In this special COVID-19 episode of the BG Ideas podcast, Melody Freeland, a BGSU grad student and winner of the ICS ICS Student Research Award, and Dr. Cyndi Ducar, associate professor in World Languages and Cultures at BGSU, sit down to discuss teaching strategies in application to students learning math without English as their first language.

 

Announcer:

From Bowling Green State University and the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society, this is BG Ideas.

Musical Intro:

I'm going to show you this with a wonderful experiment.

Jolie:

Welcome to the Big Ideas podcast, a collaboration between the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society and the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University. I'm Dr. Jolie Sheffer, associate professor of English and American culture studies and director of ICS.

Jolie:

This is a special episode of the Big Ideas podcast, which we're recording during the COVID-19 pandemic. That means we're not in studio but are recording via phone and computer. Our sound quality will differ as a result, but we thought it was important to share with you some of the amazing work being done by members of our BGSU community. Perhaps now more than ever, we want to celebrate big ideas. As always, the opinions expressed are those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of BGSU or its employees.

Jolie:

Today, I'm joined by two guests, Melody Freeman and Dr. Cynthia Ducar. Melody is a BGSU alum with an undergrad degree in mathematics education for ages 7 through 12 who is currently working on a master's degree in Spanish, also at BGSU. She received an ICS student research award for her project "Analyzing and assessing the preparedness of math teachers to meet the needs of students for whom English is not their native language". Her faculty mentor is Dr. Cindy Ducar who teaches graduate and undergraduate Spanish courses and topics such as applied linguistics, Hispanic socio-linguistics, and heritage language pedagogy. Welcome, Melody and Cindy. Thanks for being with me today.

Melody:

Hello.

Cynthia:

Good to see you.

Jolie:

Melody, could you start us off with a description of your project and what motivated you? What questions were you trying to answer?

Melody:

Yeah, so my project, the official title is BGSU in mathematics education graduates self-efficacy for the teaching of Hispanic English language learners. So this project kind of focuses on looking at our own program at BGSU, which I went through as an undergraduate. So it's kind of a unique thing where I can kind of look at that program for mathematics education, but specifically at those who are studying to get their degree in a 7 through 12 grade certification for teaching math and those same students who are going through the program or have just recently graduated, kind of like myself and my colleagues, who I graduated with at BGSU, and looking at and studying or investigating their levels of self-efficacy specifically for teaching students whose native language is Spanish or who are classified as English language learners.

Melody:

I guess I would say that where this project came from, why this question, why this project, I think part of it comes from the fact that I did go through the same exact program as an undergraduate, so I have kind of this firsthand experience and our program is one of the top in the nation. But any program still has gaps or things to work on, and so I did notice or take note of a few things as I did go through the program myself, one of those gaps in preparation, which is related to preparing our future teachers who teach math specifically, to be able to do that efficiently and effectively for this student population specifically. So I think that those are kind of the main components of what led to this project.

Jolie:

Cindy, how did you come to work with Melody on this research project? And how does your own research in socio-linguistics help shape your mentorship for this project?

Cynthia:

So I met Melody quite a few years ago and she was in my Spanish course for majors and minors, and like she said, she was majoring in mathematics education, but her Spanish was through the roof. I mean, she was a stellar student from day one. And as we got to know each other in that class, eventually she got closer to the end of her career in her senior year, she came back to me and she said, I'm thinking about working on this action research project, where I work with students who are weaker in English and have a background in Spanish and I want to do something more for these students, so how could we work together?

Cynthia:

So we talked about coming up with a placement for her that was going to lead her to a population in Northwest Ohio that might have more Spanish speaking students. She wound up in Fremont and things didn't quite go as expected, I would say, but she got a lot out of the experience nonetheless, and was able to implement her project there with a group of students and have stellar results. So I think that's how this now came to be. She saw the effects of putting into place changes in her teaching style and then the approach to math, and in that case, she was using manipulatives and looking at changing the wording and word problems to reach these students. And my own research looks at the flip side of this, right? It looks at these students acquisition of Spanish, but you really can't separate that from their acquisition of English, right, that push to learn the dominant language. So preparing teachers to be able to meet the needs of this population better is something that matters to me in terms of student success, in general, in helping these students reach higher levels of achievement.

