Bringing cultural proficiency back to school

fullsizeoutput_6bdcIt takes most teachers a couple of weeks to adjust to the routines of a new school year. The first week is a head rush of frenetic activity when all the plans we’ve carefully made face the reality of the mass movement of teens walking in and out of classrooms every 50 minutes. Once the bell rings, there’s no rethinking the bulletin board, the handouts, or the icebreaker activity. We make it through the first week as if struck by hurricane-force winds. It’s not just me, returning from a one-year leave of absence; it’s everyone. Teachers gather in the department office for lunch like divers coming up for air. We laugh, eat quickly, and get back to work. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. By the second week, we’ve learned more names, what time the photocopier is least likely to jam, and where the nearest staff bathroom is.

I’ve been a public school ESOL teacher for 18 years, so I don’t know why this September seems so much harder than previous ones. Is it because I lived and worked in Southeast Asia last year and got used to a slower, more-balanced pace of life? That’s certainly part of it. I’m returning to a different school, but I’m not a new teacher. The general curriculum, overall expectations, and district jargon are familiar. (Honestly, I don’t know how the brand-new teachers cope with all the acronyms). I’m adapting to new classroom technology and getting comfortable with updated reporting systems. But the biggest change, by far, is that I’m in a new school with new colleagues, different leadership, and a unique micro-culture that I’m still learning.

I spent half of my summer taking required courses on “religious diversity,” “supporting LGBTQ students,”  and “equal opportunity in the workplace.” I’ve been living and breathing these lessons for most of my professional life. As an ESOL teacher exposed to students from around the world, I thought I was well prepared for my school district’s focus on cultural proficiency. We’d always provided a space for Muslim students fasting during the month of Ramadan. We’ve had bilingual counselors who can speak to students and their parents in their native language – Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, etc. Sometimes we have to speak up to make sure our English language learners are accommodated fairly. It can feel lonely and scary to stand up for my students alone. At my new school, however, there’s an entire team of ESOL teachers promoting the needs of ELLs and celebrating this type of diversity as a positive contribution to our school community.

After a year abroad, I am struck all at once by little changes that my colleagues have experienced incrementally. For example, our district policy now addresses the rights of gender nonconforming students. Teachers and staff should use a student’s preferred name and students should be addressed by the chosen pronoun. My colleagues shrug when I tell them about my first transgender student two years ago, about how I felt awkward and embarrassed bungling the he and she. At a celebration this summer my friend’s 6’1″ son showed up with purple hair and a beard. I’ve watched him grow up, from a cute toddler to an awkward adolescent. But now he’s a they and called by the name of a flower. I’m struggling with how rapidly everyone has adapted to this new reality.

Between 5th and 6th period, I sometimes have to take the elevator. I see the same girl in a wheelchair every day. She’s got an aide who travels with her. We smile and say hello. Schools have had to accommodate students with disabilities since the ADA was passed in 1990. But this week I saw something I’ve never seen. A girl was walking up the stairs with a dog in a harness. It looked like a standard poodle because of it’s prancing gait. I smiled as they passed. The girl didn’t appear to be vision-impaired. It was clearly a service dog, probably for a mental or emotional disability (do we even say that any more?).

I realize now that cultural proficiency is a broad term that includes equity and acceptance for all kinds of diversity, not just language diversity. My course in Culturally Responsive Teaching has taught me to be more aware of my own beliefs and to take responsibility to help reduce students’ social-emotional stress from stereotypes and micro-aggressions. I will have to do a lot more than just accommodate students from different countries.

A public school is probably the most diverse institution in the USA. We accept students from all backgrounds, interests, gender identities, learning styles, families, and developmental levels. We build lessons at the beginning of the year to create a safe space for learning. We teach them how to respect each other as they work together in cooperative groups. ESOL students have a unique challenge in that they are learning the language and culture at the same time. If little changes are difficult for me — an American returning to the US — I can only imagine how difficult adjustment is for my students.

