William & Mary

Barko-Alva joins expert ESL panel to widen impact of civic education program

  • Game modification:
    Game modification:  Katherine Barko-Alva joined other education researchers for a two-day discussion on how to adapt and modify the iCivics game “Do I Have a Right?” for ELL students  Screenshot from "Do I Have a Right?"
  • Panelists:
    Panelists:  Katherine Barko-Alva (back row, third from right), poses for a photo with other ESL researchers and teachers and iCivics staff members.  Courtesy photo
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Retired Supreme Court Justice and former William & Mary Chancellor Sandra Day O’Connor once said, "The practice of democracy is not transferred through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens."

After 25 years serving on the bench of the Supreme Court, O’Connor founded iCivics, an organization focused on the goal of restoring civic education in the nation’s schools. In early May, iCivics convened a group of eight English Language Learner (ELL) experts in Washington, D.C. to identify the challenges and opportunities in making the resources ELL-friendly. Among the group was William & Mary’s Katherine Barko-Alva, assistant professor of education and English as a Second Language (ESL) program director.

“These are some of the greatest minds and most distinguished researchers in the field,” said Barko-Alva. “It was a great honor to be included and to join the conversation about the best ways to bring this experience to ELL students.”

Through interactive digital games, iCivics teaches students how government works — allowing students to step into the role of judge, member of Congress, community activist or even president of the United States. iCivics also offers support materials, such as lesson plans, to help teachers integrate the games into their classrooms. 

The program is used by more than 150,000 teachers and 5 million students each year. The non-profit organization is now preparing to widen the impact of their games by making them accessible to ELLs, who currently make up about 10 percent of the nation’s public school student population.

At the D.C. event, four ESL/bilingual education researchers, including Barko-Alva, and four veteran ELL classroom teachers gathered with the iCivics team for a two-day discussion on how to adapt and modify one game, “Do I Have a Right?” for ELL students. 

In the game, students run their own law firm specializing in constitutional law. Players get to decide if each new client “has a right,” and if so, to match them with the right lawyer and win cases.

“There are so many layers of meaning in a game like this,” said Barko-Alva. “Not only do players need advanced knowledge of the English language, they must also have a basic grounding in how the American judicial system works and be able to interpret visual representations that are culturally specific.”

The ESL experts provided guidance to iCivics on the best ways to support students and teachers as they navigate these many different layers of meaning — while recognizing that ELLs are a very diverse group of students with a wide range of backgrounds and abilities.

iCivics will create a Spanish-language version of the game so that Spanish-speaking students with little or no English, as well as those in dual language and bilingual education programs, can access the content of the game and learn the underlying civic lessons.

They’ll also review the visual representations within the game, such as gestures, icons and graphics, and make other modifications necessary to ensure the game is accessible for culturally diverse students.

The advisory ESL panel also recommended the development of teacher resources with additional supports for learners of English, including language and vocabulary inventories and specific language objectives within the context of each game.

Following the convening in Washington, D.C., iCivics established an English Language Learning Advisory Council to guide ongoing efforts around the needs of ELLs. The eight members of the official convening will form the inaugural council, continuing the collaboration and work that was started in May.

“These games really get students excited about learning how our government works,” said Barko-Alva. “It’s a natural fit to make these games accessible to ELLs, many of who have only recently arrived in the U.S. and are highly motivated to learn about their new home and become engaged citizens.”