By Jessica Shim and Hillary Parkhouse
Last Monday, February 5, the Richmond School Board meeting included a period for public comment regarding the budget. Several Latinx parents from the New Virginia Majority came out to speak about the lack of bilingual services in Richmond Public Schools. One parent mentioned that it is frustrating when she walks into the school and cannot speak to anyone because nobody in the school speaks Spanish. Another parent said that she is concerned for her children who do not have guidance in what classes to take next year, and is worried that they will not be prepared for college. And yet another parent mentioned the lack of bilingual guidance counselors, saying his child does not feel supported in following his or her dream of becoming a doctor.
The percentage of English Language Learners (ELLs) in Richmond and Chesterfield has doubled over the last ten years, and the percentage of Latinx students in RPS has more than tripled in that time. These interactive maps show population changes and projections for these groups and others in school divisions around the region. As a former language learner / immigrant student myself, I have personally experienced the culture shock, the silent stage, the uncomfortableness of coming to a new country, and the cultural identity crisis that comes with trying to figure out where and if I belong in the United States. As I started my education to become an elementary school teacher and continuously met students from all over the world, trying to figure out where they belong in this country, I couldn’t help wonder: What can educators do RIGHT NOW to create a practical, supportive, and safe environment for our language-learning students?
In order to get a better understanding of how general education teachers like myself can be a support system for ELLs, I took the Teaching English as a Second Language course in the VCU School of Education. In the course, I learned about the SIOP lesson planning method, the history and struggles of ELLs, and instructional and evaluation strategies that are culturally sensitive and meet the needs of ELLs. I not only learned a lot about English Language Learners, but I also gained so much insight on teaching methods that I can use in my classroom to accommodate students who are already fluent in English. This led me to believe professional development focusing on English Language Learners for general education teachers is important and necessary for creating culturally competent teachers, especially as over 80% of teachers today are white, mostly monolingual English speakers, and many have little or no training in modifying their instruction to meet the needs of ELLs.
Here is a four-part guide I put together, mostly from what I got out of the textbook used in the class: Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners. It addresses some strategies for teaching and misconceptions related to English Language Learners, as well as a political history of the struggle for ELLs to obtain the fundamental right to education. One misconception that I personally reflected on is that contrary to popular belief, statistics show that the majority of ELLs are born in the United States. This shows the diverse culture and language of this country and emphasizes the need for teachers (and everyone!) to understand that we are not living in a country with a homogenous culture and language.
Here are some additional articles and websites to check out! A good teacher is always reflecting on and adding to his or her knowledge and perceptions bank. In our city (and country) that is becoming increasingly diverse, I am optimistic that we can reflect on our practices and meet the needs of the ever-changing population.
Jessica Shim is an elementary school teacher.
Hillary Parkhouse is an assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning at Virginia Commonwealth University and instructor of the “Teaching English as a Second Language” course.