On my flight to the WIDA conference last October, I sat next to a Congressman who was fleeing Washington DC after the late night vote to restart the Federal Government. He told me how excited and relieved he was to be going home to his family and then he asked me what I did. Being very careful not use any confusing acronyms, I told him that I was a teacher that worked with English Language Learners and that I was on my way to a conference of other such teachers.
His response was: "Wow, that's great I would love to speak two languages! What language are you teaching them?"
I blinked, smiled, and replied, "Well, I work with students who come from other countries. I help them improve their English."
This Congressman's confusion was troubling to me because of his role as a policy maker (though he does not sit on the Education Committee and comes from a district that is 96% white), but I have found that misconceptions and confusion are common when I tell people what I do.
My mother is from an area that is 83% white. She tells me, "No one knows what you do when I first tell them, but once I explain it to them they get it."
When I told one friend of mine he said, "Oh, I didn't know you spoke Spanish."
"I don't, and though some of my students do, my Middle Eastern, North African, and Asian students don't," I replied.
He smiled and said "Oh sorry, I'm from Miami. ESOL was all Spanish when I was growing up."
As with all comprehension, background knowledge is the number one determinate of understanding.
So what does an ELL teacher do?
The truth is that we do many things.
We may work with ELLs in small groups or one-on-one building their language and literacy skills. We help them build their prior knowledge so they can understand content area instructions. We employ diverse and culturally responsive teaching strategies to increase our students' linguistic skills, but we also do so much more.
A couple years ago when I was at Ellis Island I saw an exhibit about how the children of immigrant families are the family's bridge between their home culture and the new culture. These children are our students. How often do we hear a young child say: "My Mom can't understand English, but I help her"? Think about the responsibility implied in that statement. We always think of the parents as being the bridges that guide their children into adulthood, but for many of our students the burden of helping the family build the bridge between old and new is placed upon their young shoulders. Who is there to help and support them? We are! It is our responsibility as ELL teachers to support them and help them build a strong cultural bridge for them to lead their family across. As Holly said in her post, we are the advocates for our students and their families in the community. We provide support, sensitivity, and cultural understanding to help them build a strong bridge toward the future for them and their families.
How are you building cultural bridges for your students?
Thanks, Heather, for sharing your experience and starting an interesting and important conversation.
Image by opensource.com via Creative Commons.