Cynthia:

And I think often we think of this as a Spanish teacher problem or an English teacher problem in English as a second language problem. It's really no one's problem, but it is all of our business to do our best to help all of our students. And so I think Melody's project addresses that, by trying to meet the needs of these students in a mathematics curriculum, which is often overlooked, and math is often the first subject they say will be easy for you if you're limited English proficient.

Jolie:

And that's my followup question for Melody, which is, we often hear math talked about as a kind of universal language, that it doesn't sort of matter what language it's being spoken in because the math itself is this transparent tool for communication. Could you talk about why you think it's so important that math teachers, in particular, be able to instruct in Spanish more effectively?

Melody:

What you just mentioned is one of the things that I hear so often, when I talk to people, I talked to colleagues, I talked to educators and other people in the community, a lot of people say, kind of echoing what both of you just said, math is a universal language, but math in and of itself, really is its own language with its own register, and these things start to get really blurry and complicated for someone who is bilingual or is trying to learn another language, or learn mathematics in a language which is not their native language.

Melody:

When you look at the standardized assessments that you take for mathematics in 8th grade, in the United States, nearly 75% of native English speaking students score at or above the basic level. So that's almost three quarters. But those who are English language learners, it's only 30%. So that's a 45% gap in mathematics achievement. And this is so important. I mean, that in and of itself speaks volumes, I think. When you look at standardized testing and things like this, it gets even more complicated because 8th grade is one of the most important years of standardized testing in the United States for mathematics. And so that's right before you get into high school.

Melody:

So imagine these sorts of tests put you on different tracking once you get to high school, and it's been proven that data shows that when you're in lower tracked classes, the instruction is much lower quality, et cetera. So it's almost a snowball effect that is really not setting the student population up for the success that they deserve, or it were to receive equitable opportunities.

Jolie:

Cindy, as someone with extensive experience, what do you think educators should be doing to make their classrooms more inclusive? What particular pedagogical methods or practices do you find effective or promising?

Cynthia:

Melody and I have talked a lot about culturally responsive teaching and looking at the background that these students come from and just to talk about that 40% gap that she just mentioned, students are coming to math questions, there's words in those questions, right, they have to be able to understand those words. Once they are able to understand the words, the words come from a culturally loaded context, right? Not everyone is taking a trip to wherever Florida for the week, right, and then looking at airfare for that. There's a lot of cultural assumptions that are laid in, in these math problems.

Cynthia:

So to me it's important to address and to value the students' culture, so to include questions. I mean, there's plenty of ways to address students' cultures from students that come from a Latino background along with students that come from other backgrounds, right? We could look at something a little more neutral, right? Travel is something that's a privilege for people, whereas cooking is something that everyone does and you can still do plenty of math when you're cooking.

Cynthia:

So there's ways to still make math contextualized, and yet allow it to be culturally relevant across cultures rather than geared to certain contexts that are very privileged. So I think, just most important is, finding ways to bring in the students' cultures and making them feel included and valued in the classroom. And I think we can do that regardless of what the subject area is.

Jolie:

Melody, you're interested in the potential uses of virtual reality technology in Spanish language mathematics instruction. What do you find so interesting and promising about that tool for mathematics education in particular?

Melody:

So that angle, I guess I would say the project came from the grant that BGSU just got for project impact, it's focused on preparing math educators or educators in general in our education program and looking at how, for example, we've talked about how the area that we are in, our university, it's sort of hard to find these diverse student populations in order to give our students who are learning to be teachers, that experience of being able to teach a diverse student population.

Melody:

So one of the ways in which virtual reality for instance is kind of coming or can be used to combat that issue is having kind of like these virtual students that kind of act as this diverse population where it wouldn't otherwise be able to be reached here. And one of the reasons why that's important, I think, is I've heard from a lot of people, even people at the university, that it's not so important because the schools around here aren't so diverse, but we're training educators who are going to teach all across the country. So imagine populations, if we send students to Texas or to Florida, I mean the student population there, the Hispanic student population is much larger than it is in Northwest Ohio. So that's one of the ways that I think that virtual reality, if I do get the chance to kind of include that in this project, that's kind of the angle it comes from, I'd say.

Jolie:

We're going to take a quick break. Thanks for listening to the Big Ideas podcast.

Announcer:

If you are passionate about big ideas, consider sponsoring this program. To have your name or organization mentioned here, please contact us at ics@bgsu.edu.

