For English Learners to Thrive, Community and Culture are Necessary
After a professional development session for my teacher education program, I met with my supervisor to express a concern about a required program activity for my students.
I told my supervisor the design and language used in the activity were not accessible to my students. Most of my students immigrated to the United States within the last year, and all of them were English learners, thus making it difficult for them to complete the activity.
The supervisor responded to my concerns by saying, "Well, the good thing is that you will always know more than the kids you teach. They don't know anything."
I was infuriated by their response. As a new teacher, I frequently looked for advice to best serve my students. Instead, my students’ needs were dismissed. I could not separate the lack of empathy for my students’ learning situations from the fact that I teach an entire classroom of English learning students of color: 80% Latinx, 10% Arabic, and 10% Asian and Pacific Islander. Given my own experience learning English, I found myself reminded of the many instances when educators and administrators misjudged my ability to read or speak English as incompetence.
Unfortunately, the sentiment within my supervisor’s response is not unique to the curricula design for English learners. I was a designated English learner in the first grade, 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 learner kept me in classes focused on acculturation and behavior management while my “native English speaking” peers took courses entirely separate from English learner classified students.
Teachers refused to allow my peers and me to speak or communicate in Spanish and forced assimilation to English. For example, a teacher once asked me to identify the word “server” (a waiter) from an image. Given Spanish was my home language, 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 who waits), or that I had some ability to translate between languages since I didn’t know the word server. My reclassification as “English proficient” would not come until I made it to high school, at which point I avoided reading, writing, and speaking in the classroom.
Returning to the classroom as a teacher has informed how I ensure students can participate and learn in meaningful ways regardless of their familiarity with English. I work intentionally to ensure students’ linguistic capital—an expression of community cultural wealth — is acknowledged through language supports via student pairings and vocabulary, sentence, and speaking scaffolds. While I do not claim these supports are by any means comprehensive, feedback from students and counselors demonstrated that an overwhelming number of students feel supported by these classroom practices.
As a science and math teacher at a school for recently immigrated students (dubbed “newcomers”), I reflect on these experiences, mainly how policies focused on languaging and the practice of enforcing what language must look like negate the knowledge Black, Indigenous, and People (students) of Color (BIPOC) communities.
Building Inclusive Language Supports
Given immigration patterns to the United States fluctuate based on migration legislation, housing logistics, and family reunification programs, our classroom adds students frequently. To address student needs and the influx of newcomers, new students are paired with volunteers from our class community to communicate in their spoken languages, gradually scaffolding conversations in English.
All assignments are scaffolded in groups while students translate questions and vocabulary into languages they can read and write. If they cannot read and write in their spoken languages yet, the student is given a speaking 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 their larger group’s work while developing their reading, writing, and speaking skills.
Although students are encouraged to speak English with their peers, they are provided with vocabulary and sentence scaffolds to translate and use to support their 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 given a graphic organizer to write their main takeaways in English and their most comfortable language. The graphic organizer also provides an opportunity for students to share any associated sentences, phrases, and drawings. In this way, students can log their learnings and have a reference point for their assessments.
The Impact of Practice
In my conversations with students, I discovered that many students could use their native languages to learn new material. English makes it easier for them to engage with the materials (and even learn languages other than English!). Students have told me that our class doesn’t give them “the easy stuff” and challenges them to do more than just relearning basic concepts in English.
The support structures I utilize to help students improve their English and participate in the class have shown tremendous success. Students in my science classes report the highest percentage of work completion and rank their tasks as meaningful and relevant to their learning across disciplines. As a result, students and parents feedback put our school at the highest levels of meaningful peer and teacher relationships across the district.
Being able to let students work in their native languages while learning English has been tremendously affirming to me as a previously designated English learner. Since students speak in their native language, I can leverage my linguistic capital as a Spanish speaker to communicate with students and help them focus their attention on challenging and affirming their knowledge and cultural wealth. Furthermore, I can engage their families and communities to expand collective involvement in the wellbeing of students and co-create an environment where no one person knows more than the other.
Together, we create a rich and culturally wealthy community of learners. This environment demonstrates that the academic and cultural knowledge and language students enter the class with are one-in-the-same. My job as their teacher is to ensure our classroom reflects and affirms those experiences.