautiful.”)

3. Food and verbs. This is a good brain break activity. I show the learners photos of ingredients of popular dishes from the target culture, and by studying and synthesizing the relationship of each ingredient to the others, the learners come up with the name of the featured dish. To make it more challenging, I ask the learners to add some of the cooking steps for the dish, using verbal sentences in Tagalog.

The key is to introduce the dishes before the class, perhaps during a culturally relevant discussion. I remember asking learners to guess a popular Philippine dish known for its sour and salty taste called adobo.

The following questions prompted them to use the given visual clues to come up with the correct answer and the verbal sentences for the steps:

  • Question: Ano ang lulutuin ko? (“What will I cook?”) Reply: Adobo!
  • Question: Ano ang mga hakbang sa pagluluto nito? (“What are the steps for cooking it?”) Reply: Ihalo ang toyo at suka sa manok. (“Mix the soy sauce and vinegar with the chicken.”)

4. Commercials and interjections. I’ve always used commercials in teaching Tagalog as a world language. Not only do they entertain the learners, but they help develop learners’ viewing skills, along with grammar and speaking. In my class, I use Jollibee Studios commercials (short films produced by a popular fast-food restaurant in the Philippines).

To enrich the language experience, I ask the students to shout out one Tagalog interjection, phrase, or expression to describe the commercial itself or the experience of viewing it. Afterward, we talk about the twists, turns, and other interesting details from the video. Grabe! Maganda ang commercial! (“Wow! The commercial is beautiful!”)

5. Editorial cartoons and opinion markers. For the last activity, the learners’ interpretive skills are the focus—understanding the meaning behind editorial cartoons. I consider editorial cartoons to be useful visual material for learners to experience an in-depth connection with the target culture, especially current events in the Philippines. To avoid volatility and divisiveness in terms of the learners’ responses, I give them editorial cartoons that have affirmative connotations, such as notable events in the country and international achievements of Filipinos.

After carefully looking at the given editorial cartoon, the learners share their comments about the featured event or story using opinion markers in Tagalog. My advanced-level students studied an editorial cartoon about the phenomenal win of Hidilyn Diaz, the first-ever Filipina athlete to win an Olympic gold medal for the Philippines in weight lifting.

The learners’ sentences (for the comments) were fronted by Tagalog opinion markers: Sa tingin ko, napakasaya ng mga Pilipino sa pagkapanalo niya. (“I think that the Filipinos are very happy with her win.”)

These viewing activities are only a few of the many ways we can better engage our world language students in learning the target language. One useful perspective, though, is to think about viewing-relevant materials as a springboard to activate other language learning skills and integrate them spontaneously into each lesson. With enough instructional preparation and creativity, world language teachers can nurture an enriching language experience for their learners.

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Phrases You Can Keep Handy to Say ‘No’ Clearly

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Alex Shevrin Venet stopped eating lunch when she took on a leadership position at her old school. The school leader turned community college teacher—and author of Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education—recalls saying yes to every request that came her way during that time because she was in charge and “every day felt like an emergency,” writes Venet in Unconditional Learning: “Crisis support. Class coverage. Tech troubleshooting. Yes, yes, yes.”

Venet soon realized this wasn’t a sustainable workload and that even relying on the support of her supervisor and colleagues wouldn’t be enough—she needed to set healthy boundaries for herself as well. “Boundaries are how we protect ourselves and others and how we stay centered in our roles,” she writes. “They are one of the best ways to combat burnout.”

It can be daunting to turn down requests from your colleagues and students at school, especially if you haven’t had a lot of practice doing so—and Venet notes that teachers may feel guilty about doing this. She shares a few concrete examples of what to say when you want to say no to colleagues and students in a respectful, productive way.

Just Say It

Saying no can mean literally saying “no” to a task, but it can also include clarifying your role at school or bringing in context for setting a limit.

When saying no to coworkers or administrators, Venet suggests using these phrases:

  • “No, I can’t take that on right now.”
  • “My current role focuses on _____. I don’t have room on my plate for that.”

Phrases to use with students include:

  • “No, I can’t have students in my room for lunch today.”
  • “I’m here to help you learn _____, so I am not going to talk about _____ with you right now.”

Take a Pause

Saying no can sometimes be nerve-wracking due to the pressure to respond right away, writes Venet. She recommends slowing things down to give yourself some space to think through a request. “You may even find that creating space to slow down helps the other person rethink their request, or helps you recognize when things actually are doable,” writes Venet.

With coworkers or administrators, consider saying:

  • “Can you tell me more about how you see that fitting in with my other responsibilities?”
  • “I’m potentially interested, but I’m not sure how that will fit into my current workday. Can we discuss?”

With students, Venet suggests saying:

  • “Let me think about it, and I will follow up in class tomorrow.”
  • “Thanks for asking me about this. Let me check with the principal, and I will give you an update at the end of the week.”

Suggest an Alternative

Sometimes the best approach is to say, “No, I can’t do that… but I know who can,” Venet writes. “Seeing yourself as a bridge-builder can help you say no, especially when you walk across those bridges alongside students,” she adds.

With coworkers and administrators, Venet suggesting using this language:

  • “That doesn’t fit within my current role. It sounds like a good fit for _____ to take on in their role, however.”
  • “I appreciate you thinking of me for this, but I don’t have the right training/expertise. Can I loop _____ into this conversation so they can help you find the next step?”

Bridge-building with students can sound like:

  • “I want to help you get support, but I’m not the right person for this conversation. Let me introduce you to _____.”
  • “I’m so grateful that you trusted me to share this. I have to tell you that I can’t give you the support you need, but I will help connect you to _____.”

