Helping students to find their voice in the bilingual classroom: a reflection on International Women’s Day 2017

A big part of my vision for my pupils is related to helping my pupils find their own voices and to empower them to make the positive changes they they want to see in their local and global communities.

There is an added layer of complexity (and richness) to this aspect of my vision for my pupils, since we are learning together in a bilingual environment. Our voices form a dynamic, powerful blend of two (and often more) cultures, languages and experiences. Sadly, an unintentional after-effect of the importance currently being placed on learning English in Spain (and for the most part in terms of providing equal opportunity, rightly so), often means that the Spanish language is “silenced” or given lesser priority in such environments, paving the way for greater contact time and verbal expression in English.

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Our class kindness notes, often written in a mix of English and Spanish. 

The more time that I have spent teaching and learning in a bilingual environment, the more I have grown to appreciate that teaching and learning another language is not about silencing or ‘minimising’ the native language to promote greater progress in the target language – it’s about celebrating language in all of its forms, for all of its richness, and its infinite possibility as a form of self expression. It’s about making connections as well as noting differences, and viewing language in all of its different shades of meaning as equally valuable, honouring its validity regardless of and depending on context. I see my job as promoting a love of learning English so that students feel excited and motivated to use it spontaneously, just as they would their native language, but never at the cost of valuing one above the other. 

Today, International Women’s Day, was about helping students – boys and girls – to find their voice and share their thoughts on what International Women’s Day means to them, in English, in Spanish, or both. After talking about what International Women’s Day meant to my students, we shared some final reflections in whatever form we wanted to, many choosing to create artwork or write short messages to hang on our class ‘learning line’.

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Our class ‘learning line’: full of student reflections on International Women’s Day 2017.

One student told me that he wanted to write down his thoughts in English today because he felt the word “change” was more meaningful for him in English than in Spanish. In English, he associated “change” with an action that symbolised something powerful, inspirational, and that carried a sense of possibility for new and greater things: “It’s more like movimiento in Spanish”, he explained, whereas cambio signified something more transactional, impersonal and process driven in this context.

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One student’s reflection on International Women’s Day in English.

Another student chose to write in “Spanglish” because for her, both languages are a “part of who I am and how I feel” about the place of women in society. “It wouldn’t be right for me to choose one [language] over the other”, she told me.

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Being bilingual: reflecting on International Women’s Day in Spanish and in English. 

Some reflections about International Women’s Day took us back to our own deeply painful and personal experiences. One student chose to write a message to her late mother in Spanish because for her, it was the best way to express her thoughts and feelings. “Plus, my mum didn’t speak a word of English” she smiled, finding comfort in how proud her mother would have been of her daughter’s language learning achievements.

Talking about our own language choice also promoted a discussion about its place in the global campaign for women’s rights: “not enough people speak out about women’s achievements in Spanish” said one student. “There are so many women who want to speak out but people only listen if it’s in English because they don’t understand or don’t think what we have to say is important enough if it’s in Spanish”. In English as a Global Language, David Crystal addresses some interesting issues relating to ‘language privilege’ and the impact of the English language’s increasingly global status on the political and social power of other languages. A large proportion of recent academic work –  I’ve been told anecdotally by tutors on my recently completed Master in Bilingual and Multicultural Education –  has been rejected by publishers as a result of not being translated to English, potentially silencing the voices of many academics with equally important messages to share in their native language.

Some students also chose to reflect on the power of language and word choice to form and shape opinions and values, one student recalling an experience he recently witnessed whereby a father lamented the inability of his daughter to quickly learn how to ride her bicycle: a ‘skills deficit’, in his eyes, which was attributable to the fact that she was female.

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Student reflections on their own experiences of gender inequality.

Another student told us of his own experience at a recent summer camp where boys and girls were asked to sit separately, because “they prefer it that way”. When this student (bravely) challenged this generalisation, he was “punished with more homework”.

Throwaway words and phrases like the examples above are sadly still prevalent in day-to-day interactions, forming harmful and self-limiting mindsets that have the power to crush confidence and self-belief with lifelong lasting effects. My role as a Primary teacher is such a privilege, providing the potential to transform the life chances of the children I teach, and it is stories such as these which remind me of the importance of using this privilege to its highest possible potential to create as many possible opportunities for my students to share their stories and make their voices heard, however they choose best to express themselves.

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Messages of gratitude for men and women in our lives who help to promote gender equality. 

