By: Rebecca Hoskins
The first day back at work after a vacation is always a bit like reentering the atmosphere after floating in zero gravity: a jolt back to reality. For the staff of the Ravenswood City School District, it was a much a more exciting day than usual. On January 10th, we participated in a historic meeting of Menlo-Atherton High School and Ravenswood City School District staff to learn together how to best support our English language learning students as they move through elementary to middle to high school.
The highlight of the event was the keynote speaker, Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch. Her talk was poignant and incredibly relevant, since she comes from the same background that many of our students share. She went to school and sat through year after year of class, not understanding her teachers because they spoke english and her family didn’t have the resources to get extra help. Just as many of our students do today. She spoke passionately about her desire to learn and feeling left behind academically by her peers with more resources at home. She shared with us the tragic impact that a careless comment from a teacher can have on an eager student and warned us not to be that teacher. She also shared with us the positive impact that one teacher who cares can have on the lives of their students. She told us about the day one high school teacher came to her house in the barrio and apologized to her parents for the system that had let her down by failing to teach her English, and how she has flourished since that day because of his support and encouragement. She is now a sought-after motivational speaker, and inspires thousands with her words, both in Spanish and English. Her story is one of hope in the face of serious educational and economic injustice, of personal success in the face of systemic failure.
Of the many things that struck me about her speech, one was that in elementary school she found a friend who spoke “Spanglish,” and would ask that friend to translate everything the teacher said. It wasn’t enough for her to learn academic language, but it was enough to get her by. This is common in Ravenswood, and I have been in many classes where when I address a student, the other kids inform me that they don’t speak English and translate my question or comment.
In traditional American education, there is a strong focus on individualism. “Eyes on your own paper,” “no copying,” “you can’t have the same answers as someone else” are all typical refrains in American classrooms. This is one of many fine ways to go about things, if everyone in a class speaks the same language. But how can a child take a test if they will be punished for “cheating” when they ask their friend to translate the questions for them? What if a group of students all worked together to get the same answer on a homework problem? Many RCSD students are team-oriented and there is a culture of collaboration among students. This might look like a problem in a system that rewards individuality, but as contemporary American artist Gwen Seemel says, “the fact is that if each of us wanted to be the originator of language-if each of us wanted to name things ourselves-we would be in big trouble…. Someone must start imitating for language to come about.”
This means imitation is the stuff of language, the stuff of learning. Imitation is crucial for developing something together, which our students understand intuitively. It is also something that the the Tinker Team in Ravenswood has been encouraging in the Makerspaces from the beginning. I hadn’t considered that in addition to being good practice in prototype design, collaboration and idea-swapping is also good for English language development. It turns out that as all the teachers in Ravenswood are now English teachers, the Makerspaces are English classrooms, and I’m excited to be a part of that.