There might be pushback when you do this, as Venet points out: “What if there actually is no one else to take this on?” This is a legitimate concern—many schools don’t have enough staff and resources to support their students. But it’s important for teachers to remind themselves that “just because someone else can’t do it doesn’t mean you should,” Venet continues. “Be honest about the limits of your role, and if possible, push back with a group of colleagues for more fair working conditions and workloads.”

When you begin creating healthy boundaries at school, it takes time and effort to sustain them, and there might be struggles along the way, but when Venet finally figured out how to assess what to take on and what to delegate to others, she found that it was all worth it.

“I am a better leader when I’m taking care of my body and prioritizing self-care, and the leadership of those around me flourished when I stopped trying to be the only problem-solver,” she writes.

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‘You’re Going to Know Who My Daughter Was’: Families Demand Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

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When Tammy Carpenter talks about her daughter, her posture straightens and laugh lines earned in better years brighten her eyes. She mimics Angela’s playful, rapid-fire way of speaking, and recalls her joyful giggle and generous heart.

“She was so caring and giving,” Carpenter said. “Very helpful to the family.”

Carpenter raised Angela and her younger brother, Ritchie, on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in Humboldt County — surrounded by big rivers, forests and a loving network of aunties and cousins. Carpenter said that Angela was proud of her Hoopa culture and other Indigenous roots: part Mojave, through her maternal grandmother, and on her dad’s side, part Karuk and Yurok, neighboring tribes in California’s rural north.

But Angela would join a much darker lineage — one that stretches back to colonization: Indigenous women disappearing, never to be found, and others turning up dead. Most cases, going cold. In September of 2018, Angela was shot to death at age 26. Her case is open but remains unsolved.

“I miss talking with her early in the morning. I miss her hugs and her kisses,” said Carpenter, 53, her face mask emblazoned with “Justice for Angela” on one side and a red handprint on the other, a raw symbol associated with a growing international movement on behalf of Indigenous victims.

Carpenter said her daughter’s death inducted her unwillingly into an “MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women ) club” of family members who are grieving and demanding action.

“She’s no longer with us on this earth,” Carpenter said. “But I’m here, and I will always continue to be her voice to find out who murdered my only daughter.”

A legacy of violence

Violence has haunted Indigenous communities since colonization and persists at alarming rates. A recent U.S. Department of Justice study found that more than 4 out of 5 Indigenous people have experienced some kind of violence in their lifetimes. As for Indigenous women, more than half have been sexually assaulted. And, on some reservations, they’re murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average.

A precise tally of the missing or murdered remains far out of reach, however, due to a web of systemic failures, mostly by law enforcement. In 2016, for example, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center logged 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. But the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database showed just 116 cases.

That may be changing. In recent years, advocacy by families of the missing and murdered — and by Indigenous leaders — has prompted a flood of new initiatives. At the federal level alone, there’s Savanna’s Act, the Not Invisible Act, and Operation Lady Justice. All call for better training around data collection and better coordination among federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies.

States are stepping up, too. Assemblymember James Ramos, a Democrat from San Bernardino County, is the first Indigenous person ever elected to the California Legislature. His bill, which passed in 2020 and received funding last year, established the Tribal Assistance Program, run out of the state Attorney General’s Office of Native American Affairs. It’s just now getting off the ground, and in part funds research that aims to identify why it’s so hard to solve these cases, on and off reservation lands.

At a recent legislative hearing on implementation of the law, Ramos detailed how that multiyear research effort will ultimately lead to more specific recommendations to state lawmakers “that will come back to this body, will come back to all of us to follow through.”

But, it turns out, much is already known about what’s broken — thanks to Indigenous-led research spearheaded by California’s Yurok Tribal Court and the nonprofit Sovereign Bodies Institute, which focuses its research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people. That research has relied heavily on the experiences of survivors and family members — Tammy Carpenter included — based on the premise that it is Indigenous families who understand the roots of this crisis, and the pain it’s causing, better than anyone.

No kiss goodbye

Angela Lynn McConnell had dreams of becoming a journalist and, one day, a nurse, so she could care for people the way that she did for her own grandmother, who suffered from kidney disease. She was creative and generous and, even when she was broke, gave her mother the best gifts.

“She loved to write poems — was always writing poems to me,” said Tammy Carpenter.

Almost all were poems of praise. On one of their last visits together, Angela handed her mom an ornate Mother’s Day card, a compliment streaming from each letter of Tammy’s name: Tasteful, Attractive, Majestic, Monumental and Youthful.

Just a few days later, she’d write the poem that would wind up on her gravestone.

Angela would be called home at a tragically young age. She had been staying with her boyfriend, Michael Thomas Bingham Jr., in Redding. At least, that’s what her mother thought. But on Sept. 7, 2018, Angela and Bingham Jr. were found shot in the head on the outskirts of the town of Shasta Lake. They had been camping on private land there, near his father’s house. His dad discovered the bodies, and his sister was the one who called Carpenter to let her know.

Carpenter said she couldn’t reach law enforcement, and couldn’t understand what her daughter would have been doing on that land. So, she and her family made the long drive east to the Shasta County Sheriff’s headquarters in Redding. When they got there, Carpenter said, a group of deputies was standing in the parking lot, but “none of the officers wanted to talk to me.”

She said she insisted the deputies call someone who could tell her something. A detective came outside and told Carpenter that Angela’s body was already at the coroner’s.

They’d identified her through her fingerprints. But because the gunshot to the head had badly disfigured Angela, Tammy was told she wasn’t permitted to see her daughter. That still haunts her. Just seeing Angela’s hands or feet, she said, would have given her a sense of certainty.

