This blog was originally posted on ELL Connect, a public interactive space for teachers of culturally and linguistically diverse students and their supporters.
In an attempt to avoid monotony and uninspired routine in my career, at the end of every summer I try to invigorate the emerging school year with some new idea. One year I promised I would instill in my 4th graders the value of their own personal narratives by digitizing their stories through digital storytelling. The year after that I connected with a local non-profit organization that helped me incorporate service learning into my curriculum. Last year was easy. After teaching 4th grade students (most of whom were English language learners) for nine years, I became the technology teacher for my school. Now I would be teaching 1st through 4th graders as the computer specialty teacher.
Though this will only be the 2nd year for me in this new position, I still wanted to start the year with a new angle—a theme, of sorts. It came to me unexpectedly after listening to a speaker a few weeks ago during a session I facilitate with newly arriving Teach For America corps members. Each summer for the last 3 years I have enjoyed being a small part of the introduction to the world of public education for these young, often idealistic college graduates heralding from all parts of the country. The one-week “Bridge” course, modeled after National Writing Project principles, serves as their introductory work to a 2-year graduate study commitment at the University of Pennsylvania.
The speakers we brought in to help us with the course were Dr. Maria Paula Ghiso and her husband, Dr. Gerald Campano, both experts in and around the field of English language learning.
They offered much in terms of their experience and expertise and the corps members walked away with an appreciation of their wisdom as was evidenced by the reflections we received after they spoke. One of the common refrains in the reflections was the idea posed by Dr. Campano that as educators we would do well to view all of our students as “cosmopolitan intellectuals.” Regrettably, teachers often espouse the notion that our students come to us as empty vessels. Dr. Compano and Dr. Ghiso challenged the group to take a resource-oriented view of our students and boldly suggested that we would do well to consider our students as emerging writers, poets, philosophers, and scientists.
They followed with powerful writing samples by young ELL writers. The work by a Chinese student who wrote about his initial arrival to the United States amid the towering glass buildings and gleaming suspension bridges of New York City followed a typical format of the immigrant narrative genre. However, it was a particular favorite by the corps members because it contained complex symbolism and poignant detail written at such a level that it stimulated the intellectual curiosity of many of the corps readers. The clincher was that Dr. Compano and Dr. Ghiso saved his original work. The original was written in barely decipherable English. The great symbolic work we had read was an English transcription by a Chinese interpreter.
The point was clear. Too often we risk devaluing our students, especially those who can’t communicate the way we do. Through this lens of “cosmopolitan intellectual” I was reminded that the world our students bring to us is not always directly apparent. My renewed hope this year is to have the patience and the resolve to uncover the poet, the philosopher, and the writer within them all.