August 15, 2022

Pocketalk Helps Schools Establish Personal Connections with Students and Their Families in Alabama

For educator Jessica Aguirre-Cantrell, her life’s work is creating connections, helping all students feel welcome and setting them up to thrive in their class environments. Aguirre-Cantrell is a Federal Programs Resource Specialist at Madison County School System in Huntsville, Alabama, a state that has recognized and funded the growing need for more English Language Learners (ELL) resources across its schools. Through a tip from another district specialist while looking for better ways to engage with ELL students and their parents, including 15 Ukrainian refugee families, Aguirre-Cantrell discovered Pocketalk, a handheld language learning device that translates up to 82 world languages. After doing a trial run with 15 devices and witnessing how they considerably improved students’ ability to complete assignments and enhanced connections between school administrators and new families, between school staff and students and between new students and peers, Aguirre-Cantrell ordered 60 additional devices.

Her goal: to ensure every ELL student and school registrar, which is often the first face that new families and students meet, has a Pocketalk at their desk to communicate with incoming ELL families more easily. Her other goal: to share her district’s success story with education communities nationwide with the hope of helping schools establish stronger connections with ELL students and families as early as possible.

“What is so important about language learning is immersion and socialization,” says Aguirre-Cantrell. “Before we had Pocketalk, our ELL students couldn’t get the full scope of what their peers or teachers were saying to them because they didn’t have a resource available to them, and this device alone has allowed them not to feel so isolated. The vulnerability of being in a new community is less when you create new connections through communications – it creates a welcome and safe environment.”

A daughter of an immigrant father herself, Aguirre-Cantrell has an extremely personal connection to what she does – “I’m living my dream job because everything has come full circle for me and my family,” she says. She jokes that she “felt like a Jetson” when the first Pocketalk order arrived. “I remember they came out with first-generation translators when I was growing up, and my dad, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 17, didn’t know any English, so he would carry one around, but it wasn’t very efficient,” she said. “To think how far we’ve come and to be able to speak into a Pocketalk for real-time translation and have the efficiency and accuracy of languages at our fingertips is an important step forward, especially for ELL students and educators.”

Aguirre-Cantrell recalls how years ago, her dad learned English by watching soap operas – through the actors’ body language and tone of voice, and music, he was able to pick up on any episode and figure out what was happening. Her parents even named her older sister Erica after Susan Lucci’s character, Erica Kane, on All My Children. Eventually, her dad became the go-to translator at his job between English-speaking employees and employees speaking different languages.

Other examples of how Pocketalk has made a difference in Madison County School System, according to Aguirre-Cantrell and her colleagues, include helping students:

  • Transcribe homework in English, a task they were unable to accomplish before having a Pocketalk
  • Learn syntax and sentence structure so they can actively engage with lessons and complete their work in a similar fashion to their non-ELL peers
  • Make new friends and better understand and connect with those around them

Additionally, using Pocketalk empowers ELL specialists to have more personal interactions with students and families. Amy Bergeson, an ELL teacher for Madison County School System, shared her experience working with two Ukrainian refugees in fourth and fifth grade. “Not being able to understand those around them and trying to learn U.S. customs and culture is hard enough for ELL students. Before receiving Pocketalk devices, we used our cell phones, which was challenging because ELL students struggled to communicate well with others in the class,” she said. “Pocketalk is small enough to fit in your pocket and translates very accurately – the students have quickly learned how to use it and can talk with their friends in class. One feature that I especially like is the hands-free setting. I can turn it on while students are talking to each other in their native language and understand and be more receptive to what they are saying.”

Other Madison County School System registrars who have used the device also noted that the hands-free feature is especially helpful, as it allows the parent/teacher registration, conferences, and open house meetings to be much more personal when in use.

Aguirre-Cantrell recognizes that ELL students often feel different all the time, and this new translation tool helps them feel like they belong. For other schools exploring ELL learning resources, she suggests purchasing a small order of Pocketalks for starters and the funding will come once the district sees the immediate benefit of using them. According to the National Education Association, it’s estimated that by 2025, 1 in 4 children in classrooms across the nation will be ELL students.