Bringing Bilingual Education Out of the Basement

This is my third attempt since 5:30 to post this entry, so sorry to those of you who wanted to reply before the Bruins tie up the series tonight!

In “Bringing Bilingual Education Out of the Basement and Other Imperatives for Teacher Education,” Sonia Nieto argues that all teachers, not just ESL and bilingual teachers, must be trained in teaching language minority students. She says that the majority of teacher education programs train teachers for monolingual classrooms, but in reality, whether one teaches in an urban, suburban, or rural setting, it is unlikely to go a teaching career without instructing students for whom English is a second language. Nieto goes on to say that teacher education programs, beyond providing prospective teachers with classroom strategies necessary for teaching language-minority students in a regular education setting, must most importantly “help teachers to develop positive attitudes and beliefs toward these students.” The three imperatives that Nieto gives for such programs are:

  1. Take a stand on language diversity
  2. Bring bilingual education out of the basement
  3. Promote teaching as a lifelong journey of transformation

On pages 471, she also gives a list of knowledge and skills that teachers must possess in order to effectively instruct language-minority students, which expands on page 472 if one happens to be an ESL teacher. One of the skills she spends the most time discussing is the suggestion that all teachers learn a second language, particularly a second language spoken by a substantial number of students in the community in which they teach. She mentions that this is not only a practice that will help put teachers in the shoes of students in the process of acquiring English but will also help teachers better understand and respond to the grammar errors that students make.

While I agree with both points, I am not sure that this is a plausible suggestion. While in a teacher education program, there is no way for a prospective teacher to know in what district let alone school he or she will begin teaching, so the second language acquisition could not happen then, and given the number of responsibilities that new teachers already have, it is difficult to imagine a new teacher taking on the added task of learning to speak a new language. One of my favorite quotes is, “Being a new teacher is like trying to fly an airplane while building it.” Can you imagine learning Japanese to this scenario, let alone the fact that many new teachers find themselves moving from school-to-school or district-to-district during their first years of teaching due to budget cuts while at the bottom of the seniority list. This is only my third year teaching, and I would have already had to learn Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Tagalog, and Spanish! To be honest, I would love to learn any one or more of these languages, but finding the time to do so is another story.

Taking a stand on language diversity:

Nieto argues that bilingual education is political, and I believe there is no denying this. One only has to scan the daily headlines, including this article in today’s Boston Globe to see how true this is. Not only is political action necessary to change negative perceptions of  language-minority students, but it is crucial to directing funds to these students in need. I love Nieto’s point about how the costs of teaching students a foreign language are rarely opposed in middle class neighborhoods, while ESL and bilingual budgets are seen as “too expensive or ‘wasteful’”(472).

Bringing bilingual education out of the basement:

The term “basement” in the title of this article is used both literally and figuratively to suggest that language-minority students are often relegated to the basement or other physically separated areas of the school. This separation not only creates a sense of alienation and marginalization for ESL students and teachers alike but also prevents collaboration with general education teachers while proliferating the belief that language-minority students are the sole responsibility of the ESL teacher. Nieto says that teacher education programs must emphasize language diversity issues and argues that currently, most do not. Probably because I participated in UMass Boston’s teacher education program which emphasizes social justice or because I was part of the Teach Next Year program which is geared towards urban education specifically, but I found these issues embedded throughout almost all of the coursework at UMass. Unfortunately I cannot speak to other programs on this issue, but I can say that I believe Nieto would wholeheartedly approve of the job that UMass does in this regard.

One comment that Nieto makes which annoyed me, however, can be found on page 475. She says, “It is by now a truism that most prospective teachers are White, middle-class, monolingual English speaking women with little experience with people different from themselves.” Ok, I agree that this is probably by and far true. However, she goes on to say, “and most of them believe—or at least hope—they will teach in largely White, middle-class communities.”  It is my understanding that most people go into teaching because they want to help kids learn skills that will allow them to succeed and ultimately make our world a better place to live without any preconceived notions or aspirations about the skin-color or socioeconomic makeup of their classroom. When I was attending job fairs before receiving my first teaching job, the longest lines (by far!) were formed my those dying to get an interview with the Boston Public Schools. While I agree with Nieto’s point that teacher education faculty could use diversification, I do not believe that White teachers or White teacher educators are blind to the civil rights issues inherent in our current education system or unwilling to bring them to the forefront of conversation.