Jolie:

Welcome back to the Big Ideas podcast. Today I'm talking with Melody Freeman and Dr. Cindy Ducar about Spanish language pedagogies. Obviously due to COVID-19 a lot has changed in the world since the beginning of the semester. We've all moved to online instruction and we're living under the governor's stay at home order. As both students and teachers and researchers, how have your work and lives changed during the current restrictions? Melody, what are you dealing with?

Melody:

As a researcher, first, I suppose, the good thing is that we have technology. So things like putting together my questionnaire or passing out distributing surveys, what have originally probably been done in person is still okay, it still is going to run smoothly because I can do those things on Google Forms, et cetera. So it's just a matter of having to kind of move everything onto this virtual format, then maybe jump through a few extra hoops for IRB approval and things like that.

Melody:

Things like recruitment or getting in contact with participants is also something I have to kind of do in this virtual manner of maybe create a screen cast or something in order to kind of pass out that recruitment or try to get people to participate in this study. So it's just a lot of being technologically efficient and being able to move things also to a virtual format.

Jolie:

What about for you, Cindy? How has your life been upended in this last month or so?

Cynthia:

I'm grateful that we had the first seven weeks of the semester with our students to get to know them. And I think that's made this transition to online teaching easier for both me and for them. I think I'm also very grateful to have already taught classes online before, and though I had not previously taught the particular classes that I'm teaching this semester online, moving them online was easier because of that experience.

Cynthia:

Zoom conversation hours with students are not the same as face to face conversation hours for obvious reasons, right? It's already awkward to speak to someone in a second language as it is. I would say that's twice as awkward when you're trying to do it and not step on someone else's toes because your voice will literally cut the other person off, and then everyone's silently listening to you while you speak, which is also very intimidating for students, I think. But I'm running six 30 minute Zoom sessions per class, and students can just jump in when they want to. And those smaller groups work out better for people usually then having the whole class together at once.

Cynthia:

And of course I'm doing all of this with children at home while I'm also trying to teach kindergarten and 5th grade, on the side, which presents a challenge in which, if I'm very honest, diminishes my time to do research. I'm hoping to pick that back up again in the summer, but right now juggling the teaching of my own classes with keeping my kids learning as well, keeps me busy enough.

Jolie:

And I'm curious, part of what we're talking about is pedagogy for Spanish language instruction. We're talking about technology. How has this last month's experience of being sort of forced by external circumstance to rely so heavily on technology, has it changed your thinking about best and worst cases for doing instruction in K-12 classrooms, or the kind of teaching that you are thinking about for your project, Melody, and some of your research shows, Cindy?

Melody:

I didn't really talk about my teaching changes, but since I, as a graduate student, I'm also teaching an introductory level Spanish class. This being my first time teaching that course at the university level and then kind of just halfway through being like, all right, let's just make it all virtual, it's been crazy, but it's also been such a good thing because it really makes you be super reflective as an educator. I feel like every time that I finish a lesson or a Zoom meeting with one of my students for office hours, I'm constantly reflecting on how could that be better next time, et cetera, because of the circumstances.

Melody:

And so I think that it's also a good thing because I've been experimenting with so many different types of virtual tools and things that already exist out there using things like Nearpod and Go Formative and GoReact and all of these programs, all of these tools that I've had like at my fingertips, but that I haven't really been using as much as now, I realize I could, or they could really help with face to face instruction in the future. So I think that that's been kind of a positive thing that's come out of all of this.

Jolie:

What about for you Cindy?

Cynthia:

If I were to add a few positive things that have come out with this, I would agree as well that some of these technologies have sort of opened my eyes up to giving more timid students the ability, a platform, to express their ideas that's less intimidating. So, students have jobs right now, they're working during some of these times that I'm offering those Zoom sessions, and I said, look, just send me a Marco Polo, which is a way to record themselves that doesn't get erased, as it would if it were on Snapchat or something, right? And so they're sending me Marco Polos and there are some girls in these classes who I didn't even know could put sentences together and are conversing with me.

Cynthia:

And it's so exciting to see how many ideas that they can actually share in Spanish orally that I wasn't aware of. It's not that I didn't know that they could produce in Spanish, it's just a lot of times you have students who are stronger in written format versus in the spoken format, and this really gives more shy or introverted students a platform where they can present what they know in a more comfortable space. And it's really been eyeopening. It's something that I'll include no matter whether I'm online or face to face in the future. We've also tried Flipgrid for recordings as well. That gives people the chance to comment on each other, and it's interesting to see the performance of those same types of students in those different venues where they're stronger, if they just think it's just me and them talking. So that's been interesting.

