Recently, I contributed to a post that was published on Classroom Q & A with Larry Ferlazzo. The five different respondents shared their tips for creating a classroom environment in which students have opportunities to speak. It is an important topic because communication is fundamental to language learning.
Below, I include my contribution in which I talk about the importance of teachers’ understanding students’ experiences of race and racism for language teaching. Importantly, I give tips about what this understanding looks like in classroom practice.
“I don’t speak English fluently, but I understand it and I know how to speak and write it…not the best. But, they [teachers] think that just because we look like Mexicans that they need to keep repeating, repeating, repeating…like the ones who learn Spanish first they don’t think we are going to understand it and they keep us like away from the other ones that know English.”
-Francisco, a high school student
After Francisco (a pseudonym) shared these thoughts, I was surprised. His comment surprised me because over the three months that I had observed him in his high school English language arts class he rarely said a word. He spoke so little that because of his English language learner (ELL) classification, I was unclear as to how much he could communicate in English.
Towards the end of our interview, I shared my initial assumptions about his English abilities with Francisco. He responded by recounting experiences of teachers assuming that he could not speak English because he sat near students who (unlike him) were recent immigrants from Latin America. He shared his frustration with being spoken to by White English-speaking teachers in broken Spanish because they assumed that he did not know English. Moreover, he understood White teachers’ disrespect towards those they perceived as Latino immigrant students as emblematic of racial dynamics that he witnessed outside of school. His decision to remain silent during class was a way to ensure that his intellectual and linguistic dignity would be protected.
My conversation with Francisco situates my response to this week’s question within the importance of perceptions about race in English language teaching. I highlight two areas of learning that are fundamental to educators setting the groundwork for students, like Francisco, to believe that their contributions are important in the classroom.
1. Learn about the linguistic and educational experiences of ELLs in your classroom.
Francisco shared how educators’ assumptions about his English proficiency contributed to his silence within the classroom. Create opportunities for students to share about their educational and linguistic experiences to allow educators to avoid these types of mistakes. Importantly, this does not mean asking students to respond to direct questions about these topics in front of the entire class. This type of information can be integrated into “getting-to-know-you” projects like linguistic autobiographies, linguistic surveys, identity collages, and other such classroom activities.
2. Learn about the racial histories of the United States and the countries with which your students have connections.
As Francisco’s comments illustrate, students come into the classroom with histories of being treated certain ways because of their racial identities. Educating ELLs, most of whom also belong to minoritized racial groups, requires recognizing the impact of racism inside and outside of the classroom. Educators who understand how race and racism operates can make informed decisions about how to best incorporate students’ identities into instruction, avoid racist practices within their classroom, and can advocate on behalf of their students. While learning about these topics through reputable external resources (e.g., documentaries, articles, etc.) is necessary, students can also teach educators through sharing their own experiences. For example, teachers can design activities in which students talk about resilience within their communities.
Students who are identified as ELLs (like all other students) are multifaceted individuals. As a result, the racial dynamics that impact the rest of society also impacts their learning. If educators want to create spaces for ELLs to use their voices, it is necessary to create classroom environments where students understand that all of their identities are valued.
Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for providing a venue to share these ideas. Don’t forget to check out his website that has a plethora of other resources: http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/