English Language Learners

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, so too must society want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” – John Dewey, The School and Society 

The experiences of individual children are at the heart of my interest in bilingual education. I think we too often forget that government policies, academic scholarship, and popular media debates about bilingualism have real, palpable consequences for students throughout the country. Or even if we do recognize these consequences, it is still difficult to  construct images in our minds about how the absence of bilingual education shapes the experiences of many immigrant students.

Reflecting on my personal experiences with English language learners allows me to see the ways that the lack of bilingual education impacts students on a deeply personal level. While the individual experiences of these students are part of a larger social landscape, I think that emphasizing that these students are all unique children with their own worries, hopes, dreams, and challenges should be an important part of discussions about bilingual education.

During my time as a student at Vassar, I have worked continuously with Poughkeepsie students. Poughkeepsie has a large immigrant population, and many of the students attending Poughkeepsie schools are English language learners. Last year, I worked with a recent immigrant from Honduras in her history class. I attended multiple classes a week with her to help her make sense of the history curriculum, which was taught entirely in English. Though I speak Spanish fairly well, her teacher asked me to use Spanish as infrequently as possible. I asked this teacher about her thoughts on bilingual education, and recorded her response in my field notes:

“I don’t think students should be speaking Spanish in school…It’s just not the place. The problem is that they speak Spanish all the time, at home, with their friends. It makes it so difficult to learn English, and I feel for them because I know they just don’t get the English reinforcement they need. When I catch my students speaking Spanish I let them know that I’m not happy, it’s just making it so hard for them to learn. I know there are many theories about bilingual education and its benefits. But I just don’t know… I don’t know if there’s a place for that in schools. My students have ESL classes every day. Why should history class be in Spanish too? I’m saying this because I really don’t think it helps them, this Spanish in school.” 

During class, I saw the student I was working with become increasingly frustrated with her inability to understand the class material. Her limited English proficiency kept her from engaging with her academics, and there was no option for bilingual instruction. Though Spanish was highly present in the hallways and cafeterias of Poughkeepsie High, it had no place in her history classroom.

I worked briefly with another student at Poughkeepsie High last year, named José. José was placed in the special education classroom, but I quickly realized he had been placed there due to his language difficulties. José had a passion for math, and would breeze through the math packets his teacher gave him. One day, José and I approached his teacher, asking if we could work on more difficult math packets that could prepare him for advanced courses. The teacher looked right at José and said, “You don’t need that… you should be focusing on math that will be practical for you, like how to calculate a tip, ya know?” In that moment, I saw the light fade out of José’s face- a sight that was truly heartbreaking.

These individual stories speak to the experiences of many English language learners at Poughkeepsie High. Though there is such a large and growing immigrant population, there is no bilingual education, and Spanish language use is sometimes frowned upon by teachers. The absence of bilingual education presents enormous challenges for many immigrant students, and hinders their ability to be academically successful. The lack of recognition of the cultural and linguistic knowledge that immigrants possess reinforces stereotypes and damages many students’ confidence and sense of self.

My interactions with English language learners at home in Connecticut stand in striking contrast with those in Poughkeepsie. My mom is a speech pathologist in my hometown (a small, affluent suburb in northern Connecticut). She works with preschool students, most of whom come from white, upper-middle class families. There is not much ethnic or racial diversity where we live, and English language learners are few and far between in the public schools. This year, however, my mom has a student, Juan, whose family recently emigrated from Mexico. Juan is five years old, and very quiet. He comes to school every morning with a bright blue back-pack and a small, hesitant smile. My mom spoke to me a bit about Juan and other English learners in her school district:

“It’s challenging when so few of our students are English language learners. I think it’s really isolating for them, especially the very young students. Juan attends a particularly small elementary school in town, and he is the only student at this school who is a native Spanish speaker. The only other ESL students are two siblings from Bosnia and one boy from Korea. In some ways this is great, because the ESL teacher can devote so much time and attention to each of the students. But it’s also hard because the ESL students don’t have a larger network of English learners who share their experiences. Juan never has the opportunity to speak Spanish with anyone, there are no teachers here who can speak. Well, I can speak a little, but not enough to carry a conversation or teach. I constantly think about how isolating that must be for him.” 

Unlike students in Poughkeepsie, Juan is not surrounded by fellow English learners, and the absence of bilingual instruction means that he is rarely given the opportunity to express himself in his native language, if ever. When I’m home, I often go to work with my mom and I love seeing Juan. The first time I met him, I started a conversation in Spanish, and I saw his eyes instantly light up. He became animated and chatty, and my mom told me that she had never seen him so expressive or enthusiastic. He finally had the chance to express himself in the language he felt most comfortable in.

The experiences of English language learners in different environments throughout the U.S vary greatly- but English learners in all places face challenges due to the absence of bilingual education. It is important to remember that language is a critical component of students’ identities. Amidst all of the current debates about immigration, bilingualism, and immigrant schooling, I think it is important to remember the struggles of individual students, and to work towards finding the light behind each and every students’ eyes.