Cynthia:

Vocabulary also, I found a lot of new activities that the students have written to me of their own accord and said, you know what, this is way better than just practice or something. So we've got them looking at corpus of Spanish language, like spoken language and finding the words in context, and then I have them paying attention to collocation, so which prepositions tend to be used with that word, and then what tends to come after that, and they're like, I would have never done this before. And this is ... They're not saying they're going to retain those words, right, because they're not producing them as much, but I think in a normal classroom context, adding some of these activities that we've sort of been forced into is going to be really longterm beneficial.

Cynthia:

That said, we should also recognize that Melody's research focuses on, often, less privileged populations. And so all of this technology, whether it be free or not, is not always accessible. So, we need to keep things like that in mind, if this situation elongates, those gaps that we're talking about are just going to get exacerbated and research like Melody's is going to become even more important, I think.

Jolie:

Yeah. Melody, do you want to speak a little bit about some of the challenges you are maybe seeing from your student's perspective more clearly than you would have before we had moved to online only instruction? Has it given you a different appreciation for some of the barriers that exist?

Melody:

Yeah, I would definitely say so. I feel that students are a little bit more open to sharing things sometimes virtually, or maybe since it's not in front of the whole class or whatever that may be. And so I've definitely learned a lot of new things over the past couple of weeks about my students and about better ways that they are learning and things like that, just because of all this that's been happening. And it makes me do a lot more check-ins with my students individually with each one, really trying to figure out, is this working for you, and so, yeah, I've learned a lot more about their learning styles and also about those barriers of things that they're dealing with now that they have to be at home or things like that, family issues and things like this that are really kind of interrupting their learning. And that is one of the things that I started thinking about.

Melody:

And I do talk very often with my colleagues who are now math teachers in K through 12 settings, or 7 through 12 settings, and so many issues that they're facing, especially right now, as K through 12 educators is crazy. So I applaud all the teachers who are K through 12, who are doing this virtually right now, because things like technology are a huge issue because schools that aren't one-to-one or they don't have technology for each of their students, that creates an entire problem, because now that you can't have face to face interaction and you have a large amount of your students who don't have access to Wi-Fi or don't have access even to an electronic device, this makes things extremely complicated. And not only that, but learning virtually is very difficult for a lot of people, so.

Jolie:

Cindy, I wonder if you could say a little bit about how being forced to be in the position of homeschooling, right, and I'm in the same position, I've got a little one at home, has it changed your thinking about what K-12 education is like, right? So you and I are both university level instructors, but we're seeing K-12 in a new way. How has it changed your understanding or thinking about what is needed, what's working, what's not?

Cynthia:

It's been interesting to me to see the differences that are expected across different schools, even locally. And as someone who used to teach in the K through 12 setting as well, I'm also in touch with friends who are still teaching, my neighbors are teachers as well, the amount of time that they have that they're told that they're allowed to have the students doing work and the quantity of things that they want to cover just don't coincide, right? So the K through 12 teachers, or in general, the system, is trying to take into account what you and I are talking about, right, that we don't have as much time to dedicate to teaching our kids as our teachers do, but at the same time, we want our children to not lose or fall behind in any way.

Cynthia:

I think that's a real battle. I think that battle is exacerbated for populations that are not as privileged as we are. And I think it's something that we are going to need to address as a society down the line. I have no idea how we'll address it, but there's gaps, there's gaps that just cannot be taken care of. I have a former Macy student now who has been working for five years in Western New York as a migrant student tutor, and she can't reach her students. And she's driving her car out there, the district has given her a Wi-Fi hotspot thing to just be near them, but if they don't have a device to connect on, that free wireless connection does them no good.

Cynthia:

So, I mean, I think there's so many things for K through 12 educators to take into consideration. I know a lot of districts had followed what BGSU is doing, they're doing pass-fail grading. They're recognizing that they're not going to get through all that same amount of material. I think the teachers are doing their absolute best to give what they can, but they all recognize that some are going to get more than others. And there's no way for us to solve that issue right now, but that's something that we're going to need to solve in the future, for sure.

Jolie:

The experience of this semester has really revealed the vast inequalities and it has made them worse, right? I think I've talked with a lot of people about how it becomes obvious that Wi-Fi needs to be a public utility, that if this is a tool we expect people to have, it needs to be as available to people as running water, because everything, when you switch over like this, the assumption is everyone has it and everyone does it. And as you mentioned, devices too ... We've had this even on our own campus with Chromebooks not operating properly with the software that the university supports and the challenges.

