The Power of our Native Tongue: Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs and Nizar Ali Badr

Imagine, if you can, this scenario:

A childhood synonymous with freedom and comfort–a breakfast of yogurt, bread and vegetables, playfully running barefoot over rocks, an evening of papa’s stories about family.  A life of schooling, city markets, laughing and chatting in public.

Pretty easy, right?

Now this one:

A childhood synonymous with confusion and limitations.  Limitations of food that required shared bowls of soup and confusion at the exodus of your community, just a few at first, but then many.  Where are they going?  Why? The falling bombs answer your question, so your family joins.  Now your playful barefoot running is treacherous barefoot walking for miles and miles and miles, tears marking the ground for each one completed.  Land then water then boats then drowning, but you come full circle, reaching land once again.  Land that symbolized hope.  Your family categorized as “the lucky ones” and you know that’s true because you’re here, but it’s still so confusing.

Stepping Stones CoverStepping Stones pages

This is the experience Margriet Ruurs documents in her bilingual text, written in English and Arabic.  In yesterday’s post, I spoke to using images to tell a story when the (English) words weren’t yet an access point for our ELL students.  This book beautifully adds the next layer–allowing students to tell stories in their native tongue while also working together to write the English equivalent.  The strongest research in ELL education tells us that a bilingual immersion experience is the most effective when learning a new language.  By and large, public schools do not do this.  Our ELL students arrive in our classrooms and everything becomes centered around learning English, speaking our way.  Ultimately communicating to students, leave what you know behind here and let us tell you what you need to know.  Save your native tongue for homeThe two worlds your living in right now will be kept separate.  They oblige, because really, what choice do they have?  Our words, sharp and clunky in their mouth begin to form.  Before they are spoken they sit in the throat like elixir, thick and bitter tasting.  They come out all wrong.  People listen with intense faces trying to make them out.  What did you say?  Repeat it.  Try again.  Can you imagine the level of frustration when your days repeatedly consist of these moments?

As a new language is acquired there is a trajectory that is followed.  The first level learned is the social language–playground and lunchroom talk, and then academic language.  Once these oral skills are strengthened students apply them first to reading and finally writing.  So, even as we work tirelessly teaching them this new language, we will not see reflected in their writing for quite some time.

Unless… Unless, we allow them to write in the language they know.  The irony is it’s a craft move we teach all other kids to use in their writing.  We see authors do it all the time–pull in words from their culture to enhance the tone and setting of a book.  We would be wise to capitalize on this with our most vulnerable language learners as well.

With the many translation tools available today educators can make this work.  Or, better yet, invite in their families.  Many times there is someone in the home that serves as the translator.  Invite them into your classrooms.  How thrilled they would be to see what their child is writing and be the invaluable link between home and school.  Think of how they could help add on to the story.  Think about how this small gesture gives them a voice in their new land–one connected to their child’s education.  Can you imagine the impact of this powerful and lasting moment?

I recently listened to a Truth for Teachers podcast that was a two-part series on focus points for teachers of high poverty classrooms to get results.  As I listened to part two, which centered around parent involvement, I couldn’t help but think that the truth they were speaking would be to the benefit of every single kid in the public education system. Their message was this:

“Parents are our greatest advocate with our children.  They know their kids better that we do.  No one is going to love my students more than their parents do.  And so when I bring them in, and I bring them to the table, I say, ‘I want to hear your voice.  I want to add your voice to whatever I am doing with my students.

As teachers we have got to stop judging families regardless of how they look.  We have to start acting as if they are the critical link to success for our children because they are!  And then we have to tell them that.” 

It’s true that we are likely the person in the classroom that knows the best, researched instructional practices.  The parents, however, are the ones that know the individual to a depth we never will.

Can you imagine the level of success we could obtain if we all started working together?




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