Promoting teaching as a lifelong journey of transformation:

Here, Nieto describes a “collective and institutional journey” “to help teachers and prospective teachers affirm the linguistic, cultural, and experiential diversity of their students while at the same time opening up new vistas, opportunities, and challenges that expand their worlds (476). The ideas that she expounds include having teachers face and accept their own identities (including a status of privilege when applicable), establish an identity as a teacher-learner, become multilingual themselves, confront racism and bias in school, and develop a community to collaboratively support language-minority students in school. I agree that all of these are necessary to transform our current education system and ultimately remove bilingual education from “the basement.”

The first part of this section stuck out to me the most and reminded me of an amazing course I took at UMass Boston called Socio-Cultural Perspectives taught by Velecia Saunders. In this class, we had incredibly difficult and enlightening conversations about our own identities, biases, and privilege. The class was, at times, excruciating, but ultimately life-changing for all involved. So after leaving you will this recommendation, I now give you some questions to discuss:

  1. What does ESL instruction look like in your school? Are language-minority students relegated to the basement either literally or figuratively?
  2. What do you think of Nieto’s recommendation that all teachers learn to speak a second language, particularly a second language spoken by a substantial number of students in the community in which they teach?
  3. Do you agree with Nieto’s assessment that, “most [prospective teachers] believe—or at least hope—they will teach in largely White, middle-class communities” (475)?
  4. What was your teacher education program like? Did you take any explicit classes on teaching ESL or bilingual students in a general education setting? Were these topics embedded into the majority or minority of your regular coursework? Was it mostly instructional strategies, or did it include discussions about attitude toward language-minority students and/or monolingual, White privilege?
  5.  Does your school or any school you know of have a successful community of “critical colleagues”? Is the group formal or informal? What does it look like?



9 thoughts on “Bringing Bilingual Education Out of the Basement

  1. Thanks Leah! You bring up some really important points and questions in response to the reading. I think that Nieto makes a pretty strong case for the importance of teacher knowledge and skill in supporting English Language Learners (ELL’s) and I don’t think any teacher would disagree that teacher expertise in this area is critical.

    In many ways, this reading in responding to an alarming concern, as a number of schools struggle to support the increasing enrollment of ELL students. As Nieto states, “…over half of all students whose native language is other than English spend most of part of their day in monolingual English classrooms” (470). Combine this steady increase of ELL’s in classrooms with the unrelenting pressures of high-stakes testing and teachers that are already spread ridiculously thin as they work tirelessly to address the endless influx of societal problems that they are expected to magically remedy with better teacher, more training, and a better attitude towards their students, and you have a true crisis.

    Of course I believe that teachers will always benefit from continued professional development and support in around teaching ELL’s. The literacy skills of my ELL’s are a perpetual challenge for me and I am always eager to engage in conversations with other teachers around strategies and best practices, and to attend professional development that offers practical, useful resources and suggestions for continued student progress for ELL’s. Just like Leah, I am a graduate of the Teach Next Year program, and I too was fortunate to engage in coursework that allowed for extensive preparation—probably as much as possible within the time frame and the need for preparation in other areas. As a teacher, I have had my share of successes, but honestly, I often feel ill equipped within the circumstance I have been given to help students make the gains I know they need to make in order to meet the expectations of higher education and of our professional world.

    With that said, I share Leah’s frustration in that I don’t think that requiring teachers to learn a second language, amongst other suggestions for teacher improvement, is the answer. Let’s be honest. As teachers, we work hard. Really hard. It’s unfair, unrealistic, and downright insulting for the role of the teacher to be consistently overemphasized in the search for a solution for all of this. And this isn’t just seen in publications such as Nieto’s—I see it on the district level as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools (BPS), as the school system faces legal ramifications for appalling non-compliance in their teaching of ELL’s. The answer, for BPS of course, is more for teachers: more training, more requirements, more classes, more certifications, more responsibility and guilt.