Sometimes I’m hard on my students: I push them to express themselves fully in English because I know that this is the way that they will learn and grow and gain confidence in learning a language: making mistakes and learning from them. They know I speak Spanish, but we only ever communicate with each other (save the most exceptional circumstances) in English – it’s my way of saying to them: “You can do this. I believe in you”.

However, every now and again there are times like today when it’s important to cast aside the bigger picture of our language learning goals and be mindful of the moment. This is where empathy as a language learner myself often kicks in and says, “sometimes it just makes more emotional sense in Spanish for them”, and recognises the need to just let them be themselves.

Just as I’m here to share my language and culture with my students, they too have an important place in deepening my understanding of their lives and the things that matter to them by acknowledging and celebrating the importance of their heritage language. Ojalá, together we can fulfill our vision of being the changemakers that we want to see in our local and global communities, whichever language that may be in…

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Reflections on reform: “Moral purpose counts for everything. You have to believe”.

Last week, I attended ‘The London Turnaround’ Challenges in Leadership event hosted by Teach First. A panel of school leaders and researchers came together with teachers and community members to discuss whether narrowing the attainment gap for pupils from low income backgrounds in London over the past decade was happy coincidence or a planned success. In this blog, I reflect on some of the issues raised and how these relate to some of my reflections on my experiences in New Orleans, where I and a group of Teach First staff and ambassadors from South London visited to find out more about educational reform post hurricane Katrina.

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‘The London Effect’

The rapid transformation of educational outcomes for pupils from low income backgrounds in London over the past decade – coined by some as ‘the London effect’ – has been a topic of much debate recently. Whilst there is comprehensive research and theory accounting for the ‘turnaround’ of achievement in London schools, there is little conclusive evidence of the root cause of London’s success in narrowing the attainment gap. Opportunities and access to increased resources, collaboration between schools, improved attainment at KS2, and high levels of ethnic integration are just a few of the suggested contributing factors. You can read the full report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) which outlines the findings of research in this area here.

With a panel of experts in educational leadership, policy, and research coming together to debate the topic yesterday evening, a similar air of inconclusiveness lingered throughout the conversation. Senior Research Economist at IFS, Ellen Greaves, summed this up by saying that “there is much that remains unanswered when it comes to deciding factors. What we do know from the research conducted is that there are many influencers and significant contributors to the change that London has seen in the last ten years.”

Loic Menzies, Director of LKMco, suggested that proximity of schools in London was a key factor in bringing about transformational change, with more opportunities to collaborate or for teachers to simply “pop down the road to observe an outstanding practitioner, which isn’t necessarily possible in more remote areas of the UK”.  Whilst school leaders Paul Bhatia (Associate Head teacher at Wembley High Technology College) and Nicola Graham (Principal at Harris Academy Chafford Hundred) agreed that there was ample opportunity for collaboration between schools in London which invited improvement at whole system level, they noted that there is an “air of healthy competition” between London schools which has continued to drive up standards over recent years.

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‘The London Turnaround’ panel members (left-right) and host, Natasha Porter (centre): Paul Bhatia, Nicola Graham, Loic Menzies, and Ellen Greaves.

Whilst it is difficult and perhaps unhelpful to draw direct comparisons between New Orleans and London in terms of their successes in narrowing the educational gap for pupils from low income backgrounds (educational reform in New Orleans, we were told by one educator, is “a civil rights movement”); there are some obvious links despite contextual differences. You can read more about this in my previous blogs.

During our visit to New Orleans in October half term, we heard the voices of many members of the community both supporting and challenging the power of the Charter movement vs. the ’traditional’ school model in turning around educational outcomes for some of the city’s most deprived children. Opinions ranged from viewing the ‘Charterisation’ of schools in New Orleans as a positive move towards social inclusion to those who saw this as the “the biggest social experiment in educational history on African-American children”.  Whilst discussions in London were absent of the same level of political and racial charge yesterday evening, there were certainly tentative questions from the audience regarding the “intentions” and “methods” of academy chains in London and their role in educational reform.

Given the raw and often divided opinions on what’s led to improvement in New Orleans, it has been similarly difficult for our group of ambassadors to draw a consensus on what’s lead to the changes in pupil outcomes there. There was frequent reference in New Orleans to community buy-in and collaboration with families. In some cases, schools in New Orleans viewed working with the community as an opportunity to understand pupils’ cultural influences and to embrace these in the values and practices of the schools by building a ‘school family’, whilst some viewed culture as something to “build from the school outwards”, even if this meant silencing or “reducing the effect” of pupils’ home cultures.

