Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Advocating for English Learners

Two cases stand out as milestones for legally supporting the English Learner. Both Mendez vs. Westminster some 70 years ago, and Lau vs. Nichols in 1974 were argued by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Both cases upheld the equity of education for English Learners. Although statute says this much be so, it is not always the reality experienced by young people.

In a video from California Tomorrow entitled Student Voices, you learn about the experiences of 5 young people who are currently in the educational system. These young people represent an array of cultures and languages, but the experience each has in school, is shockingly similar.

The first part of the video captured young people talking about their experiences. They mention the struggle for respect in something as simple as walking through the lunch line in the school cafeteria. They talk about teachers who simply repeat directions to them when they are struggling instead of trying to help them understand the content and concepts. They talk about feeling invisible and in some ways, second class members of the school community.

The video ends with these students offering advice to those who work with them. These words of wisdom, when put into practice, can support the English Learner in the journey to acquire not just conversational English but academic English as well. Following is the advice that these students gave.

  1. Be patient with me. Progress is made little by little not all at once. Encourage us to keep trying and celebrate our small victories.
  2. Consider us as equal and help us to learn how to adequately express ourselves.
  3. Get an adult who can translate for us, not just other students. While a student is better than no one, the understanding of the adult is more thorough and in depth which is what we need to hear.
  4. Have the materials and books that we need and can also take home. Remember our parents may not believe that we are getting an education when they never see us bring home a book.
  5. Slow down. While you may be able to talk fast, we don’t listen at that same speed. It doesn’t need to be exaggerated, just a slight slowdown to give us time to process.
  6. Don’t make assumptions about us. What may appear to be indifference can simply be confusing or an effort to “save face”.

Implement these suggestions. Remember that you need to stand up for the English Learner, not simply because it is a civil rights issues but because you understand the power of language as it translates into an individual’s voice and the unique contribution each person makes to the world when they have found the voice they have.

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