After a professional development session for my teacher training program, I met with my supervisor to raise a concern about a program activity required for my students.
I told my supervisor that the design and language used in the activity were not accessible to my students. Most of my students immigrated to the United States in the last year and all were English learners, making it difficult for them to complete the task.
The supervisor responded to my concerns by saying, “Well, the good thing is you’ll know more and more about the kids you teach. They don’t know anything.”
I was infuriated by their response. As a new teacher, I have often sought advice on how to best serve my students. Instead, my students’ needs were rejected. I couldn’t separate the lack of empathy for my students’ learning situations from the fact that I teach a whole class of black students learning English: 80% Latin, 10% Arab, and 10% Asian and Islander. Pacific. Given my experience of learning English, I have been reminded of the many cases where educators and administrators have mistakenly judged my ability to read or speak English as incompetence.
Unfortunately, the sentiment within my supervisor’s response is not unique to designing curricula for English learners. I was a designated first-grade English learner, primarily due to my inability to read at the expected fluency levels determined by the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), an English reading, writing, and speaking assessment. Being a designated English student kept me in classes focused on acculturation and behavior management while my “native English” peers took courses completely separate from students classified as English students.
The teachers refused to allow me and my peers to speak or communicate in Spanish and forced assimilation into English. For example, a teacher once asked me to identify the word “server” (waiter) from an image. Since Spanish was my mother tongue, I said mesero. It didn’t matter that I was able to interpret the meaning in my native language, that the literal meaning of waiter in Spanish is esperador (a person waiting), or that I had some ability to translate between languages since I didn’t know the word server. My reclassification as “proficient in English” wouldn’t come until I got to high school, at which point I avoided reading, writing and speaking in class.
Returning to the classroom as a teacher informed how I ensure that students can participate and learn in a meaningful way, regardless of their familiarity with English. I work intentionally to ensure the students’ linguistic capital, expression of Community cultural wealth – is recognized through linguistic support through pairing of students and vocabulary, phrase and speaking scaffolding. While I don’t claim that these supports are in any way comprehensive, feedback from students and counselors has shown that huge numbers of students feel supported by these practices in the classroom.
As a science and math teacher at a school for recent immigrant students (nicknamed “newcomers”), I reflect on these experiences, mainly on how language-centric policies and the practice of enforcing the language aspect deny knowledge black, indigenous and Black People (Student) Community (BIPOC).
Building inclusive language supports
As immigration patterns in the United States vary based on immigration legislation, housing logistics, and family reunification programs, our class frequently adds students. To meet the needs of students and the influx of newcomers, new students are paired with volunteers from our class community to communicate in their spoken languages, gradually structuring conversations in English.
All assignments are structured in groups as students translate questions and vocabulary into languages they can read and write. If they are still unable to read and write in their spoken languages, the student is assigned a speaker role to practice writing in their native language while other students provide support and help them read and write. In this way, students can contribute to the work of their larger group by developing their reading, writing and speaking skills.
Although students are encouraged to speak English with their peers, they are provided with vocabulary and phrase scaffolds to translate and use to support English language development. For example, assigned readings ask students to translate key scientific vocabulary to provide them with reference points to understand as they read aloud. Students are also provided with a graphic organizer to write their main takeaways in English and their most comfortable language. The graphic organizer also offers students the opportunity to share any associated phrases, phrases and drawings. In this way, students can record their learning and have a point of reference for their assessments.
The impact of the practice
In my conversations with students, I found that many students could use their native language to learn new material. English makes it easier for them to interact with the materials (and even learn languages other than English!). The students told me that our class doesn’t give them “the easy stuff” and challenges them to do more than relearn basic English concepts.
The support facilities I use to help students improve their English and join the class have shown tremendous success. Students in my science classes report the highest percentage of work completion and rank their homework as meaningful and relevant to their learning across disciplines. As a result, student and parent feedback has led our school to the highest levels of meaningful relationships between peers and teachers across the district.
Being able to allow students to work in their native languages while learning English has been tremendously affirmed for me as a previously designated English learner. As students speak in their native language, I can leverage my linguistic capital as a native Spanish speaker to communicate with students and help them focus their attention on challenging and affirming their knowledge and cultural wealth. Additionally, I can engage their families and communities to expand collective involvement in student welfare and co-create an environment where no one knows more than the other.
Together, we create a rich and culturally rich student community. This environment demonstrates that academic and cultural knowledge and the languages with which students enter the classroom are one. My job as their teacher is to ensure that our class reflects and affirms those experiences.