This post is dedicated to Elsa Mendoza de la Mora.
Elsa Mendoza de la Mora was a loving wife, mother, and friend. She was a beloved educator, colleague, and principal. The first El Paso victim to be laid to rest, Elsa was remembered by a colleague as always fighting for what she wanted, having a passion for teaching. As I reflect on her life, I recognize the innate gifts Elsa had as an educator and a leader. Gifts that connected her with students, staff, and the community. Gifts that were ripped from her, her family, and the community that loved her – in the name of white supremacy.
Elsa, a multilingual Mexican American, acutely reminds me of how precious the students and families are that I serve. When I considered how I could contribute to this series of posts talking about racism, I considered the experiences that I have had as a teacher of multilingual students that have roots in dozens of countries across the globe. All too often multilingual students are overlooked and underserved; this is the work of white supremacy.
Before I begin, I’d like to explain the terminology I intend to use throughout this post. I do not use the term “English Language Learner” (ELL) or “English Learner” (EL) intentionally. While these are widely used terms in education, these are terms that center whiteness and are deficit-focused. Not speaking English fluently is NOT a deficit. The students that these terms attempt to describe are, in fact, emerging multilinguals. Students may already be fluent in one or more languages – this is an asset. I use the term emerging multilingual or multilingual to honor a students’ first language(s) and acknowledge their inherent strengths.
When I consider what’s important to me as an educator, these three areas come to mind (and in this order): relationships with students, relationships with families, and instruction. With that in mind, these are the my most important takeaways to ensure anti-racist, anti-bias language development.
Relationships with Students
Relationships are key in centering anti-racist, anti-bias education and language development within your classroom or school. When relationships are formed, challenging conversations or situations that may follow become easier and more productive to navigate with trust.
- Be persistent and intentional in establishing a relationship but let students guide the way at their own pace. Emerging multilingual students, especially when new to a setting, often listen and observe first. This is often called the “silent period” but I prefer to acknowledge this as a time of taking in one’s new surroundings in an intentional way. Ensure that your student knows you are interested in them by greeting them warmly (in their first language), speaking to them often, and listening attentively when they do communicate, no matter how brief. Persist in this, as it is important that – no matter how long they listen and observe – they feel welcomed.
- Be explicit in the value you hold for a student’s first language and culture. Through words and actions, ensure that students know and understand that you value their gifts as a multilingual. Avoid praising a student for their acquisition of English without praise of their multilingualism. Honor all contributions made socially and academically, through whichever language it comes. Ensure that all students hear and see this appreciation for multilingual students as it is critical modeling that is necessary to establish an anti-racist, anti-bias classroom.
- Be intentional in nurturing peer-to-peer relationships. Language is never a reason that a student shouldn’t be able to develop strong peer relationships. Regular classroom routines to build community, such as classroom circles, should be made accessible and inclusive of all languages spoken. Consider adding visual supports to these community-building routines, as well as utilizing translation technology. In the past I have taught students, monolingual and multilingual, how to access Google Translate on classroom devices and supported them in initial communication with peers. Technology has advanced significantly and it is now possible to utilize speech recognition within the app on iOS and Android devices to hold entire conversations.
Relationships with Families
Trust between families and schools is paramount to creating safe, inclusive spaces for thriving learners. This trust takes intentional work and time to build, but is a part of the foundation of an anti-racist, anti-bias classroom.
- Be knowledgeable about the supports offered by your school division/district as well as community partners. Does your division/district have a central office department dedicated to emerging bilinguals? Whether or not it does, what supports are in place for families enrolled in the division/district? Are there in-house or external translation services provided? Programs for families to provide them with the necessary information and access to support for their children as they start school? Who do you go to if you need additional instructional materials or guidance to provide the best possible learning experience for a student? What community organizations can provide you or families support if your school division cannot? It is our responsibility to know how to advocate for ourselves, our students, and their families.
- Be bold in honoring families as their child’s first teachers. Cultural perceptions of the role of family versus teachers in a child’s education can vary. It is important to, from your first interactions, position yourself as a partner in education with families. Communicate your desire to learn from families – their knowledge about their children and how they best learn is invaluable to you as an educator. Their funds of knowledge (entire book available here) are priceless. Their cultural and linguistic heritage is an asset. This is not a one time communication – it must be a continuous communication in word and deed. Look for opportunities, big and small, to seek their support and guidance in the educational process.
- Be intentional in building an extended classroom community. Families should feel welcome in their child’s school and in their classrooms; they should feel welcomed by other families, too. You are the gateway to building that community. Ensure that school-home communications are multilingual, as well as in-school events. Modeling the importance of multilingualism to every family, regardless of language status, is key in building an anti-racist, anti-bias school community.
Quality instruction for emerging multilingual students is a right, but it is often not a reality. Insufficient knowledge, supports, and materials often sustain inequities that are deeply rooted in white supremacy within our systems of education.
- Be relentless in your pursuit to provide differentiated instruction. We can differentiate by content, process, product, and learning environment – one or more at a time. In the pursuit of an anti-racist, anti-bias classroom we must walk the road toward equity with intentional instructional decisions. We must consider the barriers to participation and success criteria for each and everyone lesson – and then we must remove them via differentiation. There is a way. There is always a way. Below is an example of how you might differentiate a reading mini-lesson.
- Choose evergreen read alouds, intended for use throughout the year with multiple comprehension strategies, that are available in multiple languages. You can acquire copies in multiple languages by requesting it from your administrator, division, community organization, local public library, crowdsourcing, or seeking it out on YouTube. Ensure that students have an opportunity to either read (if they are able to in their first language) or listen to a text before/during an English-language read aloud.
- Provide reading response opportunities that match the skill being taught to English-speaking peers. When a student has an opportunity to develop their literacy in their first language, their capacity to develop literacy in English widens/deepens. This could mean using the same question stems but using a translator app (or embedded technology in Microsoft Office suite, for example), or visual prompts, or “turn-and-talk” with a peer using an aforementioned conversational translation app.
- Be critically reflective and analyze how your classroom serves your multilingual students.
- Go through your classroom library. Do you have multilingual texts? Do you have multiple races, ethnicities, religions, gender identities, sexual identities, and abilities represented? Are they represented in ways that go beyond tokenization?
- Is your teaching culturally responsive? Do you integrate your students’ culture in meaningful ways throughout your day, month, and year?
- Are you actively supporting students in maintaining or obtaining literacy in their first language? Do you share with them what the research tells us about how strong multilingual students are?
- Be a learner. Model for your students what it means to be a life-long learner. When you fail, name it. When you do better because you know better, describe it. Be vulnerable in your pursuit of an anti-racist, anti-bias classroom. When our students see us rising to a better plane, they are more willing and better equipped to do so themselves. They will ask the questions that lead to better relationships; they will be willing to apologize and make things right when they harm. And yes, that all starts with the explicit instruction we are delivering in our classrooms – social-emotional, civic, and academic.
By no means is this an exhaustive list of ways we should be supporting our emerging multilingual students, or in developing an anti-racist, anti-bias background. I encourage you to continue your learning on this topic, as I will continue to do myself, as we owe it to our students, their families, and ourselves to do so.
This work is never over.
This post is from a blog post series on racism. If you would like to read some other posts related to race and its intersectionality with the classroom, click here.
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