“Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different, precisely in order to realize our need of one another.”
We are all different. Some of us are short, others are great readers, some are into sports, and others where glasses. There is no right or wrong, good or bad. Our differences are what make us unique. These differences create the possibility of existing in an amazing world where we are able to share skills, gifts, and intelligences. We need differences in the world. It is what gives life color.
The classroom is no different, rather a smaller version of our everyday reality. Teachers working especially with English Language Learners can create an environment where their language learners thrive by helping them to understand that their differences are precisely what are needed in order for us all to be successful. But teachers must remember that just like any amazing lesson, this environment must be carefully planned and fostered. And the first few weeks of school are critical to the classroom culture’s success.
So what can a teacher do in the first few weeks in order to build a classroom environment where their language learners honor their differences and thrive?
1. Build strong relationships
A good relationship is at the cornerstone of any high quality classroom. These relationships, centered on trust, should communicate that each individual is important and that the teacher believes in each students’ ability to be a success. Not only should relationships communicate that each student is important, but they should also communicate the values of respect, caring, and sensitivity to each student’s culture and level of development. By doing this, students are able to move beyond their fears, and take the true risk involved in engaging in meaningful learning. In the end, truly getting to know students is the only teachers will be able to show respect, caring, sensitivity, and belief in way that fosters high academic performance.
2. Know that it’s all in the name
A name is arguably the most important word in any language to a person. It is the way that we get people’s attention, and it is one of the greatest ways that we can show that we respect them. Now I know that there are many reasons that we don’t use students’ names (e.g. hard to pronounce, poor memory, etc.). However, nothing communicates value like someone willing to listen and to ask how it is that we say a name. It might not be easy, but it is critical that we take the time to get students’ names right. The pronunciation, accents, and version of the name according to the child will bridge a link between you and the inner most workings of their identity. So make sure to ask for clarity when students’ pronounce their names for you, make it a nonnegotiable for yourself to say their actual name (not a nickname or easier version), and practice, practice, practice.
3. Build learners’ confidence
Students need high quality feedback about what they are doing well. This feedback serves as reinforcement to teach the student behaviors and learning actions that are proving effective. The key is to focus on what they CAN DO, not on those things that they cannot do, yet. Feedback about what students are doing well also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where kids who hear how well they are doing continue to do well in order to continue receiving that positive praise and recognition. In the end, all people want to be recognized for their achievements and successes – and language minority students are no different.
4. Give students an opportunity to share of themselves with the classroom community.
Because your students come from another country and culture they have knowledge and experiences that are different, varied, and rich. These experiences and knowledge can add so much depth to the learning that takes place in any classroom. And effective teachers know that communicating to students that the experiences they bring are assets to that community of learners. You can do this by finding opportunities to connect new learning to their experiences, having students create examples in order to explain their thinking or content, leverage their culture to present and teach the class (as a personal narrative or to meet the speaking and/or listening standards), or connect their home language with new content in order to bridge the learning. Any strategy employed helps; the key is to create an asset-based mindset for students’ language and culture.
In the end, we are all more similar than different. We all want to be a part of the community, we all want to know that we are important, we all want to experience success, and we all want to know that what we have to share is valued. By incorporating these elements, we can build off students’ similarities while honoring their differences. When this happens, we are able to create a beautiful community of learning where everyone is able to do their best thinking and thrive.