I can't count on my fingers how many times someone has come up to me and asked me a question in Spanish. Then when I respond in English with... "I don't speak Spanish," I'm met with a puzzled and unpleasant look. A look that says, why don't you speak Spanish? You are clearly Hispanic.
Well, no...I'm not. People frequently ASSUME that I am Latina based on what they see and probably from my last name as well. Making assumptions about people is a dangerous thing. The only way to avoid or correct a misconception is to get to know people, ask questions, build relationships. Without this knowledge, we tend to make up our own stories about one another.
Making assumptions about our students and their families is even more dangerous.
When I was a kid, my parents rarely went to our school for conferences or other events. Chances are you probably have kids in your class with similar situations. Their parents are not coming to school functions. Why? I can only hope that the teachers didn't "assume" my parents didn't care. My parents, in reality, cared VERY much about my education. They actually cared so greatly that they left everything behind to move us to America so we could have a better education and future. If my teachers asked, they would have known that my dad worked a great deal of overtime so we could afford our little home. If my teachers asked, they would have known that my mom was still struggling to learn English, had an infant to care for, and didn't have an extra vehicle to drive. If my teachers asked, they would have known that my parents worked with me every night, instilled in me that school was of utmost importance, and read to me before bed each night. If my teachers asked...
I will never forget my first few years as a young teacher. I taught in a wonderful school that was filled with great families and amazing teachers. There was just this one teacher who often said things about her students that didn't sit well with me. One day she came into where we were eating lunch as a team and she said with great unhappiness, "Well, I'm getting a new student. And the kids are hiding all their things because the new kid is Mexican." I was shocked and saddened. She didn't stand up for the new student who hadn't even stepped foot in her room yet. The poor child was already labeled and no one had even met him yet. Why? I have never been able to forget this. At the time, I was a baby teacher and she was a seasoned veteran. I didn't stand up for the child. Now, I would tell my young self to speak up and be an advocate for the student. This veteran teacher made terrible assumptions about an innocent child and allowed her assumptions to sway the thoughts of her other 20 students. What a shame. A terrible shame.
Never assume that our students have experiences that we have. Even things we may think are basic and simple such as visiting a zoo. Don't assume all your kids have been to a zoo. Case in point...my niece was well into her teenage years before visiting a zoo. And sadly I didn't realize it until then either. I assumed she had been. When asking your class about experiences, think carefully about how you phrase the question. For example, don't say, "Who has never been to the circus?" It creates a singling out effect. It may embarrasses students who haven't had the experience. Also don't ask, "Does everyone understand?" It is rare that students who don't understand will actually answer by saying, "No". Instead ask specific, clarifying questions.
We make assumptions at times. It's really human nature. The important thing to remember is that when it comes to our students, the better we are at getting to know them by asking them questions and being genuine, the better we will be at serving them the way they need it. When we understand who they are, where they come from and what their lives are like, we will be able to reach them in a way that is powerful. Connecting by building meaningful relationships allows our students to feel important, valued, and part of their own growth in education.
Today I had the privilege of attending a great workshop in San Antonio called Making Words Real. It was presented by Joanne Billingsley, the author of the book, Making Words Real: Proven Strategies for Building Academic Vocabulary Fast. The session was very informative, interactive, and relevant for K-12 across content areas.
Joanne reminded us that words have a great deal of power for all students. They help us understand, be understood, and connect. Word knowledge leads to world knowledge. Key for us to remember as educators is that we all teach language. We teach the language of our content. Some of us teach math while others teach social studies or science. But we are all language teachers. We teach the language of our content because the situation demands it. There is a direct link between vocabulary knowledge and academic success. When our ELLs are missing vocabulary they lag behind academically creating a gap.