    By placing the burden almost solely on the shoulders of teachers, we allow policy makers to conveniently shift the attention away from what is really desperately needed in our urban schools: money and resources. In order for my ELL students to reach their highest potential in the public school system, most need significantly more time for instruction and more resources to meet their needs. We need better, more informed, more deliberately inclusive decisions that will positively affect the fiscal realities of our public schools.

  2. Leah,
    Thanks for putting up this great summary/commentary of Nieto’s article!

    As a teacher at a school in a predominately white, middle-class district, I have not had many opportunities to work with ELL students. However, I can say with some certainty that when it comes to ELL students there are some divisive sentiments swirling about the hallways. On the one hand, many of the teachers are more than willing to help these students out to their best of their ability; in these instances, the real speed-bumps come in the form of a lack of resources and the fact that we only have a single language specialist for the entire district. On the other hand, I have definitely run across some teachers who become indignant at the thought of even meeting ELL students halfway. The argument made by these teachers is that by “catering” to those students who do not speak English as a first language, we are delaying their recruitment into the ranks of the dominant (dare I say “American”?) culture.

    This, in my humble opinion, is classic hegemonic malarkey.

    Nieto makes this point as well. In one of my favorite passages from the article, Nieto writes:

    “Prospective teachers need to understand that the mere existence of bilingual education affronts one of the most cherished ideals of our public schools, that is, the assimilation of students of nondominant backgrounds into the cultural mainstream” (473).

    Once again, we must question the role of public education. While the free spirit in me wants to argue that schools should be avenues for analyzing, critiquing, and questioning the structures of our society, it would also be foolish to not equip students with the skills necessary for operating within these structures. So how do we simultaneous encourage students to operate within certain parameters while assessing why these are the parameters exist in the first place?

    Just as Leah pointed out, there might be something to Nieto’s idea about the value of critical educators. Although there is no formal group (that I know of!) at my school, there is definitely a posse of teachers who openly discuss what works, what doesn’t, and why we may be ensnared by certain pitfalls. By engaging with one another, we are able to pull off something like comparable to Nieto’s idea:

    “…teachers begin to discover the biased but unstated ideologies behind some of the practices they had previously overlooked. As a result, teachers have no alternative but to begin to question the inequitable nature of such practices” (479).

    Unfortunately, not all teachers are willing to be as candid with themselves (or others) about pedagogical biases or weaknesses. And although this doesn’t excuse them, I think a lot of new teachers don’t afford themselves this self-assessment because they’re just trying to survive (as Leah wrote, the `ole “flying the airplane while building it”). But perhaps this is where teacher education programs could do a bit of a better job, in the department of enlightening prospective teachers before they’re actually in classroom settings. Although I loved my undergraduate experience, I would say that I learned much more *about* ELL students than I did about *working with* ELL students.

    Well, that’s all I’ve got for now! Looking forward to everyone else’s thoughts!

  3. Great post Leah! I agree with many of your points (especially since I also did the Teach Next Year program!), so I’ll try to add new thoughts where possible in this post.

    My school has a “partial basement” approach to ESL education. Like most BPS schools, 20-25% of our population are ESL students (ranging from students who just arrived in the US to students who grew up bilingual). We have a Haitian-Creole SEI cluster where students take all their classes with other Haitian Creole students until they are mainstreamed into “regular” classes. Some students they spend a year in this program and then go onto an inclusion setting.

    However, others spend years in the program and do not move on, likely because they only have Haitian Creole friends. Some students are in mainstream classes in 4th-5th grade, but then are placed in our SEI cluster when they come here for 6th grade. And, unfortunately, the students are separate. As a 7th grade teacher, I do not know the 7th graders in the SEI cluster. Some students do because of buses, neighborhoods, etc, but in general we do not go on field trips together, have elective classes, etc.

    Most teachers agree this is wrong, but do not have the time/power to change things, and administration does not seem interested in putting in a larger-scale reform (ie, having mixed elective classes because it would be more difficult to schedule). So I completely agree with Nieto that there is not collaboration and the students feel marginalized. We often have issues with students making negative, sweeping generalizations about the “kids upstairs.”

