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When you're teaching in a dual immersion classroom--or even if you aren't--these character development tips will help students build important life skills

5 character development strategies for a dual immersion classroom


When you're teaching in a dual immersion classroom--or even if you aren't--these character development tips will help students build important life skills

It’s important for teachers to find ways to teach social-emotional learning and character development to help their students build the skills necessary to process the events of 2020 and to persevere and succeed in (for many students) a distance learning or hybrid environment. This can be challenging, especially for ELL teachers.

I teach a first grade dual language immersion program at an elementary school outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Our school district has made character development a main focus and I’ve found some specific strategies and resources that can be helpful for early elementary school teachers – and especially for ELL teachers – who are trying to teach SEL and character development remotely.

Dual immersion in elementary school

My district has around 400 English learners and about five years ago it decided to create a dual immersion program to better serve these students. Our Two-Way Immersion program is a district-wide program housed at my school and specifically serves students who learn academic content in two languages: Spanish and English. I teach the English side and my teaching partner Kristina teaches the Spanish side. We share two cohorts of students, both made up of English and Spanish speakers. The program has been a success. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the growth of the Spanish speakers in their acquisition of the English language and the growth of English speakers in learning Spanish when they previously didn’t know any Spanish.

Character development for dual immersion classrooms

Whether teachers are in a traditional classroom or a dual immersion classroom, it’s important to embed SEL and character education into everything they do. For instance, we use the Biliteracy Unit Framework as our literacy curriculum, and we also incorporate SEL and character development lessons and use the teaching tolerance standards. The first unit we taught this year, for example, was called My Identity. I also have units on kindness and perseverance.

Many strategies to teach character development and SEL are universal and work in both traditional classrooms and dual immersion classrooms. Here are some that are especially helpful for dual immersion students.

1. Focus on character education language. I use the Project GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design) strategies to teach language and vocabulary. We incorporate character education by practicing specific words relating to positive character traits like “perseverance,” “gratitude,” and “empathy.” Students learn them in both English and Spanish and we discuss what these character traits mean to build comprehension. One thing that helped students the most when schools closed due to the pandemic was that they understood things like perseverance. We talked about how being remote is hard, but that students can persevere and work through it. We had been practicing and modeling the trait all last year and I think that has helped them navigate this school year because they know what it means to persevere.

2. Video lessons with subtitles can be a good way to support character education in dual immersion classrooms. The Character Tree is one of my go-to resources for this. Their videos have Spanish subtitles and include printable resources in both English and Spanish. Students watch the characters in the videos describing and modeling the traits, which helps with comprehension and serves as a jumping-off point for classroom discussion. My class focuses on one character trait a week and it has made a big difference.

3. Physical response strategies are also a great way to reinforce vocabulary in a dual immersion classroom. We use the Total Physical Response method to teach vocabulary, including words related to character traits and SEL skills. The strategy involves using physical movement to react to a word. We match our vocabulary words with a sign language word or action. For example, one unit is community. Students connect words like city, buildings, traffic – and also character development words like kindness, acceptance, and perseverance – with a physical action. They hear the word and also do the action that goes with it which helps them to remember the word. This is especially effective while teaching in person, and also can be done during virtual learning.

Teaching in a distance learning classroom

Even with the best resources, it can still be difficult to teach character education and SEL in a virtual environment. Here are some things to try. These are universal strategies that can help whether you’re teaching in a traditional classroom or a dual immersion classroom.

1. Have a daily morning meeting with students. We’re what we call a “responsive classroom.” We have a morning meeting every day that revolves around SEL. Whether I’m sharing a book and talking about feelings or about ways we can help friends, all of my morning meetings incorporate SEL. This meeting should be done during synchronous learning time, and can follow many of the same routines as you would in the classroom. These daily meetings are a great way to focus on building community, trust, and relationships with the students. I feel these skills need to be explicitly taught and discussed throughout the day, especially with our young learners so focusing on it first thing every morning is a great strategy.

2. Use visuals to help students understand traits like acceptance and kindness. This is particularly helpful for young students. They need to be able to see examples of people being kind or accepting so they can mirror that behavior. Picture books are a great way to do this, even if you’re reading to the students online. You can discuss how the students might connect to the characters and talk about what the characters are feeling. Videos are another excellent option. We talk about the trait during synchronous learning and have our students watch the Character Tree videos during asynchronous learning. I often share the videos on Seesaw, our online learning platform.

3. Take your time, especially at the start of a school year or when starting with new students. It takes time to build connections. Spend a few weeks getting to know new students (or a new class). Learn about their hopes and dreams and challenges. This is especially important during distance learning because the separation can make it more challenging to build those relationships. It’s important for teachers to let students come to learning on their own. Not everyone is going to be ready to share and talk immediately. Teachers should be patient and understanding as students are learning social emotional and character development skills because these can be difficult topics to understand. So be patient when teaching these lessons and go back often to reinforce what they’ve learned.

4. Focus on the big stuff. These are unprecedented times and we aren’t necessarily going to have time to teach everything we would like. So pick what’s important and focus on that. We’re focusing on the “Power Standards” concept – identifying and pulling out the most important curriculum standards and prioritizing them.

5. Collaborate with other teachers to find resources. Teachers Pay Teachers is a great place to find amazing, teacher-created resources. I look for resources there and have also created my own store to share my own materials such as interactive read-alouds, phonics lessons, and morning meeting resources. Teachers aren’t in this alone. They can lean on colleagues, and their online communities, for support and resources.

I believe SEL and character education are essential for all students – especially those in the younger grades. We’ve all been going through trauma in some form during the past year and it’s especially difficult for 6- and 7-year-olds to understand and control their emotions and feelings.

By using some of the tips above, teachers – including those in dual-immersion programs – can incorporate SEL and character education into their lessons whether they are physically in the classroom with their students or teaching remotely. By doing this, they will be helping to set their students up for success despite the challenges of this school year.

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