Students across Pittsburgh faced many struggles throughout the pandemic from interrupted education to strained mental health. But for the district’s ESL students, the challenges were compounded — not only were they adapting to a new culture and language, they were forced to do so in an online environment.

The challenges were many. It was harder to teach them handwriting. Some didn’t have much experience with technology or didn’t have easy access to the internet. And, in general, learning a new language can be more tiring than going to school in your native language — even more so during remote learning. 

To try to reduce the disruption, Pittsburgh’s ESL teachers helped students navigate new technology, visited homes to check in and sometimes brought school supplies or even food to their students.

Michele Freeman, an ESL teacher at Taylor Allderdice High School, felt that the best thing she could do for her students was to be as present as possible. “I tried to respond to their questions, day or night, whenever they came through, whatever those questions were about, and tried to just let them know that there was somebody on the other side of the ether, whether they could see them or not,” she said. “I don’t know how well it worked. I don’t know. But that’s all I knew to do.” 

Freeman said the pandemic has given her a new perspective on teaching ESL students. While education is the goal, students might have other needs that need to be met for them to be successful.

“If we get to some vocabulary on a Monday, great, you know, but right after they first enroll, that’s not necessarily the priority,” Freeman said. 

Along with two instructional specialists, Pittsburgh Public Schools has 17 ESL classroom assistants that are all multicultural and multilingual. “You can be bilingual, but not necessarily have a deep understanding of the culture or, you know, firsthand experience of the culture. Which is why I think these positions have been so important, especially during the pandemic,” said Jon Covel, the district’s ESL director. 

PublicSource got a more in-depth look into the ESL community at Allderdice and the effects of the abrupt shift to online learning and the transition back to in-person instruction. 

Pittsburgh Allderdice High School ESL Teacher Jessica Porter stands in the doorway to her classroom. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/PublicSource)

Jessica Porter, another ESL teacher at Allderdice, said attendance was poor early on, and cameras often weren’t turned on. She said it felt like “just talking to my computer.”

In person, teachers regularly see student’s handwriting to help gauge progress, and it’s much easier to tell if they’re engaged in the lessons. “I just kept hoping like I hope that they’re getting something from this, because it was really hard to assess that,” Porter said. 

Students across the district faced technology challenges, but for some ESL students, they were especially pronounced.

“It was like the first time I had this much interaction with a computer,” said Sebastian Romero Cabeza, an 11th grader at Allderdice from Venezuela. 

Keeping their attention on screens for so long was exhausting for some students, especially during lessons in a language they were only just learning. “You will get distracted really quick by anything,” Romero Cabeza said. “You’re not listening to the teacher. You’re not learning as much as you do.”

“I can’t imagine how overwhelmed some of these students were so I always tried to focus more on the bigger picture and have a lot of empathy.”

jessica porter

The switch to hybrid in the spring of 2021 learning didn’t end the challenges, though some of them changed. 

Teachers now had to balance connectivity issues with online students while students sat in classrooms with them, waiting patiently for them to get the kinks worked out. 

Masks provided another roadblock because watching a speaker’s mouth move is an important part of learning a language. 

“I think especially with language, you have to see the speakers,” Porter said. “I had to get creative with utilizing videos where you can see people speaking without a mask on because I think it’s important when you’re learning a language to see how people are talking.” 

Tech in the classroom

While the transition online had numerous challenges, teachers have also seen the benefits of new technology. 

“I like having an online platform to house all of the lessons and the activities day by day. I do think that that gives students more ownership in what they’re doing,” Freeman said. “It does relieve some of the work on me.”

Technology progressed during the pandemic, and teachers were thankful that they now had new tools to utilize in the classroom

Pittsburgh Allderdice High School ESL Teacher Michele Freeman stands in her classroom on April 29. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/PublicSource)

“We had to get creative,” Porter said. “But then also, these platforms like rolled out features that made it a little bit easier, I think to engage the students … in terms of language and speaking.”

The district struggled with communication in native languages in the beginning of the pandemic with the increase in information sent out to families. 

Covel said the district expanded its approach to better reach families. 

“Usually we do our translation and when the district sends things, we usually do five languages, but for most of the pandemic, we added our top 10,” Covel said. 

In addition to translating school documents into native languages, there was also a need for more instantaneous communication between teachers and families. 

The district now uses technology called Talking Points, a messaging platform that translates messages to both students and parents in real time. Porter said this was one of the best tools that came from the pandemic. 

“If you have a concern about a particular student, like ‘Oh, he hasn’t been in class recently, is everything OK?’ And it will be translated into their native language automatically when they receive it. So I got really good feedback from a lot of parents about that.”  

New perspectives

Freeman’s perspectives on her students changed as well. “I guess when it comes to this group, I think I look at it as similarly as I would to maybe an adult ESL class,” she said. “Or I’m just aware that these kids have so many things going on in their lives right now that they’re trying to adjust to and figure out and acclimate to and assimilate to that.” 

Porter tries to navigate this new perspective on ESL students with as much understanding as she can. “I can’t imagine how overwhelmed some of these students were so I always tried to focus more on the bigger picture and have a lot of empathy,” she said. 

An ESL lesson on types of irony hangs in a classroom on April 29 at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/PublicSource)

In addition to accepting late work throughout the pandemic, she also now makes sure to check in with her students frequently. “I definitely want to keep doing the mental health check-ins,” she said. 

Allowing her students to openly express themselves in English not only helps them practice the language, but also allows them to connect with each other and Porter as a teacher, she said. “I think it’s something that I took away from the pandemic that was good.”

Now that education is back in person, Porter and Freeman can see their students are happier.

Twelfth-grader Malik Ganiev said the ESL community is finally getting the chance to bond again and having that in-person support makes a world of a difference. Porter even helped with the college application process. 

“We’re all friends,” he said of the ESL community. “I feel so good in this class. Like, I come here, it’s only one class but I feel so relaxed.” 

Dalia Maeroff is a student at the University of Pittsburgh studying psychology, Latin American studies, literature, linguistics and non-fiction writing. You can email her at dalia@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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Dalia Maeroff is an editorial intern. She is a Pittsburgh native graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2023. She studies psychology, Latin American studies, linguistics, English literature and...