“We didn’t get to kiss her goodbye,” she said. “We didn’t get to hug her. Or hold her hand. We didn’t get to see anything, you know, so it’s difficult for all of us.”

But what really got Carpenter off on a bad footing with law enforcement wasn’t so much the lack of answers that night in the parking lot, but the nature of the detective’s questions. Carpenter said he started with, “ ‘Did you know your daughter was using drugs?”

She was stunned.

“No child is going to tell their parent, ‘Oh, yeah, by the way, I’m using drugs.’ No. And then he goes, ‘Did you know she was living like a transient over there, like a homeless person?’ I said, ‘No,’” said Carpenter.

Angela had stayed in Shasta County with Bingham Jr. on and off for a few years, Carpenter said — always, she thought, in a rented room or with her boyfriend’s relatives. The drug use, and the camp where the two were killed, may have been relevant to the investigation. But to a mother who just learned that she’d lost her only daughter, it sounded like victim blaming, like her whole family was being stereotyped.

“I said, ‘What are you trying to say? Look behind me. You see our cars that we came in? They’re all brand-new cars,’” Carpenter recalls. “‘And do you know where we were, do you know where all my sisters were?’ I said, ‘We were all at work. And we’re all educated. And by the time you get done, you’re gonna know who my daughter was.’”

That first detective spent five months on the case before he transferred to a different unit. Then another came and went. By the first anniversary of Angela’s death, Carpenter said, she was on detective No. 3. He has remained on the case, and she said she used to check in with him often, passing on what she’d been hearing. “It’s like, ‘OK, yeah, we’ll look into that, we’ll look into that,” Carpenter said of the detectives’ responses. “They’re like, ‘Oh, OK, here’s another statistic, another dead Indian girl. We can’t find the killer.’”

Shasta County Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Edwards leads the major crimes unit, which handles homicides. He’s new to that role. He was actually one of those officers in the parking lot the night that Carpenter and her family came to Redding. He saw the detective come out and talk with her about her murdered daughter. In an interview, he said he regrets the pain it caused her.

“That’s never any detective’s intent to disrespect somebody’s loved ones, especially during a hard time like that,” he said. “It was probably a question that came out, maybe wrong.”

Edwards called it “unfortunate” that Carpenter interpreted it as disrespect and said, “I don’t want her to feel that way.”

As for having three different detectives on the case during the first year, he said it’s just something that happens as people get promoted and others cycle in, and that it should not affect the quality of the investigation.

Carpenter said she is thirsty for answers to all kinds of questions: Did the detective follow up on the lead she gave him about someone on the Hoopa Valley reservation who might know something? Did anyone check Angela’s cellphone records? And how long had her daughter been lying there before she was found?

Since the case is open, Edwards declined in the interview to get into specifics. But in general, he said, law enforcement faces distinct challenges in California’s rural north. Shasta County covers nearly 4,000 square miles, and the department is chronically understaffed. That can make it harder to solve homicides — of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike, Edwards said. He also acknowledged that a lack of trust with potential sources can land an investigation in the cold.

“If somebody has information and they don’t want to talk to the police because of bad prior relationships, that’s hard,” he said. “We’re here trying to help. We’re trying to solve the case. If we don’t get that information because they just don’t trust us, ultimately the victim doesn’t get justice, because we don’t get that information which may break the case.”

Unheard, ignored, neglected

That issue of trust, or the lack of it, affects not just law enforcement sources, but relationships with victims’ families. According to a research report released in mid-2020 by the Yurok Tribal Court and the Sovereign Bodies Institute, “[E]ach of the families and survivors we spoke with communicated feelings of being unheard, ignored, neglected, left behind, and forgotten” by law enforcement.

Law enforcement agencies, the report continues, “must immediately work to correct wrongdoings, repair broken relationships, and hold their agencies accountable to do better by Indigenous survivors and MMIWG2S families,” an acronym that incorporates a G for girls and 2S for Two-Spirit people, who identify as what some non-Indigenous people might call LGBTQ+ or gender-fluid.

Those broken relationships with law enforcement are why advocates and relatives of missing and murdered Indigenous women blew up Twitter in September 2021, when they saw just how differently authorities, and the media, were treating the case of another missing woman: Gabby Petito.

The search for the white, blond aspiring social media star, and the national interest it garnered, was massive and immediate. So was the nationwide call that her killer be brought to justice. Multiple tweets pointed out that in Wyoming alone, where Petito went missing, 710 Indigenous people, mostly women and girls, had been reported missing over the previous decade.

Others listed off the names of Indigenous women who never received the same kind of attention from the media or law enforcement.

According to the recent Indigenous-led research, other, more tangible wrongdoings include the failure of law enforcement to report Indigenous cases to national criminal or missing-person databases, the prevalence of racial misclassification of Indigenous victims, and the high number of cases classified as suicides or deaths by natural causes when it was clear that foul play was likely.

Those factors have not come into play in Angela’s case. But the deep mistrust of law enforcement, that sense of being disrespected and poorly treated, most certainly has.

Greg O’Rourke is a Yurok tribal member from the villages of Morek, Noch-Kue, Kep’-el and Pecwan. He’s also the Yurok Tribal Police chief, and he understands where that mistrust comes from. He worked as a tribal police officer on the Yurok and Hoopa Valley reservations before spending a dozen years with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department, establishing deep ties with sheriffs’ deputies and top brass in both Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

O’Rourke said he tries to be a bridge, to help non-Indigenous law enforcement understand the roots of the poor relations — because he’s convinced that understanding and collaboration will lead to healing.

