This is the second in a series of conversations with ISA coaches, to check in with them about their current work.

Stephanie Grasso’s coaching enables her to share her expertise with teachers in integrating English language learning and literacy in content area curriculum development for new English language learners and students with interrupted formal education. She was a founding English teacher at ELLIS Preparatory Academy in New York City and went on to provide literacy and instructional coaching there. Grasso’s work in developing science curriculum with an integrated language and literacy approach became one of her greatest accomplishments at ELLIS.

First, Stephanie, what led you into education and specifically working with English language learners, or ELLs, and teachers that teach them?

I was in a doctoral program at UCLA and had my own class as a teaching assistant. After two years in academia, I realized how much I loved teaching and came back to the East Coast to start a teaching fellowship program in New York City. After teaching a year at a middle school in the South Bronx, I met my future boss—Norma Vega—who was working with our network, and she suggested I visit Bronx International High School. I fell in love with the school’s model, where students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds learned alongside one another. When I learned that Norma was opening a new international public high school in 2008, I applied to become her ELA teacher—and I never looked back.

When schools went to virtual instruction in the spring, because of the pandemic, what were your initial thoughts and, since that time, what have you heard from teachers and school leaders?

My initial thought was that our most vulnerable students—those with learning disabilities, ELLs, and others with high needs—would need a great deal of assistance in this new learning environment and might struggle to keep up with virtual learning. Since that time, I believe the pandemic and virtual learning caused administrators and teachers to pay closer attention to these populations and understand their needs even more now. Some schools are taking this time to focus on special populations and understand where these students require additional support or differentiation in order to be successful in both virtual and in-person academic learning environments.

ELLs, particularly newly arrived immigrants and students whose formal education has been interrupted for some reason, seem particularly at risk now. Why? And what should schools and districts be doing to address the special circumstances these students face?

Yes, there are many reasons why ELLs that are either newly arrived students and/or possible students with interrupted formal education, or SIFE, are at risk during this transitional time. To start, one of the reasons why these populations are at risk now is that they have less access to resources and/or maybe less understanding as to what community or government resources are available to them—health, economic, academic, etc. Some economic resources may normally help a family pay for bills or buy food, but without knowing about these resources or not taking advantage of them, immigrant parents might rely on older students to work and contribute to the family income. This, of course, leads to absences from school. Other times, because of immigration status, families do not want to access these resources and further rely on older children to supplement the household income.

Another issue is that these student populations can be quite transient—maybe living temporarily with family members or people within their community—and therefore may not have the ability to log on for class when their peers can because they are sharing a small space or simply don’t have a quiet space to work. They can fall behind quickly with school work, and some teachers may not be able to get in contact with students and families, creating a gap in communication. Students may feel ashamed of being behind once they can access virtual learning platforms and may forgo trying to reach out to teachers for support.

Furthermore, these populations who would normally have access to more social English language development interacting with peers in school may not have that while virtual, therefore delaying language development. Since SIFEs require a great deal of academic and language support, this lack of exposure to English can make virtually learning challenging. It’s important for schools to be sensitive to these needs and create outreach efforts to support SIFEs and recently arrived students.

No doubt, in these last several months, you’ve seen some dynamite virtual teaching, particularly with ELLs. What best practices have you seen that you want all teachers undertaking?

Teachers have really rallied to support students, especially considering the circumstances. They have sacrificed time, energy, and sleep. It’s been an honor to watch, and I am in awe of the collective strength I have seen in schools. One school I worked with last year created a resources guide with links to numerous apps and sites for fellow teachers to use with ELLs—ranging from online dictionaries to tutorials for creating videos with subtitles. One teacher took advantage of using Kami—an online annotation app. You can create audio notes for students on a PDF, highlight text, and even make a video recording of yourself asking a question about a certain part of the text. I also see more and more texts that address topics such as immigration and border crossing—and teachers are willing to use these texts to make their curriculum culturally relevant.

Think back to your teaching days, Stephanie, and a special bond you had with a student or a class. What made it special? For you and your students, what made the learning work?

When I taught at ELLIS Preparatory Academy, the international high school, I learned how much trust plays a role not only in teaching but particularly with teaching ELLs. Many of these students have faced a great deal of adversity in their lives, and so they come to trust you—that you will show up for them, support them, and understand them. I followed one class at ELLIS from their first through fourth year as their English teacher—an incredible experience. I watched them grow, change, go through highs and lows, and most importantly succeed. During their third year, many students wanted to pass the English regents. I sat each one down privately in June to share each person’s score, and I remember one student let out this huge sigh when he learned he passed—and I cried. Not out of sadness, but I could feel his relief on a visceral level. I was so happy to be a part of that moment.

(Here is a New York Times article about ELLIS from the winter of 2009.)