Creativity, Curiosity, Communication

“In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.” – Junot Diaz [1]

Put yourself in the shoes of a fourth grader. You are part of a bilingual program that starts in Kindergarten and teaches you both English and Spanish. You might be a first generation immigrant, an American citizen who has been bilingual for most of your life, or an English speaker eager to connect with your parents’ language. Your family could speak only English or only Spanish at home. Your classmates become your comrades in arms – they translate, they assist, they play, they learn – all with you at their side.

As part of my educational studies major during my undergraduate degree, I pursued a course entitled English Language Learners, which allowed me the opportunity to work one on one with Spanish speaking students in a bilingual program in central Illinois. The students that I worked with each week faced what seemed like a never-ending bombardment of obstacles to overcome. They faced teachers that yelled content louder at their faces thinking that it would make them understand. They struggled to relate to other students who weren’t always as accepting as their bilingual peers. They got frustrated at having to look up every other word of their report on animals in the dictionary because there really is no reason that the English language spells “skin” with a “k” instead of with a “c”. They were stereotyped as illegal, as immigrants, as undocumented, as slow, and as the quintessential other. To some within the education system they became statistics to improve instead of the creative learners and skilled communicators I knew them to be.

Author Junot Diaz, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Authors such as Junot Diaz write to counteract these misconceptions and break down stereotypes about Latino Americans. In Diaz’s short story entitled “Fiesta 1980”, he delves into the life of one Latino family living in New York. [2] I couldn’t help but envision young Yunior, the protagonist of Diaz’s text, as a student in that fourth grade bilingual class. I wonder how he would react to the art teacher in Illinois that refused to let students translate the instructions of an assignment from English to Spanish for each other. Yunior, an inventive writer and skilled observer, might have sat in silence with the rest of his class and wonder why his language was treated with such distain. While balancing the controlled chaos of his fractured family, the added stress of being misunderstood in the classroom could have been the breaking point for many children in Yunior’s shoes. Would this creative and precocious child be brought down by the wear and tear of an education system that favors English and seeks to churn out cookie-cutter learners?

When I looked into the faces of the students in my observation placement I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought of their heritage. With the media and the people that interact with them daily so set on demonizing and stereotyping their language, how must they perceive the world around them? The debate over bilingual education versus English immersion learning continues to heat up. Dual language programs provide a diverse range of students the skills to learn the basics in their native language and grow their English skills simultaneously. These kids have just the same right to learn as any Sally or Steve from down the block. The sooner our country abandons the belief that any one language is superior to another, the sooner we will find our children learning more about themselves, discovering more about the diversity of our nation, and benefiting from this knowledge. We cannot grow as a society until we realize that hope stems from our ability to embrace creativity, communication, and curiosity in our children. Junot Diaz helps to keep this promise alive by writing texts that break down stereotypes and humanize Latino America for readers.

[1] http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Junot-Diaz-Talks-About-What-Made-Him-Become-a-Writer

[2] Junot Diaz, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction (New York, Simon & Schuster), 244-255.

7 thoughts on “Creativity, Curiosity, Communication

  1. Great post Cate! I do not come from an educational background and so I never had this experience of being in a classroom to observe. Honestly I’m surprised that it is still looked down upon to speak another language for kids of this time. I thought shows like Dora the Explorer signaled a change in the overall perception of speaking another language. I thought it was more widely accepted as a benefit to be bilingual… I guess we have a ways to go yet in this area and a way to go yet in theories of how to teach languages.

    1. I too was surprised to learn that its still looked down upon for kids of today to speak another language. When applying for jobs and college, often it is a huge benefit to be bilingual, as it makes it easier to talk to all sorts of people in a more diverse community. I think the the overall perception of speaking another language is changing, but the emphasis is still on speaking English as the “best”.

    2. I wonder if the difference lies in which language you speak first. I think that it is probably perfectly acceptable to learn Spanish as a second language, because then you’re being practical and preparing yourself for the world. But, as Cate pointed out, those that speak Spanish first and are learning English are stereotyped and bullied.

  2. This post caught my attention immediately. I very much enjoyed you sharing your experience, as I have had very different classroom experiences while doing education programs in my hometown museum. Coming from a border town in southern New Mexico, classes like ESL ( English as a Second Language) are part of the norm. Those children who speak spanish often teach other children their language, and push cultural boundaries unknowingly. Does geography really make the difference? I am really interested how these educational practices differ across the country. Your post was really eye opening to me, as I has never realized how open my home classrooms are.

  3. It always makes me angry when I hear about bilingual people treated differently and with disdain in this country because the United States has no “official” language. Why should we be telling people what they need to speak when the United States is a country of evolving people and languages? We don’t stay the same for long and that’s one of the qualities that makes the US so unique.
    And just as an interesting side note…it was funny to me that you chose the names “Sally and Steve” to represent the stereotypical white kid down the block because my boyfriend’s name is Steve and he is a Spanish teacher! It’s actually interesting to note the kind of looks he gets as a blond-haired, blue-eyed white man speaking Spanish!

  4. This post really made me think about how much time is spent forcing immigrants and those who speak a language other than English to become more “American,” to assimilate into American culture as it is widely perceived. In classes where one person speaks a different language, they are told to learn/speak English, and yet, why is it not the other way around? If someone speaks Spanish, Russian, French, Arabic, why not use it as an opportunity to teach children/adults that language, so they can learn more about that person’s culture as they learn more about American culture? I find the same to be true with names, both first and last. When I was in third grade, my class hosted a boy from China named Wi Wi (pronounced Wee Wee), and as eight year olds you can only imagine the reaction the his name. To make his name more “appropriate,” or rather I should say, to keep the jokes/laughter from the children to a minimum he was nicknamed simply “We.” Looking back, I realize that while we considered this to be a nickname, we had subsequently altered his name to suit our purposes, trying to make his name more acceptable for third-grade American children.

  5. Growing up near Pontiac in Metro Detroit, I had a lot of experience with the growing Hispanic communities in the area. I always saw Spanish speaking individuals as far less exotic or “different”, though, when confronted with the over 100 other languages spoken in Oakland county school districts. I knew students that grew up in homes that spoke Arabic, Farsi, Albanian, Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil, Russian, and Mandarin just to name a few. My mother is a school psychologist in Oakland County and one of her laments at many IEPs and Parent Teacher Conferences was the scarcity of good translators, and the issues that came up in trying to translate English psychological terminology that doesn’t have a conceptual basis in many cultures.I actually think that forcing children to learn English when many young children don’t have a strong grammatical basis in their own language is very counterproductive to their learning.

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