English Only Here: The Impact of Restrictive Language Policies on Language Identity and Student Achievement

Last week, I had the opportunity to be part of a critical dialogue about the past, present, and future trends in the education of linguistically and culturally diverse students (also called bilingual, emergent bilingual, EL’s, and ELLs) with Manuel and Dr. Kathy Escamilla.  It was a dialogue that created so many flashbacks of my experiences as a student.  It was also a humbling reminder of my last two decades as an educator. The lingering message was a narrative of language policies that coerced linguistically diverse students out of their first language. And schools issuing a growing number of punishments for “failing” to acquire a second language almost instantaneously.  The sad reality is that in many ways it was a terrible walk down memory lane that I almost did not want to take – and yet, I’m infinitely grateful that I did.  The day left me hungry to change the reality of this narrative for current and future children who depend on schools to prepare them for a future of their choosing. The message of the day was powerful, but one question in particular keeps calling my attention.  What are the implications of losing a language?  It seems like a simple question?  And yet it is incredibly profound.  Many of us serve language learners in various program models with strong and (at times) immensely restrictive language policies: Don’t speak your native language in class. You need to find other friends so that you can practice English during recess Put a quarter in the jar if you use your native language These are practices and messages I have heard in schools across the country.  But why are these policies problematic?  Why should all educators be concerned with the consequences of restricting a native language in school?  Personally, I know that my language is part of who I am; it is an essential connection to my past, my culture, my funds of knowledge.  My language is how I interact with, negotiate with, and socialize with this world.  My language is a point of pride that honors my culture and concurrently is refined and expanded by that same cultural connection. My language is my window to learning and gateway to new ideas embedded in books.  To take away my language is to take away my right and access to interact socially and academically… to devalue the legitimacy of my identity… to render me powerless. This is the reality faced by the fastest growing student group in schools across the country, language learners. Valuing bilingualism as an asset, not a deficit, is a critical mindset needed.  Even still, participation in learning may be a great source of struggle for language learners depending on their skills in English.  Every successful interaction in English helps students to renegotiate their academic, social, and individual identities in more powerful ways – ways that will lead to greater academic success.  Every miscommunication, idea, and thought that is stifled by the limited words and grammar they are able to produce causes a renegotiation towards greater inequality – one that will translate into greater achievement gaps. Educators must consider how to maximize students’ opportunities to fully participate in the learning community while also learning the rules, structures, and vocabulary of English.  The best place to start is to use language policies and practices that provide language learners with a more powerful position to access social networks, opportunities to speak, and the tools to engage in cognitively challenging work.  So how do educators do this? Include texts that reflect the interests and background knowledge of students. Utilize bilingual word walls to allow students to connect academic vocabulary with words in their native language. Engaging students in strategic learning around metalinguistic awareness (the ability to see, analyze, and manipulate language) helps to develop greater proficiency in English. Increase the amount of student talk that requires complex thinking. In doing so, students will have greater opportunities to master content knowledge by utilizing academic language, which are inter-related processes regardless of what language is used.

What level of cultural proficiency is your school and how do you know?

Throughout the years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many schools, and even more classrooms.  I’ve seen some pretty amazing teaching, and opportunities to continue refining the work.  In most cases, I’ve been able to see a direct link between the culture and climate in the school and the performance of the students.  Now more than ever, I think it is critical that we consider the impact of our views and actions as it relates to culture, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because our students need us to. The majority of schools with whom I work are highly diverse.  However, a few weeks ago, I found myself visiting with a particular school that had a very high latino population.  I walked into the office to Spanish and English flowing seamlessly as a delightful office clerk answers the phone, buzzes people into the main office, and asks me with a smile to hold on just a moment.  As I wait for her to finish the phone call, I look around. There are signs in English and Spanish, paperwork and notices in both languages and even books for students to read as they were waiting in both languages, as well.  I was impressed. It is not often that both languages (Spanish and English) are honored, valued, and seen as an asset that can be used to create bridges between homes, schools, and the community, but this seemed different. I walked through the halls heading to my first classroom visit with anticipation.  And my knowledge of the teachers, their work ethic, their passion for students, and their thoughtfulness, only served to egg on that very excitement.  We spent the day working with students, thinking about their literacy levels, discussing ways that their language acquisition stage impacts their reading successes and challenges, and action planned what to do about it.  It was, for all intents and purposes, a great day. However, I walked away from that day saddened.  No, it was not because of the conversations or the work. It was not the stage of implementation the teachers had achieved.  It was not a lack of  reflection, which can be frustrating, but was not the case.  It had little to do with the best practices and strategies that were being employed. Rather, it was the culture and tone of the students in the building that I had been so moved by at the beginning of the day. Students were angry. They were bitter. They were indignant and looking to challenge or dare anyone who wanted to reach them. I asked the teachers how long this had been going on.  After all, I had been at the school not even two months prior, and the pulse of the building had not been the same. What had changed?  In the month prior to my arrival, the country’s new administration began making drastic changes as it relates to both their immigration policies and their policy (explicitly or implicitly) around what “business as usual” will now mean. As a result of these two shifts, our students are getting the message from this administration that, “we want you out” and “we will communicate our disdain of you however we want and whenever we want”.  As many of Illinois largest school districts work to address these drastic and continually changing immigration policies and attitudes, a number of districts have begun to explicitly communicate to their building leaders that they are not to let federal immigration authorities inside district buildings without a criminal warrant. In addition, district and state leaders are urging schools to obtain “alternate emergency contacts” for students in case their parents are detained by immigration authorities while they are in school. While these steps are necessary, it does little to serve the outraged youth that are caught between a rock and a hard place.  So what can schools do to begin to mediate some of the impact? First, we need to reflect on our level of cultural proficiency, not just in individual classrooms, but as a school and as an extension of our communities.  Do we collectively have the skills, habits, and ability to to allow students’ culture to be an asset and a gift during the instructional process and do we have the awareness of when we must allow culture to sit in the driver seat for just a bit, while still attending to the standards? In order to reflect, Baron (2007) defines the following levels of cultural proficiency: Culturally destructive individuals or systems are those who engage in practices and support those practices or behaviors that eliminate the marks, signs, or confirmations of other people’s culture. Guiding Question: Is there a sentiment in the building that all the hugging, speaking in “another language”, and singing all the time, reflect problematic behaviors that need to be stopped? Cultural Incapacity individuals or systems are those who believe that another way of doing things is better, it usually stems from a lack of awareness and/or skill, but still has the impact of perpetuating stereotypes of non-dominant groups. Guiding Question: Is there a sentiment in the building that “these” students are just lazy and there’s no point in sending home notices, because their parents don’t know how to read anyway? Cultural Blindness individuals or systems are those who believe that everyone is the same. Guiding Question: Is there a sentiment in the building or with an individual that “I don’t see race as an issue, you are a person just like me.  Therefore if you bring it up, it is your problem, not mine?” Cultural Pre-Competence individuals or systems are those who recognize that race, culture and language do make a difference but they are not willing to change. Guiding Question: Is there a tendency to hear damaging language or comments about students or their families in the building and recognize them as completely wrong, but individuals don’t do anything to change the behavior.  “Who am I to address them?” Competence individuals or systems are those who accept, appreciates, and sees the value added by seeing opinions and insights of diverse groups and individuals. Guiding Question: Is there a tendency to seek out literature and advice