Birch Hill Cohort
Mark Lucas, Robin Lyle, Priscilla Flynn, Elizabeth Matthews
Staff Newsletter-Community Inquiry Investigation
Our cohort did a community investigation recently where we interviewed 3 prominent members of our parent group at Birch Hill. We spoke to Liong Goh, PTO Volunteer Coordinator and PTO Historian; Marlene Sanz-Rodriguez, PTO executive committee member; and Vasu Sreekakolapu, founder of our new First Lego League program. We discussed their journeys to the United States and the experiences they had acculturating into American society. We did this investigation to help ourselves and the staff to become culturally responsive to our students, especially our CLD students.
Marlene was born in Peru and came to the United States when she was 17. She knew little English when she arrived in Miami. She was not allowed to enter school right away because of visa problems so she took it upon herself to study and learn English. When she entered school a year later she tested out of the ESOL program at her high school. Both Marlene and her husband are bilingual but their children only understand a small amount of Spanish. Neither child can converse in Spanish nor did they qualify for ELL services at Birch Hill. Marlene recently went back to school to become a nurse and earned her RN degree here in Nashua. She plans on continuing her education to get her bachelor’s degree in nursing. Currently she works as a nurse in Manchester but would like to go into community nursing eventually to help people from other countries to assimilate into our area. Marlene and her husband believe that a person can adopt a new country without losing their previous culture. They celebrate American holidays while still keeping their children aware of their Peruvian heritage.
Vasu is fluent in 5 languages and came to the United States to get his Master’s Degree at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA. Vasu did his undergraduate work in India where he was taught almost exclusively in English. Vasu told us that his transition to the United States was very smooth as he knew English and knew about US culture through movies and television shows. He said that many of his friends were very much “American” as they were constantly studying American culture. He said, “It is the culture of the world as everyone seems to want to be American.” When he first arrived at WPI he lived on campus and this made his transition even easier as the school has a large international population of students. Both of Vasu’s children are bilingual and like Marlene’s children, they do not qualify for ELL services at Birch Hill as English is their primary language. Vasu and his family celebrate a mix of US and Indian holidays. There are over 600 Indian families in Nashua and he stays culturally connected to his homeland through these families. His family is extremely happy with Nashua and their educational experiences at Birch Hill.
Liong Goh originally came from Malaysia and was educated there through high school. He went to college in Australia and later lived in Singapore for 10 years before coming to the United States for his job. His wife Susan, is an American as are both of their children. Liong Watched American movies with subtitles & read book in English (Hardy Boys) to help learn the language. Liong was taught 3 languages at once in his early years of schooling (English, Malay, and Chinese), but he feels that this was a bit of a hindrance for him, as he is always “codeswitching. Surprisingly, Liong has not reared his children to be bilingual. He feels that the advantages of being a fluent English speaker outweigh the advantages of being bilingual, at least for his children. He still struggles with finding the correct word between three languages when conversing. He wants his children to learn how people live outside of the United States so they know about the world’s many cultures, languages and to get a different perspective about the world other than the US. When asked what his advice would be for a teacher in a classroom with ELL students, he mentioned three suggestions:
- Finding out their interests
- Getting them books
- Getting them talking – “All ELL students need more opportunity to speak for their confidence level.”
Meeting with families of our students was one of the more enriched experiences that we have had this semester. The experiential information shared was quite valuable. It is a practice that we should conduct more consistently to break down the barriers and our assumptions about our students and their academic needs.
- Something that was profound and consistently relayed was the concept that learning English is an important skill worldwide. One of the parents that we interviewed shared that American culture is well known. It is easy to access if you have the availability of technology as you can see American television shows in other countries. He shared that some English is required for jobs worldwide. He highlighted that although one may not be able to speak the language fluently, the ability to email for your career is one that we should emphasize. Globally, using language to interact in the workforce is critical.
- One of the other assumptions that teachers in American classrooms may make is that parents should interact with schools. One of our parents indicated that volunteerism is not something he ever witnessed in schools in his upbringing in other countries. That expectation that parents will come in so that we can consult, or to simply offer time to support is an American assumption. If parents don’t fully know or understand that they are welcomed, they may not come in. They may feel culturally that they are stepping on the toes of professionals if they come into the building. It may be a violation of the manner in which they are raised and they may feel that out of respect, they allow professionals to do their jobs without involvement.
- Another learning opportunity for us was that one of the parents shared that they were not 100% proficient in any language. Often times, when folks are bilingual, we forget that vocabulary is vast and if your education was interrupted, it may have all kinds of gaps. The parent shared that they get nervous when they speak in any language. They report that they feel they can understand 100% of the time, but to relay what they understand is more difficult. The expressive language component is a critical one to earn respect from your peer group. We feel that we need to remember this when interacting with our students. It is particularly important when we use standardized tests, whether it be for determining skill sets or ruling out disabilities. It is critical that we use a bilingual tester to take all the information the student can relay and determine what they know and what they do not know. If a student can say “Amarillo shoe”, then they should get credit in a standardized forum for the comprehension skill of knowing it was a yellow shoe, regardless of whether their response matches the answer key. To skip this critical step is a violation of civil rights.