Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Teachable Moment - The assumptions we make about each other

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I answered my cell phone in the middle of class this afternoon and triggered an amazing discussion with the class about assumptions, language learning, accommodation, racism, and understanding.  My ESL writing class consists of fifteen students in 6th-8th grades, five of them immigrants themselves and ten who were born in the US but are still considered English Language Learners because they haven’t managed to pass the reading test, the writing test, and the listening & speaking test all in the same year.  Four Vietnamese speakers, two Korean speakers, one Hebrew speaker, and seven Spanish speakers from four countries.  (I know, you just added in your head and thought I left one out.  I didn’t.  He’s English-dominant and has been most of his life, but English was not his first language.)

Back to the phone call. I answered in English, then switched to Spanish for a very mundane discussion about why a certain boy (not in the room) wouldn’t be attending tutoring.  When I hung up, one of my more recent 6th grade immigrants (not a Spanish-speaker) asked why I talked to the parent in Spanish, and before I could even answer, one of his classmates interjected, “Because they were Mexican!” while another said, “Because she speaks all the languages.”  Not quite.  I speak or understand 3½ languages and am often called on to interpret or translate for parents.  Someone called the new immigrant student racist, and there were instant demands for apologies from all parties.

I called time-out and said that I thought we'd better discuss the entire issue, see what each other might be thinking, and then give apologies if people still thought they were warranted.  Spoiler alert: the kids apologized, but not for what I was expecting.

First, I clarified that the question wasn't really about why I spoke in  Spanish, but rather why I didn't speak in English.  All agreed.

I asked who in the room had parents who were not born in the US.  All the kids raised their hands.  I asked who had parents who couldn't speak English well enough for a phone call when they arrived.  Most hands.  Whose parents studied English in school?  Five hands.  Whose parents spoke English as well as their kids? Only one hand -- that of the boy who asked the original question.   Whose parents didn't graduate HS?  Most hands.  Then one of the Mexican-American boys volunteered that his mom had never gone to school and a Vietnamese classmate said that his mom went for two years but none of his uncles went to school.   Then I asked them to consider again why it was that I conducted a parent phone call in Spanish.

"Because you can."  Yes.  What else?
"Because Spanish is cool."  Yes.  What else?
"Because maybe the mom on the phone doesn't speak English."  Good.  Why?
"Maybe she didn't learn English in school."  Possible.  What else?
"Maybe she never went to school."  Also possible.
"It's hard to talk on the phone in a different language."  Good.
"My mom hates calling the school. I think she is scared of teachers."  Quite possible.
"Well you like it when parents tell you stuff, so you won't make them talk in English if they hate it."  You mean I want them to be comfortable calling school?

Once I was sure we all understood a little more about the situation, I asked if anyone still felt like they wanted an apology.  No one did, but the new immigrant whose question started the discussion apologized for asking the wrong question, and the classmate who sneered his reply apologized for assuming that the first boy was racist.  I have no idea where race is supposed to fit in to a discussion of language learning and schooling, but the kids seemed satisfied and we'd used up enough time with our pens "off the paper".

I next see this group Thursday, and their writing prompt will have something to do with assumptions and understanding other people's perspectives.  As you can tell, mine was about teachable moments.