Cynthia:

There's families that are sharing one cell phone amongst multiple children and parents, and they're all trying to do their work on that one device. That's a major challenge, and not even an ideal device to begin with to be doing that work on.

Jolie:

Melody, anything you want to add or advice you want to give to students who might be thinking about their own goals for doing work that really impacts communities and has a real tangible benefit?

Melody:

One of the things I would say is just I've realized how important it is to stay connected to the community. And remember that the position that you're in is not always reflecting the position that everyone else is in. And I think that it's important that no matter what program you might be in or institution, there's always more that can be done, or there's always ways to improve the way that things are functioning. And to always be reflecting on that and reflecting on, especially thinking about equity and thinking about these issues of social justice and not as everyone having the same opportunity, but is everyone having the opportunity that they personally need to be successful.

Melody:

Because I think that that's why equity is so important, more importantly the equity of opportunities, because I think that that goes and connects to not only my research, but even everything we just talked about with all this online teaching and everything that's going on in K through 12 education and university education, et cetera, is just ... To look at and make sure that everyone has equitable opportunities.

Jolie:

I feel that so much. I think one of the things we've been talking about is that the strangeness of this semester, where you're forced to get out of your routine, of how you're used to teaching, of how you're used to engaging, with that has brought an opportunity for more self-reflection, more engagement, more checking in, right, with students and trying to assess what's working. And maybe in our ordinary lives, if we're hitting 80% of our students, we feel, hey, that's good, that 20% gap is because they're not interested or they're not trying. And in the current 80% is just not good enough, right? Because we want to make sure we are giving everyone the tools they need, so that then they really can put in as much effort as they want to.

Jolie:

So I like the kind of emphasis on trying to find the positive here, which is to keep that equity mindset when we go back to something that more closely resembles ordinary life, right, even though that will be altered, to keep that focus on making sure everyone, a hundred percent, have the tools they need to succeed.

Cynthia:

And if I could full circle back to Melody's research, I would just say small changes can make a huge difference, right? So her undergrad action research project looked at just using manipulatives to help students with a specific facet of learning for math. And do you want to tell her about the gains that you saw in those students? I mean, I think we look at these teacher prep programs and we think they're so stacked, they're so full, how would we ever create space for addressing the need that she's discussing? But if you give teachers these tools, I think they can help to make situations more equitable with just small tweaks. Do you want to tell what you did at all, Melody?

Melody:

Yeah. So that project that I did as part of the action program, which is an amazing program at BGSU, was using manipulatives, which are just concrete objects that students can manipulate while they're learning mathematics, not necessarily always in mathematics, any subject, and how that helps to kind of relate the abstract mathematical concepts to something more concrete that they can literally move around with their hands. I mean, so I had learned about manipulatives during my undergraduate process and learning, but I hadn't thought about how to apply that to this specific student population and the effects that that might have, and using that as an explicit tool for intervention for these students.

Melody:

And so that's kind of what the project focused on and with the results that I had were great, they actually show that the gap between the pre-test and the post-tests between the English language learners and non-English language learners was closed completely. And that was in my own classroom as a math teacher, just using manipulatives.

Melody:

And that's one tool out of so many tools that I think is so important for math educators in particular to learn how to use them, but learn how to use them effectively as well and how to implement those into the classroom and how they can help different student populations. Because one of the things that we talk about and stress is differentiation, and how important it is, and it seems like such a daunting task, which it is, it's extremely difficult and challenging for an educator to go to a classroom and differentiate their instruction for so many different types of students. But when you have these tools and you learn how to use them for these different populations, I think, and as that research had shown, that makes huge gains.

Jolie:

Cindy and Melody, thank you so much for talking with me today. Melody's research was supported by the new ICS student research award, which was funded by generous donors to ICS's BGSU one day fundraising campaign.

Jolie:

You can find the Big Ideas podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Our producers are Chris Cavera and Marco Mendoza. Research assistance was provided by Renee Hopper, with editing by Stevie Scheurich. Special thanks go out to Marco Mendoza for his extraordinary sound editing in these challenging conditions. Thank you both so much.

Melody:

Thank you.

Cynthia:

Thank you.

Jolie:

It was really fun talking with you.

 

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