“I’ve had many deputies and other officers come to me and just ask, ‘Why do they act that way when we’re trying to help?’ Meaning people on the reservation,” he said. “And my response to that’s always been, ‘Do you want the nice, simple answer or do you actually want the real answer?’”

‘He goes and gets people’

O’Rourke said the real answer is rooted in the past, and his explanation almost always begins with the Yurok word for police officer: K’ley-go’-mee-no’, which translates as “He goes and gets people.” His colleagues, he said, are generally blown away by the history lesson that follows, about the Indian Termination Act and the Indian Assimilation Act, both designed to assimilate Indigenous people into the dominant culture.

“Part of that ‘Kill the Indian to save the man,’” O’Rourke explains, “was forcibly removing Native children to go to boarding schools. And so, I would ask deputies, ‘If some government entity came to your house to try to forcibly take your kid, would you fight?’ ‘Oh, hell, yeah, I’d fight.’ Well, yeah, they fought back then, too. So, social workers who would come to pick up Native kids would need protection, and the people that they brought with them to protect them were uniformed law enforcement.”

Jurisdictional issues also have complicated law enforcement on tribal lands. In most of the country, federal law enforcement agencies are responsible for investigating major crimes — including murder and rape — on tribal lands. But in 1953, Congress passed Public Law 280, which compelled California and five other states to take on that responsibility. That meant county sheriffs’ departments had to enforce those laws, and state law enforcement got no extra funding to do the job. Meanwhile, tribal law enforcement in these states lost access to steady federal funding.

The upshot: Tribal lands were under-policed and remain so. When state law enforcement does show up, it’s generally not a positive experience. O’Rourke, the Yurok tribal police chief, tries to explain this to non-Indigenous cops, too, and he gives them a lesson on historical trauma, because that long history of forced assimilation and abuse by law enforcement has trickled down.

“Can you imagine that confusion and hurt,” he tells them, “of not being able to fit in two places, the one where you’re born to belong and the one where you were raised? How do most people cope with that type of stress and rejection? A lot of them turn to alcohol, a lot of them turn to drugs.”

Angela Lynn McConnell had turned to drugs, at least somewhat, unbeknownst to her mother. She had also experienced another trauma that the research by the Sovereign Bodies Institute and Yurok Tribal Court found to be prevalent among missing and murdered Indigenous people: domestic or intimate partner violence.

That form of trauma is all too common in Indigenous communities. And the research indicates a possible nexus with cases of the murdered and missing: Nearly half of the Indigenous victims in Northern California had experienced it at some point in their lives, the research found. In Angela’s case, she had so feared her boyfriend at one point that she sought and obtained a restraining order against him from the Hoopa Valley Tribal Court.

It is unknown whether domestic violence was connected in any way to Angela’s death. But the nexus is just one example of the ways in which better data, and an understanding of the human stories behind that data, could help lead to fewer tragedies.

As for O’Rourke, he believes that all law enforcement officers should go into the field being more aware of the trauma that people have experienced. That training approach is called trauma-informed policing, and is increasingly being adopted by law enforcement in other communities that have been historically disenfranchised.

The chief is starting at home, with his own tribal police officers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike — working to remake their image as guardians of the collective good.

“Traditionally, the Yurok tribe didn’t have a warrior class or a warrior society. But we did have a village protector, that person whose role it was to make sure that the village was safe, that everyone in the village was taken care of,” he said. “They made sure that everybody had a plate, everyone had a safe place to sleep for the night, to a point where they would eat last, go to bed last, just to make sure that the village was safe. And that’s the archetype that I want to bring to this police department.”

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said he’s on board with that approach. His department already deputizes Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribal police to enforce state law on and off tribal lands, which they otherwise would not be able to do. And he wants even more collaboration.

“Some sheriffs just basically ignore tribal entities and do their own thing on tribal land and don’t include input from tribal government,” he said. “And I think we’re seeing a real shift.”

Honsal also has been working closely with Yurok tribal officials.

The tribal court recently hired its own prosecutor and is now raising funds to hire an investigator who will work cold missing and murdered cases along with new ones. According to the tribe’s chief judge, that person will be working not separate from, but in collaboration with tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement.

Carpenter, Angela’s mother, said she is all for those kinds of collaborations, even across county lines. She’s convinced there are people who can break her case, but Shasta County detectives, she said, need a way in.

Tribal support

On a crisp February day in 2021, Carpenter stood in front of a massive billboard in the town of Shasta Lake that lists a $30,000 reward for information about Angela’s murder, with an anonymous hotline number. A picture on the billboard of a smiling Angela, wearing stylish eyeglasses and plum-colored lipstick, looms over Carpenter.

Filmed in a video streaming on Facebook Live, Carpenter made her plea over the roar of truck traffic, looking into the camera: “If you know anything at all about Angela, anybody that sees me on Facebook world, please contact that number.”

Carpenter also thanked the Hoopa Valley Tribe for everything it had been doing to step into the gap and help solve the case. When the one-year anniversary of Angela’s death came and went with no answers, she turned to tribal leaders, who paid for the billboard. Before that, they kicked in half the reward money. Through Danielle Vigil-Masten, the tribe’s MMIW coordinator, they also organized a march for justice on the anniversary.

In the spring of 2021, the tribe hired a private investigator, who is working not just Angela’s case, but also the unsolved cases of other murdered or missing tribal members. And those numbers, said Vigil-Masten, keep climbing.

