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Fresh off the Boat

cnewville's picture

It was the first or second day of my placement at a new school. The school was very diverse, with more than 3/4 of the students being Black, Hispanic, or Asian, while the remaining 1/4 identified as white. I was really excited to be in the classroom and was meeting my teacher for the first time. As she was talking to me about her students she described them with respect and enthusiasm. She was talking to me about her expectations and about the student in their class- they loved being challenged and they loved doing hands on activities like drawing or making something.  She was overwhelmed by the energy in the class and said it was hard to maintain a healthy order for the whole hour. She noted that her class had many ‘high need’ students in the class and that she preferred that they be integrated in all the activities and not put in a group by themselves as to isolate them and hider their leaning. She noted that the class learned better as a whole with the students leaning together.

All in all, she was speaking highly of her students and understood how to teach them. Then she said “and oh gosh, we have a new student named Louis (not his real name, but it was Hispanic in origin)… he is Puerto Rican and doesn’t speak a lick of English... fresh of the boat”  She then continued to briefly and casually describe the newest addition to her class. His friends translated for him in class and not to mind if he doesn’t participate much, “he doesn’t know what’s going on”.

This situation was extremely uncomfortable for me and I still don’t understand how a teacher who I admire so much and who connects to most all of her students so well can so casually dismiss a student’s ability due to his language. Nevertheless, I smiled and asked how many Spanish speaking students she had in her class and in the school and if there were Spanish classes in the middle school or any other foreign languages in the curriculum.

Looking back after spending more time in the classroom, Louis actually doesn’t speak that much English. His friends tell him what’s going on if were doing anything hands on.

 I don’t know if Louis knows that I secretly speak Spanish and know what he is talking about when he speaks in class, but he is doing what any student in 7th grade would do if they had a secret language: he takes about sports and about the girl who sits three rows in front of him who smiles a lot, he also makes a lot of inappropriate jokes which are hard not to laugh at sometimes. When his teacher asks his friends what they are talking about, they say they are explaining the material. I tried to see if the school has done anything to better involve him in the class or perhaps find multi-lingual education materials for him to test and use during school, but I never found anything. All they see is a quiet student in the back of the class, whispering to his friends back and forth, which in the end is just letting him slide through grade school until he isn’t prepared for his next steps. I wish that in a school where they have so much access to multilingual education and students who obviously have such different backgrounds, could find a better way to address this situation and to make his language a strength in the classroom rather than a shortcoming.