bilingual

Home is Where Your Heart Feels…

This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. The following month, I enrolled in a graduate critical pedagogy seminar with Donaldo Macedo. We discussed literacy a lot there, too, particularly related to English language learners, and students who have been historically oppressed.

On Monday, I wrote some frustrations on how APS fell short in engaging students’ full experiences in connecting to literature and art. I asked, How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students? Macedo asked, How can we continue to educate students while insisting on the separation of cognition and emotion? 

Regarding APS, I elaborated:

Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.

[…] But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art. 

So what is the alternative?

In the pedagogy seminar, and in my children’s literature course last spring in the bilingual education department (taught by my adviser, who was responsible for bringing Macedo to campus), we used student-generated, open-ended literature responses in the target language. These enable us, as teachers, to simplify a complex text to make it more accessible to our students; through the same process, we can also take a simple text and dig deeper into it through discussion cycles and semantic mapping.

Below are two maps from my seminar this summer, based on the discussion around a short poem by Francisco X. Alarcon. The first is on “Silences,” on the things that keep people silent or silenced; the second is on “Noise,” the things in life that distract us or drown out issues requiring our attention. Although “silence” and “noise” are opposite words by denotation, these concept maps are fairly similar:

Silences

Silences

Noises

Noise

So taking this, I read the book My Friend is Sad, by Mo Willems with my students. I projected it on the interactive white board so the English text was visible and read the story in ASL, making connections to the English text. We talked about opposites: happy and sad. In their journals, each kid drew and wrote about their favorite part of the story. The next day, two students (who do not have nicknames yet because it’s too soon in the year!) read and acted out the story. Then, we got down to mapping.

We started with the HAPPY map. Happy is a safe emotion. You can share stories and phrases and synonyms for happy with new people, and you don’t have to be very vulnerable. We referred to the story, and then we branched out. Some of the things that make us happy:

  • skateboard
  • snow board
  • play tag
  • yellow blanket

The next day, we talked about things that made us sad. The kids started out timidly with single words, and got a little bolder:

  • cry
  • baby
  • feeling scared
  • Mom took my iPod
  • JoJo broke my doll and the head came off

Then the floodgates opened:

  • No dad because he’s in jail far away. Then jail finished, still lives far
  • Go to a funeral and miss your grandpa. Hold your heart and carry his casket (This was in reference to my grandpa dying in April 2014, which a student remembered and shared. I was a pallbearer. I was not expecting this, and yes, I teared up.)
  • Want more money and patient working (The ASL sign for patient can also be translated as bearing, suffering, or enduring)

This. This is what my students produced on the first week of school

The Sad-Happy Maps

The Sad-Happy Maps

…from a book that looks like this:

IMG_20150825_072609

My students don’t always need upbeat. They don’t need hyper-engaging. They need real. They deserve authentic. Sure, My Friend is Sad is a really funny book (the lengths to which Piggie goes attempting to cheer Elephant are extraordinary, indeed). But the basic human desire to take care of one’s friend and to alleviate loneliness is totally accessible. They really just needed me to operate the markers. For now, anyway.

Finding our Way Home

This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. Each teacher participant signed up for a studio-intensive workshop from a choice of five artistic media; we met in our studio groups for 90 minutes of direct and guided instruction each day. We could return to the studio for independent work at other times during the day/evening. We signed up for single-session classes in a medium we might not have tried before, or in something that piqued our interest, but that we would not normally spend a full week studying. All sessions were taught by professional, working artists from the state of Idaho who, in addition to their professional practice, work in collaboration with the Idaho Commission on the Arts as artist-educators. We also attend whole-group sessions dedicated to the practical side of integrating the arts, artistic process, and artistic expression into our existing literacy curriculum. All this work is centered on a single theme each year.

This year, the theme focused on Homeand the process of going home. I participated in the theatre studio intensive, and we generated and performed our own content. I’ll come back to this in a moment because it is important, but in this self-generation process (which we can take into our classrooms and use with our students), our instructor explored a full range of images and emotions with us. We used our five senses and talked a lot about kinesthetic response. We tuned into our own bodies and watched the physical responses of our peers. When there was a collective gasp, or a moment of stunned silence, we held that. At one point, one teacher (who had never considered herself a writer or an actor) had the whole room in tears. We honored that.

