I have been thinking about educating students who speak English as a second language in the framework of my own family history and the history of immigration in the United States.
Since St. Patrick’s Day just recently passed I can safely assume that at some point last weekend there was someone nearby wearing a lei and derby hat made of green plastic or, if they are classy about it, a fisherman’s sweater and scally cap. I can also assume they were in a group where someone was wearing a pin that said Kiss Me I’m Irish or Erin Go Bragh (which is actually Éirinn go brách) and people were drinking with abandon. As someone whose Irish ancestors arrived in Boston and New York during times which some might not consider the high point of American history, but was clearly still considered better than what they left behind, I grew up hearing stories and listening to music that was representative of some of my cultural history, but I had no cultural identity other than the warped faux Irish, one day a year, green carnation holiday that my family legacy was reduced to. I don’t blame them, times were tough and you had to be American to be American so my family willingly allowed our ethnic history to be absorbed and we became Americans with a random celebration day that misrepresents thousands of years of art and music and history and often labels us as two dimensional caricatures who are all ridiculously jolly, overly religious, and drunks.
What frightens me is that in an effort to churn out high scores that we are forgetting the lessons we learned as we tried to assimilate everyone into one homogenized American melting pot all those years ago. A while back we tried being cute about it and changed melting pot to ‘tossed salad’, presumably to indicate that we no longer expected people to take on the qualities of those around them, but it failed because we aren’t tossed in together we are blended. We use each other’s slang, intermarry, move into new cities, and work with people outside our family culture and language. Generally, we accept that we will have to adapt to become part of the larger group. The reality is that almost every immigrant family I have ever worked with thinks that in order to be a ‘real’ American you have to change and one of the things you change is how you speak. My question is why. Why, after all these years, do we still believe that you can’t be American and be bilingual or have a foreign accent? Yes, I know nobody said that but if we look at what our actions are saying, we are very loudly and clearly communicating the idea that real Americans look and sound and act in certain ways. What message is that sending? Do we really want to tell a generation that includes an increasing number of bilingual students that as a country we don’t think they have the same value as people who are native English speakers?
What is remarkable to me is that there is no national group to pull all these acronyms together and use the research (like this) or curriculum/instructional practices which have been demonstrated to help students learning English become proficient English speakers. There are some groups which push for immersion (like this) and some which are in favor of keeping the children bilingual and aware of the cultural history of their family (like this) but there is no unifying group, no rallying cry, no banner under which second language learners can gather. Maybe it is time to take the onus off the newly arrived and those struggling to make a place for themselves and time for those whose families have been here longer to take on some of the job of making this a country where all children are honored for their skills instead of tarred with the sins, real or imagined, of their parents. I won’t argue the pros or cons of immigration or immigration law because they are immaterial by the time the children are in my classroom. At that point I don’t have a hypothetical argument, I have a student and they deserve all the attention and focus I give their peers. Every child has a right to be educated, we made that part of the promise we made all citizens, and children, regardless of what language(s) they speak, deserve the best education possible. Do we want a generation of well educated American citizens who see the United States as their home? Or do we want to continue to graduate students who finish school and move out of the United States, taking their skills and their contributions with them to other countries who will benefit from the great students we have created? It’s time to stop and think about what our policies are, but also about what our beliefs are.