Equity & Diversity Opinion

Roots: Why We Must Support Non-English Speakers

By Christina Torres — September 02, 2016 5 min read
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Guest post by Jonathon Medeiros

I still remember my first day of French class in college.

I was nervous, waiting in my seat for the professor. Would the professor begin class in English? Would she put us on the spot or patiently lead us through the mazes of French? Je ne sais pas.

My trepidation temporarily subsided when I saw Mademoiselle Booth walk through the door. I was charmed and hopeful. She was all smiles-- in a pastel a-frame dress with matching scarf, shoes, and hat. We all smiled at her and each other. “Whew,” our chuckles and glances seemed to say, “This is going to be a fun and safe class.”

Then she proceeded to talk to us, in French, for nearly 2 hours. Her smile never faded and her voice sparkled as she grilled us in a language that sounded barely more intelligible to me than static between stations.

For the entire two hours, I had literally no idea what she was saying and what I was missing.

Dread grew and settled upon me as I worried about all the papers she was passing out and all the details I was missing.

Confused and ashamed, I was on the verge of tears as I left her class. Others seemed to catch the drift of what she was explaining and even answered her en France from time to time. I, on the other hand, felt miserable and hopeless as I shuffled off to my next class.

This memory came back to me as the leadership team at my school was looking through the preliminary results from the 2016 Hawaii Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA).

The normal details were pointed out as we patted ourselves on the back. We made great year-over-year improvements in overall achievement and even in the achievement of the so-called “disadvantaged” students (ELL, low socio-economic status, Special Ed), both as a school and statewide. Our school’s percentage of passing students had more than doubled on the exams but one subsection stood out to me.

0 ELL students passed the exam at my school.

0 ELL high school students passed the exam on my island.

Less than 1% of ELL high school students passed the exam statewide.

Clearly, this is a problem. We are not reaching this population of students. Regardless of how a person feels about the Common Core State Standards, we can still something wrong in this data.

What strikes me is that these ELL students are living not just one class every other day in the confusion and crushing loneliness I felt that day in French class. ELL students in our schools may live their entire school lives isolated from the language of the dominant culture and their own culture. They are linguistically and culturally locked away from what our current public education system values. To top it off, we are testing them, shaming them, for not knowing what we haven’t really taught them. The one lesson these students might be learning is that how they naturally learn and communicate, where they are from, what they value, is of little to no consequence.

A recent news story on Hawaii Public Radio regarding Hawaii’s non-English speakers, originally published at the Hawaii Tribune Herald, points out that Hawaii has the highest proportion of non-English speakers in the USA.

A full quarter of people in Hawai’i don’t speak English at home. In one county, 30% of school aged children speak Hawaiian at home but virtually all of their schooling is done in English. These facts fly in the face of how we teach our ELL students as well as the public school population at large. A quarter of our state’s population doesn’t use the dominant language as their own. A recent memo to the state’s ESSA task force notes that over the past five years, ELL students average 10-13% of the DOE.

Students and families for whom English is their second or third language do not process their day to day world, or learning, in the language or through the cultural lens that most public schools have deemed appropriate. Yet, we still push ahead with a mostly sink-or-swim take on ELL education.

I think about myself entering that French class so long ago, a motivated and intelligent young man with countless resources at my disposal, and still I barely figured out how to swim through French. I was a few steps away from dropping.

I wonder now about these students mentioned in the Hawaii Tribune Herald article, the ones not passing state tests, the ones that felt as I felt after my first day of French class, except every day. They did not choose to put themselves into this learning environment and they may not know how to stay afloat.

State tests are asking all students to express their learning, their understanding of the values embedded in the Common Core, but how does one effectively use a language that might not even have the vocabulary to express one’s values, especially when that person is still learning the dominant language and culture?

Even for people who have spent years learning a second language and living in a new country, expressing the precision of their thoughts and feelings can be difficult in that second language. Ichiro Suzuki, who has spent 16 years in the US, teaching the rest of us what it means to be a baseball player and a true hitter, still conducts interviews through a Japanese interpreter though he is fluent in English. He knows that though he can effectively communicate in English, he can’t quite express his original thoughts and feelings exactly unless he uses his first language.

We deign to test second language students’ “learning” with an already flawed, overly long, and ethnocentric exam. We should not force our students, especially those who don’t use English at home, to learn “our way” without first validating and taking full advantage of what it means to be who they are.

Despite the state of Hawaii’s large number of people that don’t live their lives in English and despite recently adopted policies, we don’t fully prioritized their learning needs. We offer a tepid and ineffective response. Our other “disadvantaged” students are achieving, according the accepted measures, perhaps because they speak and process the world in English. The group left out are these students who don’t speak English as their first language, and this is true in states across the country. In New York City, for example, state tests show small but steady gains in reading and math scores for the overall student population, but ELL students are lagging far behind.

I think back on my first day of French class and my panic. I felt alone and adrift, or cut off at the roots. Without providing appropriate services for our ELL students, who are in fact a large, indispensable, and integral part of our schools and our communities, I fear we are isolating them, setting them adrift, cutting them off at the roots.

Un peuple sans la connaissance de leur histoire, l’origine et la culture est comme un arbre sans racines.

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