Each disappearance or murder stirs up the trauma in all those families who have lost loved ones. It also strengthens their resolve. Ten days after another tribal member — 32-year-old Emmilee Risling — went missing, Carpenter and her family, along with Vigil-Masten and other tribal members, returned to Shasta Lake for a prayer walk for Angela.

“The mayor came. The city council came,” Vigil-Masten said. “People honked. And a lot of people came out from different tribes in the pouring-down rain.”

All of that attention seems to have helped, because not long after, Vigil-Masten said, the private investigator got an important lead in the case. Shasta County Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Edwards said he had not known about the private investigator, but he is eager to learn of any advances “so we can go follow it up with our own investigators” and, hopefully, bring the perpetrator to justice.

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Using Wordle in the Math Classroom

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It seems like everyone is playing Wordle lately. Just this week, an eighth grader asked me at lunch, “Did you get the Wordle yet?” It’s been quite a while since teachers and students have had a pop culture phenomenon in common. Why has Wordle gone viral for kids and adults alike?

Wordle’s balance of appropriate challenge and success combined with the scarcity of one word per day keeps us coming back again and again. This balance relates to the educational psychology behind Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. As educators, we aim to create learning tasks for our students that fall into the zone of proximal flow, meaning that the task is satisfyingly difficult but attainable without help.

The daily challenge of guessing a five-letter word with scaffolded hints fits right into the flow zone.

The ubiquitous popularity of this game across the generations got me thinking: How can I use Wordle as a teaching tool? How can teachers strike while the Wordle popularity iron is hot? Sure, the application of Wordle in a reading or language class is straightforward—reinforcing the concepts of consonant clusters, vowels, phonics, and spelling is right there in the game. But what about Wordle’s application in the math classroom?

Data Displays and Statistics

As a middle school math teacher, the statistics screen that appears after finishing a daily round gave me flashbacks to teaching histograms and data displays. If our students are playing Wordle, they are reading a histogram every day, whether they realize it or not. A histogram displays frequency of an occurrence in a bar chart form. Beyond learning the basics of a histogram, students can analyze the data further by finding percentages or measures of central tendency.

  • What percent of my guesses were correct in three or fewer tries?
  • Over the past week, what is my average score?
  • What are the mode, range, and median of scores for our class today?

To expand the scope of the Wordle data beyond your classroom, check out Wordle Stats on Twitter. This account collects the Wordle score tweets each day and creates a basic statistical report.

Many classroom discussion topics can arise from these stats. Is this a biased sampling? How willing are Wordle players to share poor or losing scores? What are other more reliable methods of sampling Wordle scores? In what percentile was your score today?

Using Probability to Win

If your students have ever seen an episode of Wheel of Fortune, they might know that the contestant who makes it to the bonus round is given the letters R, S, T, L, N, and E for their final puzzle. (If your students are unfamiliar with Wheel of Fortune, play this short and impressive clip from 2015 to help them get the idea.)

Kick off the conversation about probability by asking, “Why do you think Wheel of Fortune gives those letters in the bonus round? What additional three consonants and one vowel would you choose?”

Students can test their hypothesis about these letters by doing a bit of research. Have students choose one page of a novel they are reading. Make a frequency table by tallying the occurrence of each letter. This takes a while, but it’s important to stress the increased accuracy that comes from a large sample.

From this frequency table, students can create a histogram (see above) to visually see which letters occur most frequently. After they create their own histograms, they can compare it with this one created by MathWorks.

Based on the research, is kudzu a helpful first word for Wordle? To dig deeper into the math of winning strategies, check out this post on the site Art of Problem Solving and this article from The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Beyond Wordle

Multilingual activity: The letter-frequency activity can be expanded to languages other than English for a comparison of common letters. Are the letters R, S, T, and E also most common in French? Spanish-speaking students may also enjoy playing the Spanish version of Wordle.

Like numbers more than words? If Wordle just isn’t your game, number lovers can check out Nerdlegame.com. This game involves basic arithmetic while also providing the same satisfying statistics screen after each play.

If your students are talking about Wordle, these activities are a great way to connect statistics concepts to a game they already enjoy. When students are guided through the analysis of the data, they will become not only better data scientists but also sharper Wordle players. Students can no longer ask in the middle of a data display lesson, “When will I ever use this in real life?”

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COVID Brought Attention To Early Childhood Education. Here’s How Investors Are Responding.

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One thing the pandemic has made clear, many experts say, is that families with young children need more support than they’re getting.

The shuttering of child care centers forced many parents to leave their jobs, fueling the Great Resignation. And a U.S. Treasury report from September noted the harmful effects of shortfalls in the childcare supply.

For early childhood education, coronavirus stepped on the gas pedal, accelerating trends that were already happening, in good and bad ways.

Market uncertainty during the early days of the pandemic had temporarily halted growth in the early childhood education sector, which had been expanding steadily in the previous decade. But 2021 saw a big increase in spending, estimated at more than half a billion dollars by last August (and closer to $1 billion dollars now).

“COVID dragged us five years into the future,” says Matt Glickman, CEO of Promise Venture Studios, a nonprofit that supports early childhood education and child-care enterprises.

In the last year or so, there’s been an increase in the amount of private capital going towards specialized and innovative solutions in the sector, which has investors hopeful that those new investments will improve access to early education services, especially in the absence of federal aid to the sector.

So the appetite for change is there. The challenge, Glickman says, is to build on that momentum.

Widespread closures early in the pandemic and labor shortages have emphasized how connected early childhood is to everything else, suggests Chian Gong, a partner at Reach Capital. Since then, the country’s employers have shifted to more hybrid work and more work with unpredictable and nonstandard hours.

