Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Escamilla Interview: A Must-Read for Teachers of Language Learners

Interviewed by Jackie Moreno and Ashley Painter


Top experts in the field of bilingual education Kathy and Manuel Escamilla
answer teachers’ questions on what makes a successful school, hybrid language use, and student identities. Their answers have affected our practice and could influence yours.

How would you define a successful school?

Kathy: We need to measure how kids are learning and doing in reading, writing and math. However, engagement is as important as accomplishment. Are the kids engaged?  Are they motivated? Do they like to come to school? Do they see school as a place to invent their future? Those factors, as hard as they are to measure, are equally important to me when it comes to having a successful school.

Are the teachers well prepared? Is there a positive climate in the school?  

I go into too many schools where the climate is like a prison. Kids are marching down the halls like soldiers. I don’t think that’s the kind of place where you will find engagement or the joy of learning that will take kids through graduate school.

What are your thoughts on hybrid language use and bridging in DLI programs?

Kathy: I think that hybrid language use has a place. I don’t think it matters if we legitimize it or not in schools; the human mind is open. We don’t close the Spanish drawer and open the English drawer, which is why doing things like mixing language is possible, because the human brain is going to do it anyway.

I know how controversial it is in the field and why the field took such a strict separation of language policy because 20, even 10 or 5 years ago, there was so much concurrent translation. Concurrent translation is not the same as hybrid language practice.

I see a place for it, and we have to consider it in the context of the entire school day. Even if we tell students not to, they are using both of their languages to process information. We have to understand how to productively use what they know and what they are bringing to the table.

I don’t see it as a problem, but rather as a way for us to understand how the human brain is processing two languages. There is a need for us to better understand that.

How could a teacher integrate hybrid language use into a guided reading group?

Kathy: Let’s say you are doing a guided reading group in English and the teacher says the sound is “ch, ch, ch” and the child responds with chancla. You don’t need to stop and say, “It’s English time.” Rather you could say, “ You’re right, that’s a good Spanish word that illustrates the sound ch, just like chocolate.” You don’t need to put down the child or censor the child. You let them know they were making a good cognitive connection.

How can we effectively affirm student identities as bilingual learners when there are so many social forces that are coming at them?

Kathy: There is absolutely no problem affirming the identity of kids who speak English at home in terms of learning Spanish. They value their bilingual identities when they are not even bilingual yet. For white students who come from the dominant culture, bilingual is not a bad word, it’s an additive process. You are affirming an identity that is already there.

In the case of the kids who come to school speaking Spanish, the identities that we have to affirm are a little bit different because they are speaking a stigmatized language, stigmatized in terms of what they are bringing to school. We have to work a little harder to assure them that what they have is of value to them, to their family, and to the greater community, and it is not something that they should lose.

Manuel: We have two colleagues here at the University of Colorado, and there are others. They grew up in Mexico, and they went to the University in Mexico and graduated. The language they spoke was the normal language that was used there. They didn’t have to be corrected or told not to use that language.  They have a different attitude than I do and other colleagues like myself. This is a very big issue and a big challenge.

I came to the U.S. as a young person when I was eleven years old. The experiences that my colleagues had were different than the experiences that I had or of the students who are born being simultaneous bilinguals. We don’t often give enough attention to our native language.

The difference between me and my colleagues is the confidence that they exhibit. I am a faculty member, and I teach at the college level. I notice how I react and behave when I teach a class versus how those two colleagues act. Their accents are heavier than mine, but that is not important to them. To me it mattered because I grew up here with the expectation that I shouldn’t have an accent in English.

Two things that are important in terms of what is happening in education: many of our children lack the confidence to be more adventurous in their learning. Also, teachers at low-achieving schools are reminded that they are at low-achieving schools, and their confidence is not at the level where they think they can teach something well. Because of this, we have lost the ability to inspire our children.

See more of the Escamillas' work at: 


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