Katie Brown, 2014 Washington State Teacher of the Year
In American culture, we typically greet others with a simple “Hi, how are you?” People often respond with a “Good, how are you?” Our exchange is like a cultural reflex. We go through the motion, regardless of how we are actually feeling.
You may have heard of the African Zulu greeting “Sawubona,” meaning “I see you,” and the response “Ngikhona,” meaning “I am here.” This exchange may be said in a similar context as our “How are you,” but the meaning is significant. Inherent in the greeting and response is the sense that by recognizing someone, you bring them into existence. “I see you” is said along with a connection through the eyes and means: I am present, I am here, I see who you truly are.
This is what our English Language Learning (ELL) students need right now. Our students need educators, legislators, policy makers, and communities to truly see them. To see them as individuals with unique strengths, experiences, interests, aspirations, and needs.
ELL students are too often stereotyped as Hispanic, low income, and uneducated. A common misconception is that ELLs constitute a homogeneous group that can be addressed under one policy umbrella. In reality, ELLs represent a heterogeneous group with varied linguistic, cultural, ethnic, racial, educational, personal, and socio-economic backgrounds.
Hispanic students represent the majority of ELLs in our state, but we are seeing a growing number from Asia, Africa, India, and the Middle East. Some families immigrate to escape violence and/or poverty; others immigrate for professional reasons and are economically stable. Some ELLs are born in the United States and enter our schools at a young age, while others enroll as teenagers with a limited amount of time to acquire English and fulfill graduation requirements.
The diversity in our state’s ELL population requires different approaches to providing students with a high-quality education.
Let me give you a few quick examples.
Eduardo is a new immigrant from El Salvador who arrived in my school district as a 5th grader. He is highly educated, can read and write at grade level in Spanish, and has a witty sense of humor. He loves math. Eduardo’s teacher has received extensive training in GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design) and knows how to provide comprehensible input in the classroom that promotes language acquisition and literacy. As a result, Eduardo can use his background knowledge and experiences to help him understand concepts. He is acquiring academic English quickly and his teacher feels equipped to support him.
Linh enrolled as a 9th grader shortly after Eduardo. She lives with her mom and four siblings who recently immigrated from Vietnam after the death of their father. Due to the isolation of her rural village and extreme poverty, she attended school off and on. Linh can speak fluently in Vietnamese, but is limited in her ability to read or write. Her favorite course is ceramics and she hopes to join the tennis team.
Linh’s English language development is slow. She must learn a completely new alphabet and retrain her mouth to create sounds she has never heard while navigating six different high school courses with six different teachers. Few of Linh’s teachers have received adequate training in language acquisition and rely heavily on our ELL Specialist for guidance. In addition to teaching courses, our ELL Specialist consults with teachers to discuss how to best support Linh in the classroom. There is no collaboration time built into the school schedule however, so Linh’s teachers try their best to meet before school, during planning time, or after school. They are eager to learn how to scaffold instruction so Linh can participate in the classroom, but it is a huge struggle.
Julio is in 11th grade and is undocumented. He decided to drop out of school last week to work and save money while he can because he fears losing his DACA status under the new Trump administration. We did everything we could to convince him to stay in school. We are trying to arrange a schedule where he can work during the day and possibly attend school in the evenings through a community college.
There are so many more stories. Maria from Mexico, Jaspreet from India, and Farima from Afghanistan. They are enriching our classrooms and school districts with their global diversity, multilingual skills, and cultural perspectives. They have dreams and goals in which they need our help to achieve.
So let’s all work to confront common stereotypes and help our ELL students feel that: We are present, we are here, we see who you truly are.
We can do this by providing school districts the necessary funding to hire ELL Specialists and staff to adequately support ELL students and families.
We can do this by providing high quality training for teachers and administrators.
We can do this by expanding family engagement services including interpretation, translation, and parent education.
We can do this by calling for the continuation of DACA, the REAL Hope Act, and HB 1079 to ensure all students have access to higher education in our state.
Finally, we can do this by making sure policy decisions concerning ELL programs, students and families reflect the complexity and diversity of the students we are trying to serve. You can call on us at The Washington Teacher Advisory Council (WATAC) to help.
Katie Brown is the 2014 Washington State Teacher of the Year. She is and a teacher on special assignment and ELL specialist for Bellingham Public Schools in Bellingham, Washington and a private consultant specializing in English language learners.
Amy Abrams, Kent