Celebrating the Languages in Class…

Back in February 2010, I was in my third year as a teacher, but my second year in a classroom and my first year teaching fifth grade. The majority of our student population are Spanish speakers, and this was the first year where a good percentage of my class spoke languages other than Spanish. I had Thai, Bengali, Nepali, Urdu, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

Creating a community culture with the students was not a simple and easy task. The Spanish-speaking students would feel they were being talked about when the Chinese children spoke to each other in Mandarin, and the Chinese students felt outnumbered. The Bengali-speakers felt ostracized and teased. It also didn’t help that I kept getting new students. But, instead of letting myself give in to feeling overwhelmed, I tried to use each newcomer as an opportunity to return to the class goals, rules, and unique qualities.

As a new school year approaches rapidly, I’d like to share with you now this post I wrote for another blog on this very topic:

“One Language Is Never Enough”

A sentiment I hold strongly is the above, which was so succinctly coined by the guy who runs omniglot.com, a wonderful language resource. He then, appropriately, translated it into dozens of languages.

I recently decided to post this phrase in my classroom. It’s a key part of the community and culture I’m trying to generate in the classroom, and I felt it’d be a very visual way to promote all the languages in my room.

I put it up on Thursday, but rather than place it in my room, I put it right on my door, as a welcome and declaration of our principles. The kids noticed it right away as they entered yesterday morning, and I could hear them murmuring and pointing at it. After they were settled, I told them that this was a way to share with everyone in the school our joy in having many languages to celebrate in class.

This is something that comes up frequently in the class, as they often want to write in their first language, and they speak in it regularly. Speaking in one’s first language when appropriate is actually one of the “rights” I have posted in the class. It’s been up since September, but I feel the kids are starting now to become aware of its meaning and significance. Other teachers have told me (not in a negative way) that their students mention to them that my kids have a right to speak in their first language in class. I also have a welcome sign on the front in sign language, and I often see kids passing by, practicing.

Anyhow – when I posted the above phrase on my door, I then had a child read the line that was “theirs” to the whole class. I wasn’t totally sure how they’d react, but they were all smiling, and cheered for each other. I could tell they felt really proud and special, which was exactly the reaction I was hoping I’d see.

I know it’s not much, since they still have to spend so much of the day in English, but I hope it makes learning their adopted language more fun and less alienating and I hope that it’ll inspire them to maintain their L1 and continue being literate in it. Now that we’re about to embark on this adventure of documenting, via videotape, our online dictionary of ASL and our languages, I hope this sentiment and excitement of celebrating languages and relishing all the cultures in our room will only expand.