Childcare companies took a big hit during the pandemic, says Julie Wroblewski, a managing partner at Magnify Ventures. They lost revenue and slots, and they saw plenty of displacement. But some of those companies seem to have weathered the pandemic. For example: WeeCare, a caregiver-focused platform, raised $17 million in a funding round in February, according to SEC filings.

Meanwhile, new tech in childcare has shown promise as a way to help people find available care and to support businesses offering childcare, investors like Wroblewski say. For example: Winnie, an app that connects preschool and daycare services.

Those companies can also provide helpful data on the child care market—the kind of data that governments didn’t have when they were looking to deliver relief funds to the highly decentralized and fragmented childcare system.

However, it’ll ultimately be harder to solve the thornier questions like access and the low pay of care workers.

Childcare businesses operate on razor thin margins, which has made the category challenging, Gong of Reach Capital says. The investor models that are working best are the ones that can creatively draw money into the category, she says. Employer-sponsored child care is one of those areas representing a big opportunity.

Investors like Gong argue that early childhood is still a deeply underestimated category.

Despite being a large market, it’s not seeing the level of investment, innovation, or scale that you’d expect, argues Anna Steffeney, executive director of the FamTech Collaborative, a coalition of family-focused ventures. “I think what we’re trying to do is increase awareness around the opportunities for investment, solutions and innovation,” Steffeney says.

Daniel Mollenkamp is a business reporter at EdSurge. Reach him at daniel@edsurge.com.

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Weight Bias Hurts Kids, and We’re Not Talking About It

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For Angelica Gauptman, the self-consciousness never seems to switch off.

“I am a 17-year-old who needs to lift up her shirt and look at her abdomen to see if it looks the same each time I pass a mirror,” she wrote in a July 2021 essay for the San Francisco Chronicle. “I am the girl who counts every single calorie I eat, and hates myself after bingeing on that single ice cream cone or a cookie that I’ve been craving for weeks… I am the teenager who tucks my chin into my shirt so that people don’t see my weak jawline.”

Gauptman isn’t the only kid so exquisitely attuned to the way her body is perceived by others, nor is she the only one trying to pull off a seemingly impossible trick: to appear and disappear at the same time. In a trove of new research and in numerous articles filed in publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian, kids as young as 9 or 10 years old are trying dangerous fad diets they discover on social media, and saying that cultural expectations around beauty and ideal body size are driving a desperate, often public game of comparison and body shaming. Like Gauptman, they feel compelled to show up—and anxious when they do.

But social media is only exacerbating the situation; the language of body shame and fatphobia has a long history, reigning as one of the most persistent and “widely accepted forms of discrimination,” explains Haley Neidich, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health counselor. As early as 2011, adolescents were reporting that weight-based bullying was one of the most commonly experienced forms of harassment, eclipsing bullying based on race, religion, or disability, according to Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health. For kids with the highest body weight, Puhl says, “90 percent report they’ve been bullied about their weight. For most of them, it has been going on for several years, so it’s a chronic experience—and a chronic stressor.”

Within schools, the implications are both moral and practical. As more and more students grow up with the all-consuming feeling that something is wrong with the body they occupy, the consequences can range from toxic environments that marginalize the physically nonconforming to the prospect of classrooms full of students so anxious about how they look that learning itself is compromised.

Getting to the root of our own weight bias means unlearning harmful stereotypes. “Anti-fatness is purposeful and systemic and learned,” says middle school English teacher Cait O’Connor. Confronting the stigma around weight can begin with conversations about positive body image and student identity, as well as direct conversations that challenge the way we talk about, joke about, and think about our bodies. “We continue to let fatphobia slide,” O’Connor warns, “and that’s how it continues to live.”

Getting Ahead of the Problem

Size awareness and size shaming starts early and is evident in children as young as 3 years old, researchers have found. If left unchecked, it festers: By the age of 9, weight bias is as common as racial bias is among adults, reports Jane E. Brody for the New York Times. The findings suggest that efforts to confront weight bias should begin early—perhaps even in preschool—and then continue as bodies rapidly change through elementary, middle, and high schools.

A good place to start is with an examination of the values entrenched in the language used by staff and students, says Health Ed Content Specialist Christopher Pepper. Jokes about larger people, nicknames that emphasize body size or shape, myths that link large body size with laziness, and even well-intentioned compliments about outfits or an acknowledgment of weight loss can signal who is accepted in school and who isn’t.

“Language evolution around body acceptance and around fat shaming is still in its early stages,” Pepper says. “Teachers need to get some practice about how to intervene when they hear fatphobic things in their classrooms, and how to do so in a way that’s truly supportive. Sometimes people intervene and end up accidentally reinforcing the very thing they’re trying to curtail.”

Extending the process into an audit of books, pictures, posters, and materials used inside of classrooms ensures there are a number of vehicles to reinforce positive body image messaging and affirm the identities of students in the classroom.

“Making a conscious effort to discuss books about size-diverse characters and infusing conversations around those experiences into students’ reading lives is really important,” O’Connor says. Try assigning books like Bodies Are Cool, by Tyler Feder (for young kids); Dress Coded, by Carrie Firestone (grades 5–7); or Dumplin’, by Julie Murphy (for young adults); or supplement your library with resources from the Ditching Diet Culture at School Digital Resource Library.

Incorporating more books that touch on size diversity and inclusivity, according to O’Connor, can start a ripple effect: “If one kid reads, let’s say, Starfish, by Lisa Fipps, and they’re really affected by it, they learn the language of how to talk about this stuff to their friends. The word fatphobia itself is in those early-grade-level texts and when they learn that language and see those words, it creates conversation and changes attitudes.”

