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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Welcome to my blog

Hi, I’m Sarah and I’m new here!

First, let me start with a bit of context about why I am here.

Last week, I travelled with a group of nine people to New Orleans – all of us teachers or working in education and passionate about levelling the educational playing field for kids from low-income backgrounds. We were visiting New Orleans with two key questions on our mind:

  1. What has contributed to the narrowing of the educational ‘gap’ for pupils from low-income backgrounds compared to their peers in New Orleans post-hurricane Katrina, and what can educators in London learn from this?
  2. How are Teach for America alumni in New Orleans working together to create systemic change and transform the lives of young people in the city, and how can we create a similar legacy for our Teach First ambassadors in South London?

We return with many reflections on these questions (and more) that I couldn’t possibly do justice to in a short blog like this. However, one key learning point for me during the trip came rather unexpectedly during a session with 4.0 Schools, who offer support to social entrepreneurs in the field of education. Offering just 3 months of incubation, which means use of their office space and regular contact with consultants to move the idea on rather than the standard year-long programme of support – they work with a motto of ‘just ship it!’: if there’s a possible solution or idea that could help users, ‘ship it’ out there and test it. If it works, run with it.

I have been so inspired, challenged, and motivated by all that we’ve seen and heard in New Orleans that I’m embracing that very idea and ‘shipping’ this blog as a way of sharing what I’ve learnt, and what I hope to continue learning beyond the visit. I hope that this might inspire further conversations about the successes and challenges of educational reform, and the education sector more widely. It’s something I care about a lot, and would love to get more people talking about with a greater sense of urgency.

My colleague Charlie does a great job of explaining more about who went and why we went on this educational visit to meet schools, community leaders, entrepreneurs and communities in New Orleans if you’re interested in the background.

Thanks for stopping by!

Sarah