    I completely disagreed with Nieto’s comment that “most [prospective teachers] believe—or at least hope—they will teach in largely White, middle-class communities.” There are certainly large parts of the country where everyone is white and perhaps lots of teachers trained there imagine teaching there. However, I am no population expert, but given how many cities there are, and even rural areas that have a high percentage of displaced refugees, that it seems unlikely “most” teachers don’t want to teach in those areas.

    • I would like to respond to two of Leah’s provocative points/questions. First, I want to address the “learning another language” recommendation that Nieto makes. As Leah admits, and I’m guessing most of us would agree, we would love to learn another language and would likely become better teachers because of it! It is not as much a matter of motivation as it is a matter of time (and money). And learning another language takes some serious time. Nieto reminds me of Aronowitz in this respect. While they seem to be critiquing institutions, either schooling in general (Aronowitz) or teacher education programs (Nieto), too much of the focus is on what teachers need to be doing differently. I’m not trying to excuse teachers from being active in education reform (far from it), but I agree completely that teachers do not have the time for such on-the-job learning within the current climate. If we are going to expect teachers to learn second languages, we must give them time and money to do so. Most teachers I talk to are nearly at the point of revolt when it comes to adding requirements without the resources to support their implementation. I can’t blame them.

      This brings me to my second point, which regards the “critical friends groups” that Nieto suggests. Back in 2001, I was teaching in a high school in Colorado that was fortunate to have a principal who understood how crucial it was to give teachers time for professional development. At the time, she was trying to push a writing across the curriculum initiative and in order to get the “buy in” from teachers, she had a number of teachers from various departments (including me) become trained as “critical friends” protocol facilitators. I can share more about this in class tonight, but here’s the gist: critical friends protocols are highly structured discussions that operate as pedagogy workshops (similar in style to our teaching demonstrations). This allowed teachers across the disciplines to talk about how they teach writing in small interdisciplinary groups. All of this was great in theory, but it actually worked in practice because our principal hired subs for all teachers in the building while they engaged in these groups DURING THE SCHOOL DAY. In other words, teachers were not being asked to devote MORE time to this initiative – instead they were given release time to do it. It was one of the most amazing professional development experiences I have ever had and I am certain it would not have been as successful if our principal had insisted that we run these workshops after school. So, to get back to Nieto’s point about learning a second language, I would say “Yes, let’s do it.” But don’t ask teachers to do more. Give them time to learn the language, either in the form of release or sabbatical time. I realize this kind of suggestion is optimistic within the current climate, but I refuse to succumb to the kind of “austerity pedagogy” that seems to rule the roost these days. We must not allow ourselves to do more with less (jumping off my soapbox now).

  4. Sue explained our “partial basement” approach to ESL education, but it seems as though the program descends further and further into “the basement” the higher the grade level. While it is a stronger focus in the middle school years, as you progress to senior year, I believe that begins to fade. For instance, we have one class in the upper grades that has a number of students identified as ELD level three and below placed in a general ELA class, rather than an ESL supported classroom (and the teacher isn’t even ESL certified)! It appears as though the logistics of scheduling takes precedence over our ELL population.

    As previously noted, learning a new language is nowhere even close to the realm of possibility for new teachers. If this were a requirement, our profession’s retention rate would fall dramatically. Although I do believe it is important to continually strive to develop a stronger connection to the students you serve. As a teacher, I feel we are models of life long learners, and we must always look to learn ways to better serve our students. I enjoyed that metaphor that views us all on boats trying to reach the shore together, rather than seeing education as students on boats trying to reach the teacher, who is already on shore.