As teachers, we should be cognizant about how much talking we are doing and how much academic discourse we are allowing our students to practice. If we are doing all or most of the talking, then ELLs will continue to lack progress in speaking and consequently in writing and reading. There is a direct link between speaking, writing and reading as well. The more our kids practice the language, the stronger they will become as readers and writers. Exposure to academic is not enough. Students must have time for guided talk, purposeful conversations, and explicit instruction.
In her book, Joanne shares many examples of how to create a language rich environment that breads academic vocabulary. I will not go over each one, but I will say that most (if not all) of them include the employment of gestures, visuals, physical movement, and sentence stems.
Joanne reminds us that it is critical that students VERBALIZE to INTERNALIZE. Words become real when kids use them in speaking and writing not if they memorized them for a vocabulary test.
Nearly four decades ago, my parents were young newlyweds in a poor, economically unstable country in Southeastern Europe. They made a very difficult decision to leave almost everything behind and come to America. And they did it for the hope of a better future for their two kids. They left the former Yugoslavia with one suitcase and less than $200 in their pockets. But the dreams they had for us were worth it. They risked everything because they knew what staying there would lead to, and they heard about the promises of America.
It wasn’t easy when we first arrived in the states. We didn’t quite fit it. There were the obvious differences like language, clothes and food. Aside from language and clothes, we also smelled different from everyone else. My aunt (who came to America a few years before we did) came when she was in high school. She remembers being called the stinky girl. You see, cabbage is a staple in lower socioeconomic Serbian homes, so I imagine she smelled like cabbage and didn’t realize it. It was normal to her. But she was teased a lot for it back then. I'm sure it was hard for her self confidence. When she was in Yugoslavia, she was a very liked and well respected girl. The change was a shock for a teenage girl.
My family spoke no English at all when we got here. None of us, not one. My dad actually learned Spanish before he learned English. His coworkers were mainly Spanish speakers so he started to pick it up pretty quickly. Now some of the words he learned were not appropriate for daily conversation. None the less, he learned Spanish.
When my brother and I began elementary school, my parents learned English alongside us. We brought home our spelling list and they learned the words too. It was a game we played. My dad worked so hard to make sure we had a house to live in and food and clothing. He wasn’t home much because he was working and picking up overtime as often as he could, and my mother didn’t drive or speak English. I don’t remember either of them going to a parent teacher conference. I wonder if the teachers thought my parents didn’t care. When on the contrary…they cared A LOT. That’s why we left our home country and everything we knew and loved.
Below there's a class picture of me in kindergarten. Look at my little hand knit vest… We wanted desperately to fit in and to be like everyone else. To be accepted. After some time, my family met a Serbian woman who was married to a doctor here in the Houston area. They were well off and coincidentally had 3 kids who were all just a little older than we were. This family donated clothes to us. I can’t tell you how excited we would get when they brought over bags of clothes for us. It was like Christmas X 10! After that, we went to school in Polo and Esprit but they were all hand my downs…donations. People make assumptions all the time. We all do. It’s pretty natural. We were still the same poor family, but on the outside, it may have looked like we had some money or that we spent all our money on clothes. I wonder what people used to think!
Anyhow, as a student in elementary school, I was very quiet. I could sit and listen all day without saying a single word. After all, my parents told me to "Be a good girl" and that meant no talking in school. In our culture, the teacher holds all the knowledge. Students are there to learn from the teacher. So I took it all in and unless the teacher explicitly spoke to me, I could go the entire day without speaking in English. Then I would go home and tell my mom everything I learned. Only I would tell her in Serbian. My academic English did not advance as well or as quickly as it possibly could have.
Being different is hard for children. Especially those who come here with one culture and then are faced with learning a new culture. Essentially, they have 3 cultures. Their first, the new one and a combination of the two.
Here’s the thing…my story is not the only one. It’s one of MANY. This story is happening every day. The ELL population continues to grow in Texas and in the United States. Families from around the world are risking everything, leaving everything because they want a better future for their kids. It’s important to share our stories with one another. It helps us connect and understand each other. And in the absence of knowledge people make up their own stories.