I worry. I worry for some of my ELL students sometimes. I prepare lessons, hunt for material, and look for ways to scaffold the learning without compromising the value or the content of the lesson. Standards are kept high, but the scaffolding is always there to build understanding. The frustration comes when I get this type of response whenever I ask some of them to speak to me in English. The conversation might go something like this:
Student: “¿Puedo usar la computadora para buscar una palabra?” (May I use the computer to look up a word?)
Me: “Claro. Sure, you can use the computer. Now ask me in English.”
Student: “Eh, entonces no! Siempre no la quiero usar." (Ehh! Never mind. I don’t want to use it after all!)
I’m taken aback! I can understand when a recent immigrant feels linguistically shy or overwhelmed by it all, but most of my students have at least six years of dual language and strong ESL instruction behind them. I expect them to take that leap and challenge themselves to engage in English. Unlike me, they have had the benefit of learning two languages at once. Again, these requests of mine are done privately, not in front of the class, as not to put anyone on the spot.
So what’s the deal? Why can’t I get them to take that linguistic plunge? This lack of confidence, apathy, and level of disconnect - whatever you want to call it, clearly transfers over into their written work. I don't get it, and I am at a loss when I try to get some of them to understand the value of holding on to their heritage language while embracing the new one.
Do they think that one has to be sacrificed for the sake of learning another? I really don't think so. Have they become so comfortable in their native language that they have closed off all opportunities to learn a second? Unlikely. Then why are they still stuck in the listening phase?!?!
Somewhere along their linguistic journey, could that carrot NOT have been alluring enough to reach for? Could the carrot be out of their reach altogether? I don't have the answers.
While sitting at the dinner table discussing this BIG idea with my sweetheart, a social worker, he jumped in with a ready response:
"How much is that carrot worth to them?"
"Well," I responded. "When I was growing up, the school system emphasized the importance of learning English, and the sooner the better. We were made to feel that we would never be able to function in this society without it." Unfortunately, I learned English at the expense of seeing my heritage language extinguished; one for the other.
"But it's not like that anymore," I continued. "These kids have every opportunity to shine in both."
"Yes, but like you said- times have changed." he responded. He then went on to contribute a few big ideas that maybe I have come to take for granted.
ONE: We live in a border region where students live dual lives, complete with family ties on both sides of the border. Loyalty and identification with their social network of friends and family far outweighs their need to adapt, assimilate or choose one language over the other. Basically, they take what they need from both worlds, when they need it.
He went on to give me this example about a guy he met when he took off some time from social work to enroll in culinary school. During his internship at a restaurant, the majority of his co-workers in the kitchen were recent immigrants from all over, mostly Mexico and Central America. "There was this one guy who quickly caught on to the idea that front of house staff get paid more than those in the kitchen. Within a year, this guy had enough of the lingo and the charm down to begin serving tables in the front, bringing him added income including tips."
TWO: The students here can get by with their native language at the store, in a restaurant, or at a bank, without ever having to challenge themselves to communicate in English. In other words, they have all their needs met in Language One. Again, Spanish newspapers, news on the television, ads, social networks, all meet their need for communication quite nicely.
I imagine that students who come in from other countries where their native language is not readily accesible tend to embrace English a little quicker, but I don't really know.
THREE: Despite best intentions from school systems, family and community, they’ve been corrected enough to know when to stay quiet, lest they be judged. Many are tested way too soon, while their second language is still stewing in their heads.
When they do meet with some success, the rules (passing standards on state exams) change in the middle of the game. Don't get me wrong. I'm all about rigor and setting the bar high, but it's hard to see some of these students get left behind.
No doubt that this lingistic duality is supposed to be an advantage. Yet, here they are, years later, treading the academic waters, always in catch-up mode or linguistically paralyzed when they have to put pen to paper. I'm left with a big, "What-to-do?"
Then there's "I Have My Own Carrot, Thank You!"
I had enough to think about, then I ran into an ex- student at the local hardware store a few months back. Educated in Mexico, he had only been in American schools for one year prior to enrolling in my class. He was always a bright boy. He survived with enough cognates, visuals and the like. Let’s face it, he was one smart cookie.
Logically, I figured he had gone through the school system here and was doing well. I asked him which local high school he was attending. He told me he wasn’t in high school. Dropout? "No way!" I whispered.
To my surprise, he told me he had returned to Mexico after just three years here. In Mexico, high school is known as preparatoria. "I'm in prepa." he told me entirely in Spanish. I don’t know if he was embarrassed or smug about it. It was hard to tell. They didn't move for economic reasons, the mom told me. They moved back home because he just wasn't excelling like they expected here, and they knew they could support him much better with his studies in Spanish.
Later on, I got it! I understood what he was trying to tell me. Here, he spent most of his time in remediation classes,especially those involving Language Arts, never quite able to catch-up to the standards or the rest of the kids. On some occasions he passed some of those tests, but he was still a borderline student.
BORDERLINE...now that’s a funny word. On one side of the border he couldn't cut it, while on the other, he now shines. He told me he was an honor student, and was looking forward to going into engineering. He always did have a knack for it, and he was incredibly gifted in math.
I wasn't disappointed, but part of me wanted more for him. I pictured his world opening two-fold by knowing more than one language. On the other hand, I couldn’t blame him. I don’t know if I could endure three or four years lost in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language: Always grasping and gasping, like a fish out of water.
Still, I have to believe that given time, everything will click for my students in both languages. I still believe that they need to learn English; regardless. I've seen it happen already. I've witnessed enough of the success stories with many of my ex-students to calm my fears. They've visited with me years later with families of their own, they've wheeled me in for an X-Ray, taught in the same district alongside me once they graduated from school, or helped me prepare my taxes. They're out there, contributing to society. Still, I worry for those others, and I wish things could improve for them sooner than later.
Am I doing enough? Is that carrot way beyond their reach? Can I reel it in somehow? I have no words.
I'm off to hunt down more material online.