This is the first of the community inquiry projects we’ll be posting. As we mentioned in our whole cohort meeting, we wanted to be sure to share some of the work you are doing. ¡Disfrute!
Parents Teaching Teachers
Veronica Bodden, Natalie Archey, Mariann Farrell
Ayuda me, estoy preocupada por mi hijo. Mi hijo dice que el nunca tiene asignaciones, eso es verdad? Queiro saber si mi hijo esta en el nivel de lectura de su grado? Ayude me, no hablo ingles! Translation: Help me; I’m worried about my child. My child says he never has homework, is this true? I would like to know if my child is reading at grade level. Help me, I don’t speak English.
Imagine that you are the parent of a school aged child and you had these concerns but were not able to communicate these concerns with anyone at your child’s school? Would you be labeled as uncaring? Would people think you did not value education? Are you an uninvolved parent? Would teachers classify your child as lazy or learning disabled?
Three FMS teachers recently met with a group of ELL parents at the Nashua Adult Learning Center to learn how they cope with being non-English speaking parents in an English speaking school district. Veronica, Mariann and Natalie spent the evening discussing topics ranging from school issues to why these parents left their homelands to come to the United States. Out of fifteen parents, the majority came from Spanish speaking countries but also represented were Belarus, China and Brazil. This is the story of their experience.
We began with why these people left their families, friends and homes to immigrate to the United States. Most of them came because the U.S. has better opportunities for the parents with more jobs and for the students with better education. One man said that he came because it was much safer. Many others agreed with him when he said that. This surprised us because we know that the U.S. is considered the “land of opportunity,” but his comment made it apparent how much we take safety for granted.
The parents shared that the language barrier is difficult for them. The cold New England winters are hard to get used to. They were not accustomed to needing a car. They stated that where they were from, public transportation and/or walking was the common form of getting around. Whereas in Nashua, they feel that a car is a necessity. They like the safety of Nashua and especially the job opportunities.
We spent a lot of time talking with them about our school system. Most were intimidated about contacting the school if they had a concern about their child because they do not speak English. Most said they felt nervous about going to their child’s school. They were all caring and involved parents, yet they didn’t know how to be involved with the school. The language barrier was a huge problem for them, not only that they couldn’t understand the school staff, but also that the school staff couldn’t understand them. Oftentimes their children learned English faster than they did. This led to feeling left out in conversations with teachers as the child translated. They did not like the shift in power from them as parents to the child that knows more of the language. They were unsure if their child was misleading them in translating.
We sensed that they did not want to be critical of our school system. They liked our schools, but they didn’t like not being able to be involved because they couldn’t understand the language. Some of them had children that went to schools with Spanish speaking receptionists or interpreters. They felt more connected when that was available. They also felt that they knew who to contact for help when their child had a school related issue. This resource helped them greatly.
Even though we really focused on our speech and vocabulary as we spoke (guarded vocabulary), there were still times that we had to try a different way to state our questions. They are relatively new English speakers and their comprehension of oral English was limited. We could tell when they did not understand what we were asking. We found ourselves using different words and using gestures to communicate our questions. We also were very conscious of our facial expressions, tone of voice and rate of speech in order to put them at ease and help them to be more comfortable in sharing with us. In one instance, we thought we were using easier vocabulary when we used the words “tough” and “hard”. It was pointed out to us that the word “difficult” would be better understood because it is a Spanish cognate (dificil). This was truly a learning experience for the three of us. It gave us another opportunity to put into practice the strategies we have learned because we needed to be understood and to understand.
We found this professional experience to be very rewarding. It reminded us that we cannot make assumptions about our ELL parents and their level of involvement in their children’s education. Many parents are simply not equipped with the language to come into school and advocate for their children. It does not mean that they do not care. If we truly want our ELL students to be successful, we must look into ways in which WE can include them. One idea is to have a designated room that has school and community resources available for parents in different languages. We could include a computer that has internet access so parents could access the parent portal. This room could be staffed by an interpreter at various times throughout the week. All school notices could be available in the different languages with opportunities for students and their parents to sign up for sports, clubs, and other activities. Every time the interpreter talks with a parent, he/she can inform the parent about this room full of resources. The center could also be staffed with our school’s social worker from time to time to help parents with resources available in the community. ELL student volunteers could assist as well.
In our classes, we need to be sure that we translate team notices, project directions, and permission forms into the home language of our students. In order to involve our ELL parents, we should use an interpreter whenever we can. It is important that we use visuals in our lessons as much as possible. Not only do we need to lower our students’ affective filter, it is also important to consider our parents’ affective filters so that they will feel valued and comfortable. As teachers, we have much to do. However, we make our jobs easier when we collaborate with our parents to deliver the best education for all of our students … especially the ones who are not native English speakers. What else can we do to facilitate that?