post by Joy Verbon, 2019-2020 The Educator Collaborative Associate
Language and the Privilege of Participation
As we approach–or in some cases, dive into headfirst–a new school year, we are faced with a reality unlike any other year in our educational careers. For most of us, we are toggling a parallel reality where work and home bleed together. A reality that never permits you to linger in the space of one role, one focus, one objective. You might be teaching live online, while being hijacked by your child who threatens to unintentionally sabotage your Zoom call, while simultaneously navigating a corner in your household that looks zen-like and free from visual pollution. Regardless of your efforts to maintain a tranquil facade, you can still guarantee something will go awry.
While you may feel awkward and misrepresented in front of the screen, just imagine your students sitting on the other side of the screen. For most of them, many of the highlights they looked forward to at school are gone. Recess, playtime, centers, working with others, building relationships and fostering friendships–gone. To a great degree, these aspects are no longer a part of their educational experience. Motivation and engagement take on a different dimension when the sheer joy of being with peers is removed.
Now think to your students who are comfortable speaking in front of others in the classroom, presenting their ideas with confidence, and who generally enjoy the attention it brings when others are watching. For these students, Zoom might feel invigorating and novel; somewhat like a virtual stage with the undivided attention of an audience.
However, for many students Zoom is not the place of their dreams. For multilingual students who may toggle between two or more languages a day, the extended time away from school may have temporarily silenced certain languages in their daily vernacular. While you, as an adult, may fumble over words online, imagine students who may not have spoken the language used for instruction in your classroom for months.
Mastery in the language of instruction is too often a privilege; a privilege necessary for participation. As educators, recognizing the difference between language and learning is essential. It is our responsibility to be cognizant of the cognitive load and social dynamics we are modeling and expecting. Be mindful. Being fluent in the language of instruction is a privilege, especially when learning is structured in a way that may impede success for multilingual learners.
Remember, just because a student doesn’t vocalize the concept in the language you are targeting, this doesn’t mean s/he doesn’t understand the concept. It only gives evidence that s/he does not have the answer in the target language for that particular question. If you want to truly comprehend a student’s understanding, remove dominant language barriers when possible. Ask students to act it out, draw it, build it, do it. Just like the student who can orally rehearse a three scene story and write just one sentence, it is our responsibility to separate the layers of learning requested in a task.
Want to really understand your multilingual learners? Put yourself out there. If you are feeling brave, as brave as multilingual learners are expected to be each day, remove your privilege of participation through language. Intentionally place yourself in a space when you cannot orchestra the conversation, in a space where you struggle to speak conventionally or even at all in the target language, in a space where you must struggle to release the words and ideas and conversation you have become so accustomed to participating in with others. Sit amongst others as they have a conversation in a language unfamiliar to you.
If you are feeling even braver, as brave as multilingual learners as expected to be each day, peel back another layer of privilege. Place yourself in the middle of the uncomfortable, awkward space where those around you are not trying to scaffold conversation for you. Where those around you are not sharing words or phrases and not trying to explain things to you. Where those around you are not intentionally trying to include you in the conversation. Where those around you proceed without you. Try it out for thirty minutes, maybe even more. Can you do it for a day just like some students are expected to do? Sit in this unpleasant space. In this space where you are most likely unseen and unheard because language impedes your invitation to participate.
Reflect on your experience. How does this relate to the multilingual learners in your classroom? How many times did you want to participate in the conversation and struggled for words? How many smiles, jokes, or pleasant moments were shared among the other participants while you remained mute? Were you addressed directly at times and could not answer? Did others speak to you slower, with large, exaggerated gestures, or increase their volume when using key vocabulary towards you? Were you spoken to in other ways that felt condescending? How did this impact the messages you received and your willingness to engage? In your own experience, have you unintentionally practiced some of these behaviors with multilingual learners?
As we all get closer to returning to school, I am increasingly aware of the need to turn down the volume of the teacher voice and to raise the volume of each student’s voice; to provide more opportunities for talk that are at a lower risk than a Zoom room full of fixated glances. Would you want to return to a skill you may not have used for many months on end as twenty plus others individuals watch intently? At least in a live classroom, not every peer would be looking in your direction. But Zoom? Prepare yourself for an audience intensity that mirrors that of a Broadway headliner.
As an educator, give your students and yourself room to be flexible. Let your students talk in small groups – daily. Allow multilingual expression. Practice not interrupting or filling in the pauses as a student may search for a word. Only provide words if you can when needed or requested. Providing unsolicited words can stunt a student’s verbal expression. Remember, we are not here to police language, we are here to promote it. And in that promotion, we must permit students to speak and to speak volumes. Only when their voices are heard, when they are given the space to construct their thinking, can they truly express themselves. Lean on opportunities to show understanding in wordless ways; in drawings, in actions, in representations. Reducing the privilege of participation based on target language proficiency provides access to more multilingual learners and their participation in the conversation of learning.