ESOL classes have age diversity because students are placed by language proficiency not grade level. I’ve got brand new 9th graders and second-year seniors who are almost 21. Many students work after school and support themselves. Some are here alone, living independently or with distant relatives. I have to spend extra time establishing routines and structures to help the class get comfortable with each other. They have trust their peers before they can share their own stories and feel a sense of agency in their newly-adopted culture.

We’re three weeks into the school year, and I can finally begin to process my own re-entry shock. It’s natural for teachers to put the needs of their students first. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by colleagues who understand the importance of team building better than I do. This week we went out for our first department Happy Hour – I mean professional learning community – and I think it’s going to be a fabulous year.

I have to remind myself that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world; it is also one of the most rewarding.

IMG_0241 My colleague has created a rain forest in her classroom.

Teaching more than English to English Language Learners

People often ask what it’s like to teach students who don’t speak much English. The first question I get is “Do you speak Spanish?” but that’s the wrong question. I speak the language of teens who’ve just arrived in the U.S.A. and find themselves in a wonderful environment of opportunity and freedom for the first time. In my classroom they learn how to conjugate verbs and use academic language, but they also learn how respect boundaries, think critically and value independent learning. In my classroom I give them just enough leeway to be themselves, and I watch as they become a little more American every week. It is both frustration and privilege.

They come into my classroom wearing a uniform of jeans with strategic tears at the knees, carrying colorful Jansport backpacks, the boys in black hoodies or soccer jerseys in the colors of El Salvador or Barcelona; the girls wear tight pants and tops that bare the midriff, having discarded the outer layer as soon as they stepped off the bus. It’s like emptying a cup of marbles through a funnel into a wine bottle, the way they all jostle noisily through the door, a multicolored striata of Tiger’s Eye and mocha lip gloss, high ponytails and giggles. Some smell of last night’s kitchen, some smell of too much cologne sprayed on after PE class. Why don’t they take showers any more? Sometimes I feel invisible as I stand before them. They are so in tune with each others’ every gesture, every flick of a girl’s hair, every nuance of eye contact and intonation, and way too much touching for an Anglo. I feel a surge of panic at the urgency of their physicality – hugging, breathing too close, tapping, elbowing, pressing against, jostling, fake fighting, a burst of Spanish curse words,  acne, chewing gum, shampoo, unwashed t-shirt, illicit baseball cap that gets lifted off one boy’s head and passed from gel top to gel top, a bottle of water and a half-eaten ice cream sandwich passes between two girls, licking fingers, chocolate dropped on the floor. The transition music playing through the intercom stops and the bell rings but nobody is sitting down with the book open to page 54 and Luis Chavez is still roaming the back row conversing loudly with with Jose and Karen asks if she can close the windows, bless her heart, she’s wearing a tank top and it’s 20 degrees outside.

I’m patient as they open their books. I teach them how to turn a page without ripping it. How many had consistent schooling in Central America? I teach them the past tense of irregular verbs. How many knew both parents before they came to Maryland? Knew and came. I teach them questions. Why didn’t you eat breakfast? Didn’t eat. I teach them negatives. Please don’t share your answers. I laugh at their little sotto voce jokes in Spanish. English please. I point to the prompt that says On Your Own. Independence is such an American concept. It will come.

I’m not in a hurry. When I was a child, my family moved from Louisiana to upstate New York and then to West Virginia. I had to learn new social rules and a new way of talking each time. And I’m fluent in English. It takes years to get used to a new culture and a new language. Today we’re one step closer. I repeat the pertinent morning announcements for them, slowly and with visuals. I use realia to get them more involved in school activities – like holding up the purple bow for the PTSA Gift Wrap project. Now they get it. Some stay after class and ask who and where and when. For one more day, I’ve given students a safe environment where they can take risks, make mistakes and pick themselves back up to start all over again. I have one of the most important jobs in the country. I’m shaping the next generation of Americans.