Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Know the Whole Student: Facilitating Content and Language for English Language Learners

If you ever wonder what real diversity looks like in Madison, WI, walk through the doors of Sherman Middle School. If you want to feel the power of inclusive education where students benefit from differentiating of curriculum and have access to a structured and engaging learning environment, I can vouch for my school.  And if you want to see real leaders of English Language Learners and teachers on the front lines of bilingual education, there is no doubt you'll find them there too.  In fact, Nichole Von Haden just happens to be one of those teacher-leaders at Sherman, and here she writes a smart and practical piece about ELL students and the effects teachers can have on their classroom and school experiences. Her knowledge is evident but it's her passion that brings the real challenges to the forefront. Read on and enjoy!

 A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with one of the first students with whom I’ve ever worked.  As part of a presentation for a new initiative at our school, she came to address staff about her experience as both a former student at our middle school and a high school participant in the program we are now adopting.  She spoke about her current status as a UW-Madison undergraduate in the field of neurobiology and her future goal of attending graduate school in the same field. Poised and professional in her demeanor and public speaking skills, this young lady is a shining example of everything I believe about structured academic language support for English Language Learners and the importance of bilingual education programming.  She hardly resembled the timid sixth grader I once helped support—the recent immigrant to the United States, who came to us understanding very little English.  I was her first line of support in her English-only environment.  At that time, I sat with her and translated her work so she could continue to learn, and through conversations in Spanish, I was able to assess her content knowledge, which could not be expressed fully through English.

 Based on my experience, I always knew this student was intelligent, so why am I surprised to see where she is today? Because what I, as an ESL/bilingual teacher, and what other teachers understand about content and language, in general, tends to be very different, and this has negative implications for our English Language Learners. Far too often educators intertwine specific language abilities with content knowledge.  Far too often we have this stereotypical view that if a student is coming to us from another country and uses a language other than English that s/he is somehow “less apt” or “unteachable” until s/he learns English.  Far too often, our English Language Learners are left behind due to standardized testing and classroom pedagogy that is culturally - and linguistically - irrelevant to them.  And altogether too often, students like the one described above, are a rarity — a success story — rather than the norm.

So, how do we change this?  How do we educators provide a learning environment that facilitates content AND language growth?  The answer is two-fold. First, we have to move away from the traditional deficit-based model approach to students’ learning.  We must see each student in terms of what s/he CAN DO, not what s/he cannot do.  Most of our immigrant and bilingual students come to us with a wealth of knowledge and competencies in their native language.  Because this foundation has already been created, our job as language educators (and we are ALL language educators) is to build bridges for them so that they can acquire the English they need to continue learning and express what they know and are able to do.  Even with very little English, there are many ways they CAN learn and demonstrate understanding.

Second, we need to actively construct a school and community culture that values multilingualism and multiculturalism — one that prides itself on mutual trust and respect.  For districts that are fortunate enough to have a sizeable population of students who speak a language other than English, Dual Language Immersion programs should be implemented and supported appropriately.  Such programs inherently build bridges between students of different home languages and cultures as they developmentally teach students content in two languages.  If this type of programming is not available, simple day-to-day appreciations of the linguistic and cultural diversity in our classrooms and our buildings can strike ripples that build into waves of asset-based pedagogy.  

Acknowledging students’ home cultures and funds of knowledge, as well as demonstrating a willingness to share about our own cultures and become students of our students, is crucial to fostering a positive multicultural, multilingual environment.  These fundamental changes will have lasting positive implications, not only for our English Language Learners, but also for us and our students of all backgrounds.  By implementing these changes, we will assure that our colleges, universities, and workplaces will be filled with lifelong learners who are both academically and socially competent, multilingual, and culturally-fluid.  Most importantly, they will be filled with people who value and appreciate diversity and know how to collaborate for a job well-done.  

Nichole Von Haden is a Bilingual Resource Teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District.  She is an avid reader and adventurous traveler.  Her most exciting travel experience was a 17-day, grant-funded trek throughout Southern and Eastern México, studying the ancient Maya and Olmec civilizations with her former teaching teammate.  Together, they co-authored an interdisciplinary unit of study that brings the experience alive for students as a “virtual fieldtrip” to the region.  Currently, she is dreaming up ways to make her next excursion, a trip to visit the ancient sites of Bolivia/Peru, a reality.

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