Interestingly, when an audience member yesterday raised a question about how teachers in London can overcome the many barriers to education that their pupils face, in particular, the characteristic low parental engagement faced by many schools, the message from one panel member, Paul Bhatia (Associate Headteacher at Wembley High Technology College) was that “it’s hard, that much is true”.  He continued: “I hate to use the word excuses but we can’t allow family background to become an excuse for the kids that we work with not to do well. We need to take the focus of pastoral work away from teachers in order to allow them to focus on teaching, although in being a teacher, that pastoral side of things is always going to be part and parcel of the job.” Edna Karr High School in New Orleans embodied this very principal in action: providing a ‘wrap-around’ care service for the most vulnerable pupils. School Principal Harold Clay told us that: “we need to be all things to everyone” and that doing so requires a shift from “part-time solutions for full-time problems” to working with “every agent possible” to provide a full range of services (including dental treatment and cancer screening) to pupils and their families within the school hub.

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Principal Harold Clay at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans talks to South London ambassadors about the services the school provides to narrow the achievement gap for pupils in challenging circumstances

Nicola Graham, Principal at Harris Academy Chafford Hundred said that schools need to do more to “take away the periphery pastoral tasks” from teachers to free up time for lesson planning and assessment whereas Paul Bhatia settled on the key to success as having “unrealistic expectations  of our pupils and then surprise ourselves” (when they achieve them).

What next?

Once the panel transitioned to talking about the future of the London educational landscape, there was resounding unity in their responses: teachers must believe that change is possible to achieve the same level of success in the state sector as in private education. “We are offering compensatory education” said Paul Bhatia, and “it is possible to get to the same place as the private schools with our kids but it’s not going to be easy: disadvantage is very real and it will continue to exist. We must recruit fully committed teachers who come into this at a personal cost: those that believe this is possible and are prepared to work relentlessly”. Reynard Casimier, Pastor at Love Outreach Christian Church in New Orleans told us at a similar panel discussion at Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans that teachers must “Go forth with purpose and passion. Empty yourself, like a little teacup, into those children. You are the now generation, they are upcoming. I want to go to my grave empty.”

Coaching teachers on the Leadership Development Programme to develop a vision for their pupils, I encounter this relentless belief and at times self-sacrificial dedication to making a difference on a daily basis. Whilst this is having phenomenal short-term impact in many cases, I’m acutely aware that this way of working is no sustainable model for lasting change: teachers alone cannot achieve our charity’s vision that no child is left behind. As one second year teacher told me earlier this week: “sometimes I feel like I’m giving everything, and it’s still not enough.” Whilst New Orleans and London both have a long way to go in affecting systemic change within the educational system, it certainly seems that working more meaningfully with communities is having a positive effect on narrowing the divide between pupils from low-income backgrounds compared to their peers and in doing so, sharing the responsibility of this movement with others beyond the school gates which ultimately creates longer term gains.

What’s my biggest takeaway from the event?

Whatever our role in making education fairer we must continue to believe that it is possible, and we have to believe in the value of bringing others with us on this journey. Loic Menzies reminded us that behind the power of educator belief sits another layer of important work:

“Are we doing enough? Who do we mean by ‘we’? Are teachers doing enough? Yes. But we need to get everyone on board with tackling this now, and by everyone, I mean members of our communities – whether that’s parents, policy makers or other stakeholders – they all need to buy into this in the same way that we do.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge that now faces those invested in levelling the playing field for kids is not just in tackling social inequity itself through direct action, but rather in changing the mindsets of others who continue to see social inequity as a barrier to educational equality and helping them to see the part they could play in changing that.  In the words of one teacher we met in New Orleans, Arlene Casimir-Siar at KIPP Believe Primary: “this work is too difficult to do alone, and you reach so few that way.” Arlene is working with her army of parents, community members, and in fact “anyone who has a place in my vision”- her advocates – on creating a better future for her pupils.

Rather than paying lip service to community engagement, schools must become the heart of our communities, and communities the heart of our schools.

If you have a few minutes to spare, here’s a great video that one of my colleagues shared earlier this week about community members working together to create opportunities for children to play safely in their local streets.

Please leave your comments below, and I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions about our experience in New Orleans or ideas on how we can better share our learning with you.

Sarah