Language barriers in teaching in the US, in the hands of virtual reality

The scene is repeated daily in thousands of classes in schools in the United States: teachers who speak only English must teach reading, writing and other subjects to students who do not yet speak that language. Although the problem seems insoluble, new technologies offer hope.

The traditional approach of hiring a consultant to train teachers, in addition to being expensive, is ineffective because of the enormous variety of educational levels that exist in the country among multilingual students, and also because of the limited time that teachers have to complete Additional training

Dr. Kara Viesca, from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL), has created in response a model of virtual workshops with pedagogical technologies applied to multilingual education.

"We use several technologies, from the most basic to the most advanced, for teachers to learn in a self-guided learning community (...). After all, they are the experts in their students," Viesca told Efe.

These technologies, which include virtual reality, interactive forums and online seminars, allow teachers across the country to learn in their own time and context to value the language and culture of their students, closing the communication gap that frequently separates students. Teachers of those students who do not speak the same language.

During the training, teachers do not interact with real, but virtual, students and do not listen to a presenter or facilitator, but instead face situations such as those they will later find in the classroom.

These situations range from how to ask a question in English and the student responds in another language, to the student responding with a low level of English or even not responding.

"We offer hundreds of these workshops and focus on teachers stop seeing not speaking English as a deficiency, because then the rich ability and knowledge of those who speak another language, or those who speak multiple languages, is ignored," said the educator.

Each module lasts about 60 minutes and is divided into three sections: theoretical exploration, practical implementation and discussion of what has been learned (in person or online).

Participants can be separated into three groups: teachers who simply do not learn or do not want to learn, those who do not learn because they prefer to adhere to an anti-immigrant narrative, and those who learn to value other languages ​​and, as a consequence, are more sensitive to academic development of those who do not speak English as their native language.

The teachers of this third group make their students "learn more effectively, reaffirm their cultural identities and feel safe in school," according to Viesca.

This technique also allows teachers to be immersed in a multicultural context, in which other communication barriers caused by marginalization and poverty arise, as well as by the trauma that certain children suffer due to their parents' immigration status.

The workshops were inspired by the preparation of multilingual teachers in Europe, especially in Germany, Finland, France, England, Austria and Belgium. Now, thanks to that collaboration, there are already "hundreds of teachers in Finland and Germany" who use the technology and content developed by Viesca.

Thanks to a grant of 2.7 million dollars granted by the US Department of Education to UNL, Viesca and his collaborators (Lauren Gatti, Jessica Mitchell-McCollough and Aaron Johnson) created the International Consortium of Excellence in Multilingual Education (ICMEE , for its acronym in English).

The goal of ICMEE is simple: position monolingual teachers to create an effective learning environment with multilingual students.

Although the project focuses on teachers with no experience in multilingual classrooms, teachers who have that experience can also participate. Generally, and according to the specialist, 70% of teachers who complete the training indicate that they find it of great benefit.

The Viesca project is already widely used in Colorado and Nebraska and has been applied in school districts in nine other states.

An agreement between ICMEE and the WIDA Consortium (which brings together state education departments) will allow Viesca virtual workshops to reach 40 states this year.

The urgency of closing the language gap between teachers and students is not a minor problem. According to the federal Department of Education, some five million students in the country's public schools do not speak English, one million more than in 2000.

These students fall behind academically when compared to students who speak native English, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

For Viesca, the achievements of his pedagogical technique applied to multilingual education could pass as a model to another context, that of connecting more teachers with a social reality that affects many of his students due to racism, xenophobia and families divided by deportations

Francisco Miraval


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