NEST community offers support to Iowa City students learning English from home

Online learning has challenged students and parents to improve their tech literacy. This is particularly difficult for English language emergent families.


Katie Goodale

Elementary students do their school work at a community nest in the Coralville Recreation Center on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. This community nest evolved from four Before and After School programs in Coralville through Coralville Parks and Recreation. They will be adding more sites this week, with about 72 students signed up to participate. “We have so many families that had reached out and said we don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Director of Parks and Recreation Sherri Proud.

Natalie Dunlap, News Reporter

Students of all ages are struggling to stay motivated and organized during online classes — a feat made especially challenging for English language learners (ELL) navigating Zoom meetings and modules offered only in English.

It’s already difficult for students to stay motivated and organized when completing classes virtually. For ELL students, the Zoom meetings and modules shared in English add another challenge.

Families in the Iowa City Community School District are adapting to online and hybrid classes while dealing with a language barrier.

“It’s been a huge learning curve for all of us, but for people who don’t speak English, there are a lot of barriers for them to be able to help their kids,” said Deb Dunkhase, co-founder of the Open Heartland Neighborhood NEST.

Neighborhood NESTS (Nurturing Every Student Together Safely) have popped up in communities across the district to provide services during the pandemic the school cannot. The Open Heartland Nest serves members of the mobile home community in Johnson County, many of whom speak Spanish.

The NEST is located in the Pepperwood Plaza in a space donated by Parkview Church. The NEST, composed of students from different schools and at all grade levels, has desks for students to study next to their peers or parents. Beyond the classroom there is a seating area with chairs, pillows and a rug.

The NEST also has a room full of clothes, groceries, cleaning supplies and other supplies, available to anyone in the mobile-home community. One wall has a collection of artwork from a student in the mobile home community that is learning at home, but made drawings of creatures for the NEST space.

Dunkhase, her colleague Elizabeth Bernal, and high school students go to the NEST to help the younger students and their parents navigate the online programs.

“We’ve done some training to teach parents how to use the computer, because a lot of parents haven’t even used a computer before,” Dunkhase said. “And then there’s all the interpretations, so we do a lot of interpretation of what the computer says, what the teacher is saying, and then we’ve also started teaching English classes.”

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The Iowa City Community School District returned to a hybrid model of teaching Sept. 26, but students enrolled in the hybrid option still study from home 2-3 days a week.

In the morning when students are online with their teachers, Dunkhase and Bernal will give an informal lesson to the parents on conversational English, covering scenarios like ordering at a restaurant or visiting the doctor’s office.

Bernal, who also works as a cultural liaison in the district, helps parents at the NEST get technological support from the district. Parents and students working at home who contact the district will sometimes come by the NEST to get help from Bernal in person.

“If the parents cannot navigate it at home I call them and I say, ‘Can you come here?’ because we have the space, the internet, and the people,” Bernal said. “If I don’t know something I can ask the other kids and all together, we are able to figure out new stuff.”

Shannon Miner, a student family advocate at Alexander Elementary School, said the NEST “gives me another vehicle by which to support families in a way that is different because I can’t home visit like I used to right now.”

The district is also working to provide more resources to ELL students. Iowa City schools Director of Learning Supports Lora Daily said ELL teachers have put together videos for navigating online learning that don’t use words, just visual demonstrations, so the videos can be shown to students who speak a variety of languages. These tutorials wordlessly show students how to start up devices, troubleshoot and log onto platforms.

“It’s just simple, but very helpful for our families to be able to just see that and not need to have that verbal explanation,” Daily said.

ELL Curriculum Coordinator Sheila Neels said holding online lessons synchronously is also helpful so students can have a teacher presenting live virtually. Miner said some ELL teachers are using symbols and colors for class subjects on their virtual calendars and in Seesaw, the online learning platform for elementary students.

Students have had mixed reactions to this new learning set up.

“I kind of like it, because at school it’s really hard because there’s sometimes 20 kids in a class and the teacher can’t help everybody at once,” said Kevin Dominguez, a sixth-grade student who attends the Open Heartland NEST. “And [in] online school you can come to places like [the NEST] and there’s volunteers to help you around, so it’s a lot easier for you to learn when there’s more volunteers to help you out.”

Kevin’s little brother Edwin was not feeling as optimistic. As he sat in front of his textbook and computer, he said his teachers couldn’t help him as much over the computer.

Joshua Hurtado, a junior high school student, said the transition to online school is going pretty well for him and he is able to split up his time at the NEST between doing his own work at helping the younger kids like Edwin.

Said Hurtado: “A lot of these kids didn’t know what their classes were or their schedule and then, when they got here they got used to it and now it’s a habit for them to come each day.”