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Four months ago I found out the my master’s program was going to have an emphasis on diverse language learners. “Fancy shmancy,” I thought, “That sounds special, but really what do they have to do with teaching?” I knew what to do with diverse language learners… surround them with English, teach them some vocab, and sneak in a little grammar. Hand me that diploma, I’m good to go.
It didn’t take long until I realized that it had everything to with teaching. Everything to do with my teaching. In the last 12 years, Colorado’s public schools enrollment have grown by 12%. During that same time the amount of English Language Learners has grown by 352%.
My classroom is consistent with this growth, meaning that most of my students’ first language is something other than English. Unfortunately, many of these students have had teachers who adhered to the same beliefs I alluded to in the first paragraph. They’ve been told that their first language has no place in the classroom and the important thing for them to do is to solely focus on English. I believe that it’s critical for these students to learn English, but I’m beginning to see the social, emotional, and educational impact this approach has taken on them. Nowhere have I seen it clearer than my recent conversation with my student, Salene. It left me aching and even more committed to learning all that I can about diverse language learners.
(This conversation happened as Salene was preparing for her student-led parent-teacher conference)
Salene: I’m really nervous about my tomorrow.
Me: Why?
Salene: Well, when I lead my conference I’ll have to talk in Spanish. My parents don’t really know English and I don’t speak Spanish good anymore.
Me: Oh, I’m sure you’ll do great.
Salene: No, I really don’t remember it.
Me: Really? What do you do when you’re at home?
Salene: Well, I used to talk to them all the time when I was like three, but because school is in English I just get confused all the time. I don’t really remember Spanish anymore so I just talk to my sister because she can speak English. I just don’t really talk to my parents.
In case you’re wondering, this isn’t rare. I’m starting to hear about the loss of first language from a number of my students. Something has to change about our understanding of English Language Learners. Salene’s success in academics and English doesn’t make up for the fact that, at age nine, she’s lost her relationship with her parents.