Side trip: Two weeks after APS, I drove home to visit my family for two weeks. It was an important trip. For one, since I moved out in 2003, I always go home over the 4th of July because my grandparents’ anniversary was the 5th. Grandpa died last April, and since I’d been home for the funeral and was in a play at the end of the summer, I missed my July trip home. For two, this would be my first time doing the road trip alone, without any driving companions.

My second day of driving shuttled me home. My second day of driving was 13 hours between Missoula, MT, to my parents’ farm in rural North Dakota. Confession: I have not always got along well with my mom. And she did not always get along well with her mom. And we make each other a little frazzled, frustrated, and other emotions that sometimes invoke a “throwing things” response. But “home” is still overwhelmingly positive, in the grand scheme of things. The closer I got to home, the stronger the pull felt. As I got close to the driveway, I cued up “Home” by Ingrid Michaelson and let all the driving tension from the previous 13 hours out. I pulled up in front of the house at midnight, the porch light on, and I wept. I was so glad to be home. (And for the record, mom and I got along swimmingly while I was there!)

Back to APS: in every one-off session I attended–creative writing, storytelling–and in the whole-group, arts-in-literacy sessions, the tone was overwhelmingly positive. No where, except in my theatre studio, were we given the opportunity or the space to dig into the negative aspects of home. In one workshop, we were explicitly instructed to stick with positive images or memories of our childhood homes. One teacher sitting across from me sighed: I don’t want to go back there. They keep sending me back there. Not only were we not permitted to choose our preferred incarnation of home, but we were limited to a narrow range of emotional language. No where were we equipped with tools or strategies for working with a student whose artistic process dredged up unhappy, unsafe, or unpretty images.

How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students? 

Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.

If reading is about making meaning, we spend far too much time teaching children that the text is king. All this focus on “close reading” in the Common Core concerns me. The text is important, yes. The author’s intent is also a text. What isn’t written is a text! The illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are contribute to the text as much as the words themselves. But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art.

Not everyone at APS cries when they pull into the driveway of their childhood home. Not all my students are excited to go home on Thursdays to spend the weekend with their families. If I censor those emotions, I sever an important piece of my students’ life experiences. I lose an important opportunity for human connection and critical instruction.

For a theme so central to our identities, we barely scratched the surface. We need to go deeper.

All of us need to go deeper. Language. Reading. Art. Our students deserve more.

Standardized Tests, Open House, and My Students’ Actual Progress

My students started their SBAC standardized tests last week.

I have third and fourth graders, so for three of my kiddos, it was their first time taking the tests. The interface has been updated since last year, so my fourth-grader needed a refresher. Plus, I’m a scribe for one student with motor challenges. There’s a lot to manage in Testland. We did practice tests together on my touch screen laptop and made a fun activity out of it. We practiced accessing the accommodations–the pop-out ASL videos are accessed via a drop-down menu. We talked about trying our best, making best guesses, and pausing to stretch and blink.

When test day came, each student selected a novel or graphic novel to read when they were done, and we descended upon the computer lab.

When my scribe-ee finished and we arrived at the “submit test” screen, she looked at me and asked if she could go back and check all her answers. All 36 of them. She had already tried her best. She had attempted to solve problems on math content she’d never seen before. She knew the test was hard. I asked her why she wanted to check the answers. She sad, What if I didn’t do good? I think I am a little bit wrong.

Plus 10 points for knowing when you’re wrong. Self-awareness is a good skill that many adults don’t have.

Plus 10 hugs for that self-awareness making you feel like you’re not enough.

You see, this kiddo, like most of my students over the past seven years, arrived with some big gaps. She was in third grade, performing single-digit addition. She’d never seen subtraction before. Now, at the end of fourth grade, she can read, write, compose, decompose, order, and compare numbers through 1,000. She can add and subtract three-digit numbers with regrouping, without using manipulatives (although we definitely started with them). She has flexible number sense and can play a variety of number games I use in the classroom that utilize 10-frames and 100-boards and base-10 blocks and chips. She can tell time. She can do one-step word problems in addition and subtraction.

