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Discovering ourselves as we learn about teaching emergent bilinguals…during a pandemic.

By Rachel Toncelli

The Coronavirus Pandemic did more than push teaching and learning into remote and online contexts, it forced all of us educators and teacher educators to rethink what we do and how we do it. As we near the end of a very uncertain school year, I want to give a shout out --a “Wow! You made it!”-- to all the teachers who re-committed by finding the energy to discover themselves and reinvent their work in graduate school.

As a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) teacher educator, I work closely with in-service teachers who are studying to achieve certification to support emergent bilinguals in their classrooms. This work involves a deep dive into how languages are acquired and the structure of the English language, yet it also requires an intense understanding of who educators themselves are --culturally and linguistically—to promote English language development while also genuinely valuing the cultural and linguistic resources that emergent bilinguals bring to school with them. This kind of teacher preparation involves deepening awareness of the ways in which English-speaking cultural dominance in schools in America quietly and forcefully conveys the message that only English matters; reversing this current requires teachers recognize their own privilege and push back against systemic forces that compel students to shed their cultural and linguistic difference.

This year this work had added challenges as remote learning, a lack of access to reliable technology, and sometimes-on-sometimes-off-again in-person learning that always required distancing pushed teachers to think, rethink, and think again about how to provide access and inclusive spaces for learning. It was my great privilege this year to collaborate with teachers who found ways to reach their students and also dedicated themselves fully to their own ongoing growth by engaging in TESOL studies that pushed them to explore their own identities and their relationship to institutional barriers to true inclusion of all learners.

I asked some of these teachers what they learned about themselves –their own identities-- as they studied to become teachers of emergent bilinguals, and their answers reveal so much about how much teachers give of themselves and are willing to continue growing, even during a pandemic.

Here are a few of the many responses I received:

“I was having a MLL conversation with a friend about education. He remarked, ‘Some teachers have the mindset that classrooms should be English only. Can you believe that?’ ‘Yes,’ I responded. ‘I CAN believe that, because I was one of those teachers before I started taking TESOL classes.’ Over the past year and a half, my mindset has completely changed from creating an English only environment, to creating an environment where we translanguage and enjoy all the students for everything they bring into our classroom. Unlike a year ago, culture, language and ideas are all celebrated now in my 4th grade classroom.”

–Meghann, 4th grade teacher

“I have learned that, even after teaching for 23 years, there is still so much I can learn to improve my quality of teaching and reaching all kids, on all levels. I have also learned many different factors that influence our learners.”

-Rachel, 4th grade teacher

“Studying to work with emergent bilinguals has taught me that in some cases I was part of the problem as opposed to being part of the solution. After reflection, reading, learning and collaborating in just my first class I have already learned so much about how to incorporate different strategies into my classroom that is beneficial for all. I look forward to learning more!”

-Courtney, teacher

“I learned that I am very interested in other cultures. I always knew I was but the more TESOL experience I gain, the more interested I become. I have a respect and curiosity for other cultures. I love watching my student's faces light up as they share aspects of their culture, language, and upbringing with me. TESOL taught me that I am patient, compassionate, and and dedicated. Parents often reach out to me and tell me how thankful they are. I play an important role in their education, and it makes me feel fulfilled.”

-Lauren, 5th grade teacher

“Educators can assist emergent bilinguals by improving their own listening skills. When a native speaker of English is having a conversation with a non-native speaker, the burden needs to be placed on the native speaker to truly engage in listening, and in order to successfully accomplish this goal it will take practice. Listening in context can help the native speaker hear the sounds that are being produced so they can become more familiar with these patterns, and this practice can be implemented across languages of the classroom community. We need to lessen the burden on those who are already trying to learn a new language by having native listeners share in this process and challenge, and as a result can improve their own perceptual abilities.”

-Leonard, classroom teacher

“Working with emergent bilinguals has made me reflect on both my strengths and weaknesses as an educator. It has shown me that there are a lot of communication and cultural resources that I take for granted. At the same time, though, it has helped me to examine areas of personal improvement, and has made me a better educator overall. It has also helped me to realize that I am much more capable of overcoming communication and cultural barriers than I often give myself credit for, and my emergent bilingual students continue to shape and educate me as much as I do them.”

-Joe, world language teacher

“It has made me see myself as an outsider looking in on ‘American’ English.”

-Rabia, math teacher

“Studying to work with emergent bilinguals has taught me that as an educator, I need to research the languages of my students' home languages in order to best service them. I also learned that I cannot make assumptions about what a student knows or does not know in English until I know the positive, negative, or zero transfers that do or do not exist from the students' home languages to English.”

-Olivia, ELA and ELD teacher grades 5-12

“It has solidified and categorized my own experiences as a bilingual student in elementary school. I now view those experiences from an educator perspective, not just from a personal lens.”

-Madalena, special educator

“My emergent bilinguals teach me patience and persistence and grace. I have become more understanding and flexible since I started working with that population of students, and I trust that as I continue to interact with them in more spaces, they will only continue to help me grow.”

-Elyse, ELA and ELD teacher

“Working with adult emergent bilinguals has taught me how privileged I am to read and speak the English language. This experience has also taught me how important it is for language and culture to be preserved and valued for it is part of our identity.”

-JoAnne, volunteer adult educator

It has taught me that I need to focus on making [emergent bilinguals’] learning experiences meaningful & relevant.

-Kenny, special education teacher

Let’s celebrate what great things can happen even in the face of great adversity. Cheers to these teachers who keep on going!


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