By Carly Spina
Do you know about the linguistic assets and skills your students and families possess? While we spend a lot of time during the first few weeks of school forming relationships and learning about our students and families, we often overlook this piece. We spend a lot of time focusing on talents, interests, and learning preferences. Our students’ linguistic assets can include the languages they speak with family members, the language they use while in their houses of worship, the language they use when storytelling, the language in which they prefer to sing, and more. Our students come to us with varying levels of proficiencies in one or more languages (across the domains of reading, writing, listening, and speaking) while also engaging with the English language at school.
In today’s divisive climate, it is more imperative for us to be proactive in building inclusive learning spaces- whether they are remote or in-person. In today's political climate, it is now more critical than ever to be intentionally inclusive and supportive of our students' languages. Linguistic oppression is something that our students and families face constantly- whether they are viewing hateful comments on social media ("why can't they just learn English?") or they are being confronted publicly for speaking a language other than English at a local restaurant or even in a parking lot- and, unfortunately, it happens a lot more than we think.
What can we do to be more intentionally inclusive? What can we do as educators (even if we’re monolingual) to show our students and families that we value their languages and their identities? Here are a few easy ways for all of us to do this work, regardless of what grade levels we teach or what roles we have in our school systems.
Start by collecting the languages of the classroom. Glenview District 34 began this work in the winter by using the hashtag #LoveOurLanguages. Adults had conversations with their classes that ranged between 5-minutes and 45-minutes. Students are asked to reflect on who they are linguistically. Perhaps they have a language that they are fluent in other than English. Perhaps they have a language that they use to speak to a family member or a language that they only use in their house of worship. Maybe their family has an oral language that they use to tell stories and share pieces of history. There could be a language spoken at home by parents or a grandparent that was never passed down (for a variety of reasons- this could open the door to rich dialogues about historical/political contexts that didn’t allow for this). As students share, the adult facilitating the conversation would write down all of the languages represented by students and their families. Those lists can be proudly displayed and totaled up. Glenview District 34 placed signs on all of their classroom doors that boasted their total number of languages! To try this in your setting, feel free to use one of our templates.
Elevating the Status of Other Languages in your Common Areas
While English is many times the language of instruction, there is something wrong with publicly declaring that you value diversity without representing your linguistically diverse students and families. There are things that we can do to elevate the status of other languages in terms of their presence in our schools. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts from my blog Innovative EL:
1. Walk around your school and see what you notice. Take a language inventory. Share with your school leadership team and suggest some changes. Most people are completely unaware of what their school's appearance can share the school's values.
2. Gather data about your school's linguistic diversity. Ask your administrator or EL teacher about what language groups are in your school. Ask the students you serve about their linguistic assets.
3. Go on Amazon or your favorite retailer and search for signs, posters, decor, etc. in other languages. Hang signs, posters, and decor throughout the school.
4. If you speak a language other than English, try to speak it in front of the students you serve. If several teachers speak a language other than English, try to use that language in social contexts (passing in the hallways, stopping for a quick conversation, etc.). When children see that teachers use a language other than English, especially for social conversations, the status of that language is instantly raised.
5. As you get to know your students and their families, look for language liaisons in your classroom, school, or community. Check with your local community colleges, libraries, and public service agencies. These liaisons can help students to create their own posters, signs, ads for school events, school calendars, etc.
1. Don't cluster all of your linguistically diverse posters/signs in one spot (for example: on the wall outside of the EL classroom). This sends the message that this tiny corner of the school is the "Diversity Corner." In all other parts of the school, this isn't something that is valued.
2. Don't make a noticeable difference between your signs/posters among language populations. For example, if you have a professionally-made framed sign for the cafeteria, don't tape an index card underneath it in another language. Which language LOOKS more valuable to students, teachers, and parents? Also, be careful not to always place the English sign on top of the other language. Again—which language LOOKS more valuable? If English is always on top, what message does that send?
3. Don't prohibit languages other than English to be used socially in classrooms, cafeterias, the bus, etc. Not only is this a terrible sentiment rooted in racism, but it is also a violation of a student's civil rights. It also breeds intolerance, fear, and a general disdain for linguistically diverse students and populations.
4. Don't assess this just once each school year. There should be an ongoing status-check of how a school is doing in its effort to elevate the status of other languages. Perhaps one member of the school's leadership team can be charged with reporting to the team each month and sharing with the rest of the building: What are our celebrations? Which teachers have demonstrated great examples of elevating other languages this month? NOTE: Don't make this the job of the EL teacher. ALL ADULTS in the building should care about lifting up ALL STUDENTS.
5. Don't force this by creating inauthentic examples of language elevation. See how your teachers can infuse their instruction with linguistic opportunities, such as through a cognate wall (on a wall or virtually), etc.
Inviting Languages In
Educators must explicitly invite the native language into the learning space—it will not happen on its own. Here are some initial thoughts and considerations for teachers:
*Student reflections: If students are recording reflection videos on any topic (through the use of a device like an iPad or Chromebook), provide students with the option of reflecting in whatever language they choose. If students are reflecting in writing and they have literacy skills in another language, invite students to write in the language of their choice.
*Discussion partners/groups: If there are students in a classroom who share a common language, invite them to discuss the prompts/activities in the language of their choice. Oral language opportunities are beneficial for all of our students—no matter what language in which they are engaging! “But how will I know that the students are staying on task and not talking about something else- or worse, what if they’re talking about me?” Fear not- and trust your students. By demonstrating that you trust your students, you invite others to trust them as well. Don’t be fearful of not understanding everything. After all, how many of our students are experiencing this in our classrooms all day long? Trust me; we can handle it!
*Match the purpose with the audience: If students are designing a project or assignment that they are eventually presenting to parents who speak a language other than English, invite the students to design the presentation in the preferred language of their family. The learning will be more meaningful and the parents will be better informed about what the students are learning.
In conclusion, it is every adult’s responsibility to do this work—no matter how many languages we speak or the number of multilingual students we have on our class lists. We must continue to push back against the fearful (and hateful) rhetoric being spewed about our students and families. Honoring the identities of those we serve is critical and we all need each other to engage in this work!
Carly Spina has 15 years of experience in Multilingual Education, including her current role as a district EL/Bilingual/Dual Language Instructional Coach for 8 schools (EC-8th grade) in the Chicago suburbs. She is passionate about equity and advocacy for linguistically diverse students, families, and communities. Spina enjoys connecting with passionate educators across the country.
Carly Spina is currently working on her first book for EduMatch Publishing, tentatively titled Beyond Visuals: Innovative Supports for Multilingual Learners, which is anticipated to be published in 2021. The book will include the exploration of the following ideas as it relates to multilingual learners: SEL, academic supports, family engagement, educator self-care, and more.