She loves math. She works slowly, but when she finishes her work, she looks at me and says, It’s not a race, and I am smart. My brain is big! All of those things are 100% accurate.

And after her standardized math test, she looked deflated. So I reminded her that she’s done a lot of really good math in class. And I asked, What’s more important, do you think? All the math we do every day, that you love and can do and feel good about, or a test we take once in May that makes you feel rotten?

She said, The computer test?

This is not how we hold children and teachers “accountable” for learning and teaching.

Last night we had our spring open house for the elementary department. We worked long and hard getting ready to display and show our work to our families and friends. All five of my students’ parents came to the open house. They were so.excited. all day. All week, even. We showed how we went from reading Frog and Toad in the fall, only discussing two characters and one problem at a time, to reading Charlotte’s Web and discussing multiple characters and problems within a larger plot arc, and connecting our lives to the story. We had a bulletin board comparing non-fiction reading and historical fiction reading from our Native American unit. We shared videos of our poetry projects and our music video.

My students were all smiles, all hugs, all jumping skipping dancing in the halls, waiting checking texting parents. The energy was palpable. My little math kiddo? Her grandpa came and she nearly fell over with excitement. She was so tired from running around and showing her work to her dad and her grandpa and her mom and her sister (who attends a different school) and her friends’ parents and the other teachers and the principal that she reached that giddy manic run in circles level of exhaustion by the end of the night, like a toddler who just keeps walking so she doesn’t fall asleep. We are reading C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E-S W-E-B and my favorite character is C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E because she is a good friend. She take care of pig W-I-L-B-U-R. We have four chapter left. Then watch movie eat popcorn compare book and movie. Ms Danielle sign story funny. T-E-M-T-O-N rat funny greedy funny Ms Danielle sign funny! But my favorite spider sweet!

After the second trimester, I was feeling frustrated and dejected. I had not accomplished the things I set out to accomplish with my students. Their growth seemed small compared to what I thought it should be, we were in the mid-winter slumps, and I was feeling scrutinized by the people around me. The principal came down to talk to me, and started the conversation by saying she’d seen my students’ (standards-based) report cards and progress notes. They’ve had some really wonderful growth this year. They’re readers, Danielle. I see Ponyo with a book wherever she goes. And they’re all building wonderful relationships with others in the building. And they’ve really made some good progress in math. I hope you see that.

This growth took a lot of work over three years of sweat and tears (so.so. many tears…most of them mine). But there are kids who’ve made two years of progress in a year-and-a-half. And one girl who has grown from needing intensive behavior intervention and weekly de-escalation to basic behavioral reminders like a typical third-grader. And a shy student who used to only whisper who nailed the role of (signing) Olaf in our Christmas play of Frozen this December. And a little boy whose dad died two years ago who told me he was fine one day, and I finally really believed him. And a student who used to be the only kid in his school with hearing aids who now has friends with hearing aids and cochlear implants. I’m not saying this to toot my horn, or to say what a great teacher I am for turning these kids around. (But the fact is, I am a damn fine teacher; the headline-makers and book-deal-getters are the unorthodox teachers who love their students and also raise their test scores.) Because today, I am exhausted and possibly even more excited for summer than my students are.

So we’ve made some progress.

So after we hit [submit] on that pointless math test, I looked at my student and blew the biggest, wettest, tonguey-est raspberry I could muster. And I said, THAT’S how much you need to worry about the computer test. Your brain is more important to me. And your brain has lots of math in it. 

Bilingual Privilege

When I finished student teaching, I worked as a substitute paraprofessional while I waited for my teaching certificate to process. One day, I accepted a one-day sub job at a local elementary school which turned out to be in the Spanish immersion first grade shadowing two students with some minor behavioral challenges. I did not know it would be in Spanish immersion until I arrived. I am not fluent in Spanish. I barely have a survival knowledge of Spanish. Those first graders owned me.

Speaking of my survival knowledge of Spanish: I took two years in high school, which was enough to test out of a semester at college. I took four semesters of ASL, which satisfied my language requirement. My friends took Spanish, German, French, or ASL. A few took Classics (Greek and Latin). My Deaf Ed. classmates and I would practice signing whenever we could, but we would revert back to English for difficult conversations or when we were tired. No one judged us or gave us the side-eye for using our native tongue.