To Change the Future, Study the Past

In the Tamalpais Union High School District, in Marin County, California, students take nutrition workshops that focus on the media’s role in distorting perceptions of body image. “We teach some of the basic science around food and nutrition first; then we talk about what students are seeing on social media, and we teach them to be critical thinkers as well as questions they can ask when they see certain messaging online,” explains the district’s wellness director, Jessica Colvin.

Outreach specialists like Danya Axelrad-Hausman lead workshops on topics like body image—highlighting the “social factors and systems feeding us the information we’re taking in about body image” and the origins of fatphobia. These sessions are used to train students as “peer educators” so they can support and educate other students in the school community.

“In the past, there’s mostly been focus on different signs and symptoms of eating disorders,” she says. “I’m trying to give more context about why we have such fraught relationships with our bodies and with food—how we got here, what we are contending with.”

Not too far away, in the San Francisco Unified School District, students are also learning to look at food and nutrition through a critical media-literacy-informed lens.

“If you are on YouTube, watch TV, listen to the radio, there’s lots of ads for food,” says Pepper. “Students should be thinking about who made these ads and what they’re trying to sell. You can talk about the tools that advertisers use to try and convince people that they should buy their products, and then have students create a positive alternative. If you were going to make an ad for your own favorite fruit or vegetable, what techniques would you use?”

In the past, advertising and health education relied heavily on guilt and shame as a tool, Pepper says. That’s something the district is actively trying to move away from.

“Students should leave the classroom with more knowledge than when they walked in, but they should not walk out feeling bad about themselves or bad about choices they’ve made,” Pepper says. “We want to give more information about all of the things that they encounter or are likely to encounter in their lives so that they can make good decisions.”

Rethinking Identity

In order for schools to effectively support students of all body types, experts say, they must work to cultivate an identity-safe environment—one free from weight-related judgments.

Educational consultant Becky Cohn-Vargas suggests starting this process by introducing students to the concept of identity safety and inviting them to help “formulate schoolwide norms for respect, acceptance, and inclusion.” School leaders can update policies that prohibit appearance-related teasing and body shaming. Enforcing the policies vigilantly and providing support for students who may be teased, bullied, or harassed because of the way they look, their body size, their weight, or their shape is crucial.

While most state laws or regulations do require school districts to implement an anti-bullying policy—citing race, ethnicity, gender, and disability as common targets for bullies—body weight is often absent, Puhl explains.

“The fact that weight-based bullying is not commonly referenced in anti-bullying policy language tells us that this has not been adequately addressed,” she says, noting that when it is, “schools tend to have higher levels of teacher intervention, improved levels of student safety, and lower rates of bullying.”

Inside the classroom, identity-safety work begins with students feeling seen. Shana V. White, a middle school teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, asks students to create identity portraits. Students draw portraits of themselves—their head and shoulders—on a piece of paper and then draw a line down the middle of the face. On one side, students color in their skin tone as well as the shirt they are wearing, but on the other, White asks them to add in their visible and invisible identity markers, which can include attributes like race, ethnicity, gender identity, or body size.

“I put their projects on the wall, so they see them every day and know that all those identities are accepted in this place,” she explains. “It’s a really big growth point for a lot of kids, that they are able to be comfortable with who they are, and recognize and respect the identity markers of anybody.”

Of Subtexts and Subliminals

From the time that students enter school buildings to the time they leave, they encounter subtle messaging about their bodies, says O’Connor.

“The desk itself sends a message,” she explains. “If you don’t fit in this desk, you don’t belong here. And that’s a huge tell in terms of whose body is valued and whose is not.”

But the messaging doesn’t stop there. Weight bias and prejudice have the ability to infiltrate a classroom and hide—imperceptibly influencing the way students are perceived and treated, altering the teacher-student relationship, and in some cases negatively affecting educational outcomes. An increasing volume of research demonstrates that a student’s body changes expectations and attitudes regarding their performance in school. Students with bigger bodies are graded more harshly in subjects like mathematics, language fluency, and physical education, where they’re thought to have “poorer physical condition and exhibit inferior physical performance compared to their non-overweight peers” even before they’re given the chance to compete, the study suggests.

Additionally, school policies can translate into harmful subtexts about student bodies, says Laura Ross, a middle school counselor in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Last year, student members of the building equity leadership team worked alongside administrators to make dress code policies more inclusive.

Student noticed that a lot of the policies applied only to female students and expressed frustration about inequitable enforcement. “There was a lot of talk about how some of the dress code policies really depended on who wore the clothing,” explains Ross. “If you’re a curvy girl, you might get dress-coded, but if you’re thin and wearing the same thing, you wouldn’t. Students talked about adults policing their bodies and the messages that we’re sending through the dress code as well, which was then changed.”

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I Worked for ESL Companies with Lousy Curriculums. Here’s What I Learned — And What You Should Look For.

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In my first-ever job, I sat in front of a computer teaching English over the internet to a group of students in South Korea. I would introduce the students to new vocabulary words, correct their grammar and monitor their progress. Overall, it was a low-stress job I felt indifferent toward, and maybe, at the time, it was enough.

My then-employer was part of the growing education industry in the Philippines. Over the past decade or so, the Philippines has seen an explosion of language schools that attract students from around the world, but, mainly in East Asia, online tutoring companies that specialize in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) have also emerged, recruiting Filipinos to teach students who can’t travel abroad to study or who want extra lessons to supplement their English-language classes in traditional schools back home.