    This is obviously a challenge that must be met by both teacher and administrators, while also being supported by policy. You can see this article being supported in the Boston district with the mandates of the RETELL to ensure that all core teachers are equipped, regardless of their teaching preparation program, to best assist ELLs. However, the psyche of many current teachers and the cultural priority placed on ESL programs remains to be an issue not currently addressed to make the progress envisioned in this article

  5. Thanks, Leah!

    Although I found this article to be a quicker read than some of the others we’ve considered (perhaps due to the clarity of the writing, or perhaps due to what seemed to be the reiteration of ideas throughout it), I nonetheless felt that it was challenging as it tested my patience at times. In response to previous articles, the pattern of teachers being blamed for the shortcomings of the educational system has been brought up a few times, and I encountered this issue once again in this article. While I have tried to maintain a balanced approach to this idea (that teachers both may and may not be to blame, that declarations about accountability need to be more individualized than general comments about the profession), for some reason still somewhat unclear to me, I felt somewhat indignant regarding the generalizations made about “many” teachers. While I am aware of the existence of the attitudes Nieto says need adjusting, and while I have seen them in my own workplace, it still makes me uncomfortable to read, when Nieto cites Aaronsohn, Carter, and Howell, “It is by now a truism that most prospective teachers are White, middle-class, monolingual English-speaking women with little experience with people different from themselves, and that most of them believe—or at least hope—they will teach in largely White middle-class communities” (475).

    The other articles we’ve read for class seem to make many causal connections between the cultural components outside any educational system and how things operate within that system: the external problems are mirrored in the microcosm that a school constructs, despite whatever measures a school system might take to prevent it. While I understand the importance of education as a means for changing the lives of students, sometimes I am led to think that much of the public, academic or otherwise, seems to suggest that change has to start in schools. This is odd to recognize at the same time one sees the emphasis put on high-stakes testing, which another recent reading stated was currently perhaps the most powerful form of exclusion.

    Initially, I thought that one response to this line of thinking might be that schools, in fact, don’t even match up to some of the cultural attitudes: Nieto states that “in many middle-class neighborhoods, the costs associated with teaching children a second language are rarely challenged” (473). In reconsideration of this, however, it is worth mentioning that in such middle-class neighborhoods the learning of a second language may not be a necessity but the attempt to attain an advantage (parents trying to provide their children with the edge that being bilingual might provide in college applications, job-seeking, and so on). In other words, this kind of bilingual education is more of a choice (a luxury, even) than a matter of survival in a new culture.
    Finally, Nieto’s concept of teachers needing to become “critical educators” seems to ignore a great deal of the frustration that can come along with doing and being so. While I think it is important to be a mindful and critical pedagogue, and while I certainly would prefer it over ignorance, indifference, or lack of knowledge, the degree to which being an actively critical teacher can often draw angst and resentment from others in the system. Additionally, while Nieto discusses the importance of having groups of critical educators, the degree to which this is enabled and encouraged by those who are feeling pressure to increase test scores and work within restrictive budgets is questionable. Nieto acknowledges these difficulties for beginning teachers, focusing on the problems when one lacks seniority or doesn’t having the respect granted usually in light of one’s experience. She ignores other serious factors, however: having to meet various standards for licensure in given time periods (such as unhelpful SEI classes mandated by the state!), being given more behaviorally difficult classes, being paid less than veteran teachers (who might work less!), being more highly scrutinized in evaluations, and being given a mold to fit into instead of time to learn about oneself as a teacher. What I do agree with Nieto about, however, is that a new teacher—and the process of having meaningful experience resulting in being a reflective practitioner—is something that takes both time and resources: a new teacher is an investment. Perhaps this is part of an answer to the larger workforce problem that was discussed in class last week. Interestingly enough, instead of providing incentives for the recruitment and building of a diverse population of teachers, the incentives are going explicitly to teachers of particular subjects such as math and science.
    All of this said, while I agree wholeheartedly that bilingual education and appreciation is something that deserves much more attention, I hope that in the process it isn’t the teachers who feel relegated to the basement.

  6. Jen:

    I agreed with Nieto’s point that it is important to learn a second language as a teacher. I only speak English, but have been trying to learn Spanish for years. Unfortunately, it is extremely expensive to find these courses and often they can be far away from where teachers live and add to their commute. I think that if schools provided on site training, informal (no papers/tests, just time for teachers to learn a new language), teachers would participate. What I am envisioning is one hour a week, before or after school or built into the school day during a free period where teachers could meet with someone to teach them another language. There would be no costs and no assessments, all of which teachers have no time for, but just time to learn the language. I do think that many teachers would like to learn another language but that it has to be done in a way that respects teacher’s time constraints and is realistic about all of the responsibilities that teachers have.