A Google search for “baby sign” pulls up over 491,000,000 hits. I think by now the whole idea of “baby sign” has jumped the shark, but for a while it was everywhere. Except, you know, most speech-language pathologists’ or audiologists’ offices. Advocates were touting how baby sign could boost the language and communication abilities of hearing babies, while parents of deaf babies were hearing that letting their children sign would prevent them from ever learning to speak.

And now, finally, I get to my point: In the U.S., bilingualism is considered an asset if your first language is the privileged tongue. Otherwise, you are a liability. Not just your language–your person is a liability.

My students are on track to be bilingual adults. They are already fairly bilingual children, navigating a world of English and sign language, adeptly code-switching based on their environments and conversational partners. Voice off with the Deaf counselor, voice on for the librarian. Each of them is the only deaf or hard-of-hearing person in his or her family, and they are developing the skills to communicate their needs and be happy little humans that are growing into happy full-sized humans. BUT–they are behind in reading and writing and most other measures of English proficiency. At least two of them will probably need interpreter services for a long time, possibly forever. One of my students is tri-lingual, and he owns it. He is proud of his languages, as well he should be. He can tell you his family is from Mexico and that they speak Spanish. He can tell you he is Deaf and that he uses sign language. He can tell you that he also uses English. But he reads a year behind grade level, so he’s failing.

There’s a little mandated test here that measures a non-native English-speaking student’s English proficiency and, presumably, growth. Here’s the kicker: since the test measures English, directions cannot be signed. Even if a student could complete an English writing task if given the directions in ASL, the directions must still be given in spoken English. So our deaf students who take the test never show any growth, even when their English does, in fact, improve. English is the language of privilege; growth cannot be shown on your own terms.

Here in Idaho, students who immigrate are given a one-year waiver on state standardized tests. After that, they must take the language, reading, and math tests in English at grade level. The score is included in the school’s reporting. After a year in the country. Only once in my life have I seen a student become proficient in English in a year; I’m pretty sure that student is quite an anomaly.

In Deaf education, we talk a lot about providing language-rich environments, not just English-rich environments. We use ASL and English all day. We use strategies like chaining and sandwiching and fingerspelling to connect the two languages. We read and we write. We use sticky notes and we draw pictures. We record ourselves signing and we watch the videos and revise and rerecord. This is the advantage to working at a residential program. Well, most of the time, anyway. Every so often, someone thinks we are ruining the kids by letting them sign. But one look at my kids and you can see that they are so not ruined, I almost don’t even have to defend my philosophy any more.

In the Spanish immersion class I mentioned before, the students were all white. And there was a waiting list a mile long to get kids in to the program, which ran from Kindergarten through grade 5. The school also had an ELL/ESL program. Those students were not white. Those students were labeled “at-risk.” You know, because they speak Spanish (or one of the other forty-plus languages spoken in that region).

In my experiences, students who are ELL/ESL/LEP (limited English proficient) are targeted for special intervention and pulled out of class for direct instruction or tutoring by an ELL/ESL teacher. These classrooms are usually small. The teacher’s caseload is usually quite sizable. The environment is far from “language rich.” The students are tested and probed often. This is called “progress monitoring,” but I think we should call it “How to be an Acceptable American Student in 1000 Data Sheets.” Language richness and context don’t fit on data sheets. English English English.

In the U.S., the students most likely to be the most naturally bilingual are the ones whose bilingualism is the least likely to be celebrated. What’s more, the United States of America has more monolingual “experts” on bilingual education than any other country in the world.*  This is what we tell ELL/ESL kids: If your first language is not English, you get pulled out of your class. You get removed from a print-rich, language-rich, context-rich environment. Eventually you’ll figure out that you are “at risk.” Because even though English is not your first language, you are not stupid, and you can figure it out. Your friends? They can go to an immersion class. Their budding bilingualism is an asset. They will be Leaders, because ours is increasingly a bilingual world. But the English speakers are the rule makers, so your bilingualism is still a liability

*Bahruth, 2004  Perspectives on Teaching English Language Learners.  Heath/Serrano (Eds.)  Newberry, FL:  Glanzer Press.