On Being Visible and Feeling Safe...
The excitement of the first day of school approaches...it's palpable from all ends. Teachers have been working hard in the last couple of days getting the classrooms ready. Parents have been soaking up the last days of summer and freedom of schedules. And the children...they know that next week is a BIG week. Just like many adults, children can have anxiety about what it means to go back to school. For some it might means, the change of structure. For others, it could mean being separated from caregivers. And for some others, it's trying to wrap their heads around the fact that they won't understand a word their teacher says to them. I want to talk about those children today. My personal heroes: English learners.
I understand how nervous a teacher feels when a child enters the room and neither one can understand each other. But I honestly can't even imagine being a child who doesn't speak English YET and having to do this hard work of learning a culture, a language, and academics in a unfamiliar language. Imagine doing that hard work every day? For 7 hours? Their load is heavy. Their resilience and grit is admirable. They show up every day knowing that this day would sound just like yesterday. For now. Until those unfamiliar sounds start becoming words they could use. But for that to happens, it takes time. Time for the brain to differentiate the new sounds and make sense. Time for the child to adjust in their new settings. Time for the child to realize that they are SAFE in our classroom.
And that's WHY I write this post today. Of course I want every child to feel safe. But today I'm talking about English learners because it is easy to forget the child who hides behind everyone else. Because it's easier to address all the other voices in the room that uses English to communicate and not wonder if that English learner understood one thing you said. Because it's easier to send a message about community and belonging to everyone else in the room but what about that child who doesn't speak English YET? How could we make sure he or she understands that this classroom is a SAFE place to be? How could we make sure they understand the basics of how the classroom work? How could we make sure they are being SEEN every day?
Here are three starting points that I have personally tried and used in the past 17 years of teaching English learners:
1. Ask yourself, "who is a resource I can tap on?" Think in terms of people who can help you and support you in this process. Are there bilingual parent volunteers? Does the school offer some kind of interpretation service I could tap on? Are there other children in the school that could help? Are there devices I could use? an App?
2. Set up a "Welcome Meeting" with the family of that child. In a welcome meeting, the main purpose is to bring the family together to school, introduce yourself and communicate the basics of your classroom to them. Why just to them? Doesn't everyone deserves this kind of meeting? Remember that our English learner and their family come from a different culture. School experiences are different around the world. It's safe to not make assumptions that they understand how an "American school" system work. But the most important that the child and the family needs to listen at this meeting is " I care about your child. I know it's going to take time for us to understand each other. But please know that I'm going to show up here every day for you." A child would never forget that. Trust me.
3. Involve your classroom in this process. Ask them, "what can we do to make sure ______ feels safe? Included?" You would be amazed at the ideas children can come up with. By tapping into them as resources, you're teaching them that in this world, we can't live oblivious to the people around us and that in order to be a strong community, we all have to help each other. Give your students an iPad or camera, and soon that English learner would be immersed in a world of visuals to support his/her learning.
My hope for this new school year is more ADVOCACY and INCLUSIVITY for our English learners. They are forgotten in many important conversations. They missed a lot of the opportunities because they are not seen. We are all teachers of English. It should not be the English language teacher that advocates for them. It should be everyone of us. Let's come back to a basic question that Jacqueline Woodson shared at NCTE Convention 2017:
What's the right thing to do here? What is the kind thing to do?
May this academic year be a strong year of learning, advocacy and inclusivity for everyone of us.