Likewise, this trend took off in China and grew to be worth many billions of dollars, thanks to companies like VIPKid that eventually hired upward of 100,000 foreign educators—mostly Americans—to tutor millions of kids in China. (China has since cracked down on the online tutoring industry there and now prohibits any classes that pair Chinese children with foreign teachers.) Tutoring companies have since formed and grown all over the world, from Eastern Europe to Canada, from the U.S. to Japan. Millions of students take English lessons online now, and I’d like to think at least some ESL companies are doing good work, though the extent of their impact still remains to be seen.

But not all ESL programs are created equal. Content and curriculum quality vary considerably. Low-quality programs actually do students a disservice and sap teachers’ enthusiasm. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned what makes a good ESL program (and a bad one). Here’s my top advice for tutors, parents and anyone looking for a program worthy of investing in.

When Rote Memorization Rules the Day

When I started my first tutoring job, I was hardly concerned with the caliber of the content I was teaching. (The recruiter who hired me told me flatly that the company was not a good one.) I learned quickly what the recruiter meant. For one thing, the curriculum I was expected to teach asserted that learning English is a matter of memorization.

Take the sentence, “I like ice cream.” Instead of teaching learners how to build this sentence from scratch, the company wanted us—the tutors—to have the students memorize the phrase “I like,” for whenever they had to say they liked something, then encourage them to replace “ice cream” with other words. It was a plug-and-play approach.

The reading materials were also too simple—intermediate learners, for instance, would read articles with sentences like “I like popcorn. Popcorn is fun to eat. I eat popcorn every day.”

Still, I kept my head down and my mouth shut. I was going through a difficult time in my personal life and just didn’t care enough.

Eventually, I started looking for a new job and found one, again, in ESL tutoring—this time with a Japanese company.

This one, I soon discovered, was worse. It had students reading terribly written articles by people who aren’t fluent in English and asked them to work through poorly thought-out exercises, one requiring students to give a pro and a con opinion about a statement and to provide reasons for each, instead of, say, letting them express their opinions and articulate their reasons for holding them.

Then the pandemic started, and my company’s clients canceled their classes. As a Band-Aid solution, we tutors were outsourced to another company, whose curriculum was hardly better. In two of the four courses they offered, students learned common expressions, such as “May I have a cup of coffee?” for ordering at a restaurant. In class, I role-played with the students, using language the company provided, and once again students were asked not to learn the phrase but to substitute “coffee” with another item, also provided by the company. There were no questions that tested students’ comprehension, or vocabulary words, or writing exercises.

Discerning Good Versus Bad Curriculum

It was during my time here that I finally started questioning the point of what I was doing. What was I even teaching them? What were the students learning, beyond rote memorization? Was I actually accomplishing anything or doing any good?

Much later, I would realize the difference: tutoring with substandard materials really means teaching with one hand tied behind your back. It doesn’t help you gauge students’ understanding or, in the case of new students, fluency, so you can’t know what you should adjust. And, supposing you do figure that out, you still have poor-quality materials to select from. And if the curriculum isn’t even written by fluent speakers, students get exposed to sloppy or improper language and don’t learn correct usage. It also impacts tutors’ well-being—it really does demoralize you and takes purpose and meaning out of the work.

In contrast, a well-designed curriculum allows students to actually learn the language, and helps tutors as well: it lets you discern how much students understand and enables you to address their needs, which assists you in evaluating new students in particular. And let’s not forget how it affects tutors emotionally—it motivates you to teach and makes you feel that you really are impacting your students’ lives.

What Tutors Should Know Going In

My word of advice: assess the curriculum in any company you’re prospecting. Use the internet’s resources—some companies upload their materials online, but if the company is well-known enough, you can find YouTube videos for job applicants, from mock class demos to class flow samples. Tutors can also get a peek at the curriculum during the demo class.

No company’s curriculum is perfect, but ideally, a curriculum should be a comprehensive one—one that covers not only grammar, pronunciation and punctuation, but also develops all language skills (listening, reading, speaking and writing—the last of which, unfortunately, some companies don’t focus on enough). Also, look for a curriculum that encourages critical thinking. Comprehension questions should not merely require students to scan the material for details—they should also make students think.

The curriculum should also be the right level of challenging. Beginners, for example, should encounter simple sentences and easy questions (“What do you wear to parties?”). Intermediate learners should come across compound and complex sentences and questions that ask for their opinions and reasons (“Do you prefer to follow fashion trends? Why or why not?”), while advanced students should see complicated language and thought-provoking questions (“What do you think of the opinion that ‘clothes make the man’?”). If you can, try to find a company that includes fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.

Besides this, the curriculum should have reviews and ways to evaluate students’ improvement. Some companies don’t offer assessments and other ways to measure student progress and outcomes, which means that the only way tutors can tell they are effective and successful is if students apply what they learned in subsequent classes. These elements would add more tools for tutors to adjust as needed.

Lastly, look for a curriculum that offers materials for people maintaining their fluency. Since fluency is like a muscle that atrophies with disuse, ESL companies should see to language learners’ whole lives, not just the relatively short period when they learn the language.

Rewind to my second tutoring job, at the Japanese company: I would quit after a year and accept a position with another one. This time, though, the curriculum was overall excellent. The articles were well-written, the vocabulary words well-chosen. The company’s grammar course provided sample sentences and sentence-construction exercises. They had vocabulary-expanding materials that introduced students to idioms. They even provided test preparation courses for students who wanted to work or study abroad.

So, reader, I fell in love with teaching.

That’s right: All it took to overturn my ambivalence toward tutoring was a decent company with a good curriculum that can actually help students learn.

Just imagine the impact on the students’ end.

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