- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
By José Luis Vilson
This week, NYC public schools start classes, at least for a day until another four-day weekend starts and kids really start coming in to school next Monday. In my classes, I’ve usually had students labeled as ELLs (English Language Learners), and they’re one of the hottest sub-topics in education today. The confluence of immigration and education as foci put ELLs at the epicenter of the debate between those who see America as a nation of immigrants and those who disagree vehemently. Even those who are first or second generation citizens have divergent views on this idea of letting others into this country.
Anytime we use words like ELLs or immigration, we’re commonly discussing Latinos. As many as 75% of all English-language learners registered in the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey speak Spanish. ELLs’ families tend to be more socio-economically disadvantaged than their non-ELL counterparts, and around 70% of them are coming from Latin American countries.
In my school, we boast a 96% Latino / Hispanic population, 90% of whom we estimate consider themselves Dominican (as in Dominican Republic). Yet, when you walk around the school, it’s as diverse as one might expect from “normal” (read: White) middle schools. The nerds, geeks, dweebs, jocks, cool kids, “bad kids,” and other niche groups still pervade. While the majority of the kids adhere somewhat to the culture of the neighborhood, they also vary in how Americanized they’ve chosen to become. It’s an added factor to their social and academic success. Those are the pieces missing from the American conversation on ELLs; only when we settle that larger debate will this debate become easier to see.
In most of the classes I’ve taught, I’ve had the opted-out ELLs, meaning their parents have specifically asked that their students receive English-only instruction, even as we have to offer them extra services (these services are variable, too). They’re as in-tune with the larger debate as anyone. On one end, they struggle with the nuances of English, and snicker at their own mistakes when they speak and write the language. On the other, they’re quick to guffaw at the opted-in ELLs, who receive a larger percentage of Spanish-language instruction along with English. They quickly separate themselves from the latter group by referring to them as campesinos (peasants) or, more curtly, hicks. Never mind that some of their parents still haven’t gotten permanent residency, much less citizenship.
American culture makes it such that, in order for people to presumably survive, they must espouse the values of America, even as America continues to do huge disservices to them by systemically disempowering their communities. They’re pushed towards individualistic goals and ratings when anyone who’s studied any history knows that anything worth winning has been done with the group collective. They come from homes that predominantly emphasize Spanish as their culture’s way of communicating, but in school, they’re chastised across the nation for speaking anything but American English, whatever that means.
And it’s only been turned up a few notches with the exponential rise of ready-made technologies. Sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo can more readily tell them what’s “cool,” becoming taste-makers for an entire generation of wired children, even in urban communities. Whereas bands like Collective Soul and Garbage rarely got airplay in the hood, bands like Fall Out Boy and The All-American Rejects get regular ear-play in kids’ iPods and sidekicks. That’s what my kids listen to, just like everyone else in this country does. Many of the lines that people consider “acting white” have already begun to blur.
Yet, no matter the similarities, we do have to more appropriately assess English Language Learners. While we’re certainly past the point where just having Spanish-speaking parents qualified you for erroneous class placement (as I fell victim to), the way we educate our English Language Learners (and our students as a whole) requires an entire paradigm shift. Much of this requires us to subscribe to an ideology of color-consciousness, where we neither disdain those who are culturally or racially different from us nor pretend to treat everyone the same when we’re not trying to understand them at all.
Educators particularly have the obligation to build a relationship with the students, particularly because so many foreign cultures emphasize that before all else. Here are some stereotypes we should debunk right off the bat:
“Students who can’t read English can’t read.” This is high on my list. Most research tells us that literacy, the ability to read and write in one’s language, is transmutable, and much of that comes from establishing techniques by which to dissect a language and apply it to what they know.
“Those kids really don’t care about good grades.” This theory also falls flat on its face. Yes, one can look at the levels of achievement and see huge gaps in test scores. 43.8% of ELLs compared to 67.4% of non-ELLs score proficient or above on their math tests, and a 38.2% to 70.5% comparison in Reading tests respectively. Yet, immigrants place a higher value on education than the average American student. In a recent study done by the Pew Hispanic Center, 88% of all Latinos believed in the merits of education compared to 74% of the general population.
“Those parents don’t care about their kids.” This one accompanies the previous point. Like their children, parents place a high value on education. Yet, the parents themselves may come from a background where they didn’t receive the best education possible. Only 44% of all ELLs have a parent who completed postsecondary education, so exposure to any schooling system (and the rights attached to that) is limited at best.
“Those kids don’t want to assimilate to the American system of doing things.” This is a huge fallacy, and something that prompted me to write this article. We should aim for acculturation in lieu of assimilation for one simple reason: assimilation intimates that people ought to rescind their cultures (and their identities) for the Anglo-American way of doing things whereas acculturation asks people to adopt American culture without losing that sense of self. The latter is what makes living here for so many Americans tolerable if not awesome.
If we’re really about this idea of an American dream, a meritocratic myth in its current state, then we must strive for inclusion of all our migrants, and adapt our educational framework around the whole student. Our pedagogy has to be fortified with a belief in every student’s ability and willingness to succeed for themselves, and thus their environment. In an increasingly global economy, borders won’t matter as much as the lives of the next man or woman.
When classes start again on Wednesday, the first ELL that walks into that classroom won’t be the ones sitting in the student desk, but the one with the tie and collared shirt, ready to provide the other ELLs a chance to prove me right.
José Luis Vilson is an educator, writer, and president of Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University.