“¡Miren somos famosos!” Mamá and papá looked towards where I was pointing and they quickly saw what I saw: our picture up on the Yankee Stadium jumbotron! Papá was the first to laugh and mamá as always first to comment with "que lindos nos vemos.” We were all at the New York City Football Club game and even though our team wasn’t doing well in the first half (we won 2-1 with exciting two goals in the second half), seeing our picture up there was a first half highlight.
When I was about seven years old we would go to a different kind of soccer event at a different location. At that time, papá was a referee on weekends and we would go watch him and the games at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, NY. After each match, papá would join us and we’d walk or bike around the park. We’d talk about the games and sometimes end up at a Chilean restaurant in the neighborhood (it’s no longer there but there is another one we go to in Astoria now in case you are reading this, live in the area, and get a craving for empanadas).
I have so many memories like this one, enjoying New York City with my parents. But I often think about how this is not the case for so many of our students or how there are some painful memories around my own transition to the US from Chile. For example, the time mom and I stood lost on Queens Boulevard not knowing how to get back home and afraid to call local authorities for help, thinking our undocumented status would lead to our family being separated. To this day, I get emotional every single time I pass by that spot.
I remember my sixth graders’ writing entries from every September when I would ask them to collect ideas for stories they wanted to tell. Some had just left a parent in the Dominican Republic. Some hadn’t seen a sibling in years after they came to this country. Some of their “fun” or “playtime” memories were bittersweet with them trying out the “last time” writing strategy, thinking of the last times they played with a friend or the last time they were at a large family gathering. I couldn't help but think of my own experiences. My undocumented journey as a five year-old was a lot to process on top of a new school, shifting language practices, the very cold winters of our new home and the lack of family around.
“¿Chris, por qué trajiste esta piedra?” I asked my student on the second day of school. I really was thinking, “oh great, now this kid wants to be funny and will totally throw off my class." I put forth a forced smile not knowing yet that kids see right through you. On the first day of school, after having read El Camino de Amelia/ Amelia’s Road, I explained to my students that this classroom would be a place where they could share, question, and grow together. The book (read aloud) and our discussion afterwards were really powerful ways for us to discuss what "home" meant to us and how we wanted to feel in this space.
I asked them to bring a picture of a place or person that they love or an object that was meaningful to them. We would use this for our writing task (writing teachers you know where this is going). I thought I was being clever by combining my lesson with my “getting to know you” activity. What I wasn’t prepared for or what took me a bit to learn was the lesson that Chris would teach me.
“Great, here we go with who is going to be the class clown,” was what I thought when Chris put that rock on his desk as other students took out pictures from their homework folders and placed them on their writing notebooks. After I showed my students my picture from my writing notebook and how they could list moments with the people in the picture (or at their favorite place), I walked around to see how students were doing. “¿Y por qué esta piedra?” I asked Chris to explain why this rock. “Profe, recuerda que ayer escribí del río en la República Dominicana con mis primos? Esta es la piedra del río,” he explained. "Oh," I said.
On the first day of school, I asked students to share with me one of their favorite memories. I used this writing task as a way to get to know them and their writing. Chris (as many other students) missed his family. He missed the fun moments with cousins at the river, outdoors. At his table, once he explained where the rock was from and how special those moments were for him with cousins playing at the river, students joined in and told us that they too hadn’t seen most of their family and missed nature. For some, traveling back to see their abuelita, abuelito, and other family members was not an option.
This was not your traditional “Research-Compliment-Teach-Practice” writing conference (or the structure I learned in my literacy coaching group with Colleen Cruz: "Research-Compliment-Ask Permission-Teach-Practice"). Neither was this a planned small group strategy lesson. This was me being schooled by students. This was me listening to how their experiences impact them, how they respond, how writing can be a path to healing and community-building, and how classroom instruction needs to move beyond a superficial awareness. Our teaching must acknowledge their full humanity and the full range of the human experience.
Here are some recommendations thanks to what I learned from Chris and hundreds of other bilingual students and teachers:
Get to Know Your Students - Use the information from "get to know you" activities to inform your lessons and include students' voices and knowledge in future learning experiences. See Chris Emdin's For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education for examples of what this might look like as we build relationships with students (chapter one) and welcome them as co-teachers (chapter four)! You also want to see the City University of New York-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals (CUNY-NYSIEB) for resources on students' language practices (with the Languages of New York State Guide) and sample K-12 lessons in the Translanguaging Guide (versión abreviada en español) that build on a "multilingual ecology" for your classroom.
Tell Our Stories - Provide opportunities throughout the school day and year for students to share their experiences. Create writing partners or writing groups and schedule time for them to meet. See the work of Jim Cummins and Margaret Early in Identity Texts: The Collaborative Creation of Power in Multilingual Schools for examples of ways students can work with writing partners/groups to tell their stories using their entire linguistic repertoire. Teachers have loved looking through the Thornwood Public School Dual Language Showcase for ways that their bilingual students can "publish" their writing in ways that honor their writing process, language practices, and experiences.
Take a Culturally Sustaining Approach to the Classroom - H. Samy Alim and Django Paris, editors of Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World, note that to teach from a culturally sustaining stance, "calls for schooling to be a site for sustaining the cultural ways of being of communities of color" as the "future is a multilingual and multiethnic one regardless of the attempt to suppress that reality." This is an urgent call. It is a call for the revisiting and dismantling of destructive ideologies around languages, cultures, and students' knowledge systems. I'm thankful for the communities of educators, administrators, families, and students that continue to keep this at the forefront of our efforts. For example, developing bilingual programs in schools that celebrate and encourage students' full linguistic repertoire (as opposed to having the "bilingual" label but pushing for student literacy practices only in English) or integrating discussions on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and next steps (as opposed to ignoring the recent announcement on ending DACA - how many of our schools discussed this at staff meetings this week?). I'm excited to use this blog as a space where I can share examples of culturally sustaining pedagogies across the K-12 grades and in undergraduate and graduate classrooms!
What are some lessons your students have taught you during this back to school season?
What was a moment that wasn't written in the lesson plan but that revealed to you a lesson you'll keep for life?
Please comment below!