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Listening to Our Students

As a person who has lived and worked in other countries, and as the daughter of an immigrant to this one, I understand how hard it can be for people who are not native speakers.  I grew up hearing stories that were both hilarious and tragic about language and cultural misunderstandings my father experienced.  My father arrived in this country at the age of seventeen with no English at all.  He, his sister, and his mother had to take a train from New York, where their ship docked, to Seattle where my Grandfather was waiting.  In the dining car, the small Westö family pointed to items on the menu.  My father ordered and when his plate arrived, it was a sandwich.  Luck!  Recognizable food!  When he took a bite however, he thought the train staff was trying to glue his mouth shut.  Between the slices of bread was peanut butter, something my Finnish father had not even heard of before, let alone tasted.  That was the first experience in a lifetime of trying to understand and be understood in a language and culture that was not his own.

I have been fortunate to be interning in the most diverse school in what is a very large and diverse school district.  We have students from all over the world, who speak dozens of languages and have varied cultural practices.  We recently had a staff meeting which focused on ensuring access for English language learners.  I have learned over the course of this school year, that some parents opt out of ELL assistance for their children, even though there is no cost to them and it greatly helps students catch up or keep up in class.  Usually the reasons are cultural misunderstanding.  Sometimes parents think of the extra help as demeaning or singling out their child in a negative way, sometimes the ELL support staff are unable to make the benefits clear.  In any case, classroom teachers are required to teach the students they get.  They cannot say, “Well, your English is not very good, so you cannot be in this ceramics class.  Maybe you can come back later when you can understand everything.”  Classroom teachers must learn how to give those students access to the material just like they differentiate instruction for students with different learning styles, abilities, and special needs.  At this wonderful staff meeting (yes I did I write wonderful and staff meeting in the same sentence), a diverse group of students came to our staff meeting to talk to us about some of the things we teachers can do to facilitate learning for non-native speakers.  They spoke to us about language and culture, because those things are intertwined.

Here is some of what they told us:

  • allow additional time to complete difficult (language heavy) assignments
  • be available at lunch or after school sometimes for students who need more time or help
  • allow students to explain assignments to each other in their native language (oftentimes one student has a far better understanding of English than another and can help them understand what is required of them)
  • understand that many students may have verbal skills below their written skills because they may have studied written English but not been able to learn the spoken language
  • offer more than one definition for vocabulary words (if students can’t understand the definition either, they are lost)
  • allow the use of electronic translators and dictionaries in class
  • respect different religions (some people need a separate place to pray during class time)
  • allow non-native speakers to give presentations to the teacher alone or to small groups instead of the whole class
  • understand that some cultures are unaccustomed to group work in education and you will need to teach them how it works
  • talk to students one-on-one, get to know something about your students

Not only in research, but to the students in classes now, the last piece of advice was the most important.  If we learn who our students are, we find it easier to allow for their differences.  We should not just give those kids that old-fashioned, all-American, ‘peanut butter sandwich’ version of education.  We must find out who they are, so we can give them what they need to be successful in school.  My father used to laugh when he told his eating on the train story.  I want my students to be able to laugh at small misunderstandings because they move beyond them and learn to communicate.

One staff member who teaches math told us that she always adds a personal question to the end of her tests.  She learns something about each student that way even though she doesn’t have much class time to get to know them.  The answers open up opportunities to talk with students about their interests or experiences, building that vital teacher-student relationship.  I plan to use that teacher’s strategy in future and to actively seek other ways to get to know my students and to help them get to know each other.

~ by anitawesto on April 6, 2013.

ceramics, drawing & painting, sculpture, teaching