    On page 479 Nieto stated that over half of all students who speak a language other than English are educated in a mainstream setting, so I do agree with her point that teacher education programs should have space for students to learn another language. Again, if it was built into the programs in a manageable way, I think people would like to participate.
    Like Leah, I do not agree with Nieto’s point that most teachers want to teach people of a similar background to their own. I think most people become teachers to help people get a good education to improve their lives and do not see themselves as wanting to reproduce social class and only work in communities whose backgrounds are similar to their own. I think teachers pride themselves on their hope to reach every child, regardless of race, language, or socioeconomic status.

  7. I, like Allen, work in a suburban school. We have a total of 4 ELL students in our entire middle school. Most of ELLs in Waltham, as assessed by WIDA or ACCESS tests, get sent to a different, smaller middle school that supposedly has an excellent ELL program and many qualified teachers. As far as I know, it is not a basement program. The students that test out of ELL status and move into Formerly English Language Proficient (FLEP) status prior to 6th grade are usually sent to the middle school where I teach. While issues of language never come up in class discussions, I can often tell by looking at students’s writing if they have issues with language. Since I graduated from the M.Ed. program at UMB and have taken RETELL, I feel I am well-equipped to help such students with certain methods that I may not have received from other colleges. However, I do not believe that I would be any good at teaching a class with many ELL students. I cannot imagine what it would be like since I have never taught ELL students. But, who knows? Maybe I would be able to build that plane while flying it.

    Now, while communicating with students has never been a problem, communicating with parents can be. I speak a bit of Spanish and can usually talk with Spanish speaking parents over the phone or in person. However, I cannot speak the other dozen or more languages that some of the students’s parents only speak fluently. How do I deal with this? Well, the teachers in my cluster meet 3 times a week with each other to talk about student issues and various administrative things. In this time I would make it known that I am unable to reach out to so-and-so’s parents and that I think that they may only speak Creole. The other teacher’s may have a certain suggestion or another way that communication has been made with the family. If there are no options, I or one of my cluster teachers would make a request to a guidance counselor to see if there is a PTA member, another teacher, or a community member that can reach out to the family by communicating my message. From the few times I have had to do this, it works well.

    All of the staff at my school is extremely collaborative. As Nieto says, “Teachers who work collaboratively with their peers and families in a spirit of solidarity will be better able to change schools to become more equitable and caring places for students of linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds” (481). I feel my school does this well; the administration is really focused on providing a multicultural education and community for all of the students. However, we have the resources and teachers are given the time to do so.

  8. I think Nieto makes a good point in advocating for teachers to learn a second language, but I also agree that this is a somewhat unrealistic goal for many teachers. I have learned three foreign languages over the course of my life, and speak all to varying degrees. I am most comfortable speaking Hebrew, since I have been learning it most of my life and have spent a year abroad in Israel. This experience of living in a foreign country and not fully understanding the language was very enlightening. When I was a teaching assistant in a foreign language class a few years later, I found that I had a lot in common with the students, though they hailed from China, Korea, and Turkey. We could all discuss being afraid to speak in the foreign language, feeling embarrassed, or misunderstanding the local culture. I think that if teachers put themselves back in the place of a student, particularly in the context of learning a new language, they will develop a greater understanding of their students’ perspectives.
    Regarding the comment that Nieto makes about many teachers being white, female, middle-class, and monolingual, this comment seems to be a sweeping generalization. Additionally, Nieto mentions the lack of identity among people of European descent. I strongly disagree with Nieto’s statement. Nieto implies that European Americans have no cultural identity or even an idea that they have a culture. Nieto seems to be discounting the American cultures that many people identify with. There is no reason why a seventh generation American who originally hails from Germany must feel a stronger connection to their American past than to their German roots. Nieto also discounts the European Americans who do have a strong cultural identity. By attacking the cultural identities of white teachers, Nieto makes a personal attack on the teachers and claims that, since they have succumbed to the “melting pot” of American society, they have never encountered people of other cultures, races, or ethnicities. Nieto does not, however, offer suggestions as to how to create a society in which middle-class, white people can interact with people of other cultural backgrounds.

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