Language, Bilingualism, and Literacy – in School and Beyond

Brokk Tollefson Photo Josiah Brown, a volunteer member of the board of the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, sent this account of an event in which the Coalition was involved.

On Thursday, September 29, the New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) hosted a forum on “Language, Bilingualism, and Literacy – in School and Beyond,” at Wilbur Cross H.S.  Co-sponsored also by the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (CALAS) and the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, the event featured a panel of the following speakers:
  *Ofelia García, Ph.D., Professor, Urban Education and Hispanic Languages and Literatures, Graduate Center, City University of New York
  *Abie Benítez, Ph.D., Director of Instruction, NHPS (moderator)
  *Miguel Cardona, Ed. D., Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, Meriden Public Schools
  *Norine Polio, Teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages, New Haven Public Schools

The audience included numerous teachers – from early childhood through K-8 and high school, as well as various other educators, researchers, nonprofit staffers, and volunteers –  not to mention parents.

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While dozens of NHPS educators were in the audience, others came from such districts as Bridgeport and Manchester.  University affiliates from UConn as well as Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) and Yale were there, too, along with members of CALAS from New Haven and elsewhere.

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The Connecticut Network video-taped the program, now available online.

After welcoming remarks from moderator Abie Benítez, she introduced the panel and invited Ofelia García to begin her presentation.

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“Bilingualism Is Never a Problem; It’s a Gift”

Ofelia García is a scholar, author, and teacher who traveled from New York for this occasion.  Professor García reminded listeners that bilingualism or “multilingualism” (when an individual may speak not only two but three or more languages) is, globally, “the norm” – with more than half of people around the world speaking more than a single language.  In the United States, she said, about 23% are speakers of languages other than English.  Further, the U.S. ranks second, just behind Mexico and ahead of Spain, in its number of Spanish speakers.

She emphasized that bilingualism does not have to be “perfectly balanced” between two languages; she seeks to counter what she regards as a misconception that a person “be two monolinguals in one.”  Instead of the metaphor of a bicycle with two identical wheels, she evokes an “adjustable … all-terrain vehicle.”  Alternatively, she said the complexity of bilingualism makes it like a “banyan tree” supporting “a temple” – with the temple in this case the child.  Concerned that such a child may view him/herself as “defective” in relation to a “monolingual” classmate, she outlined the “complex … meaning-making system” in bilingual speakers.  Citing the varying language experiences of her three grandchildren, she said: “Bilingualism is never a problem; it’s a gift” that can make young people “better citizens” with “social” and “cultural advantages.  (She is more skeptical or at least uncertain about research suggesting that there are also “cognitive advantages.”)

The key, she asserted, is for adults to speak in a language that provides a high quality of “interaction” – to use language “in very rich ways” by asking questions and connecting it to “meaningful” ideas and surroundings – in the home, at play, through entertainment, etc. as well as in school.  (1)  Much can be done, she said, if you “leverage … what you have”  and “build from strength” in a family’s home language and relationships.  She applied the dictum attributed to Max Weinreich: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” (2)  Invoking examples from such places as Luxembourg and the Netherlands, she said “education needs to work for the children” (and community), “not for the language” primarily.  As opposed to English-language learners (or “ELLs”), her preferred terms are “emergent bilinguals” or “multilingual learners.” (3)   Educators, she said, must “identify appropriate resources” for them and “find ways to connect with families.”

Professor García sees a role for technological tools that facilitate quick translation (even if those translations can be flawed) in multilingual classrooms.  With the aim of “translanguaging” (the title of one of her books), she discussed a New York City example in which students bring some 13 different languages to a single classroom.

Moderator Abie Benítez – who was principal of Columbus Family Academy before becoming a director of instruction in the NHPS – underscored the point about bilingualism as a “gift,” adding, “No English does not mean no language.”  Referring to the variation in and complexity of situations, she said the right practices depend on the context.

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“Not Just Tolerate But Celebrate Cultural Differences”

Miguel Cardona then commented, beginning with praise for the diverse participants in an after-school salsa-dancing group that he had noticed upon arriving at Wilbur Cross H.S. from Meriden for the event.  Stressing that policies “should always be research-based,” he spoke of the mutually reinforcing aspects of language and culture.  As “children are very vulnerable,” he said, it’s important for educators “to elevate their self-concept.”  He recounted his experiences not only as a 4th-grade teacher but also as a student himself years ago in the Meriden school system, where he was initially known as “Michael” rather than Miguel – the name on his birth certificate – until as a 7th-grader he insisted upon making his actual name official in school, too.  Miguel Cardona, who in addition to his current role (as assistant superintendent) in Meriden is co-chair of the Connecticut Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force, framed current challenges as reflecting a need to unite “the right belief system” with more equal resources, informed by research and caring.  He said we should “not just tolerate but celebrate cultural differences.”

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“Teaching … Is a Wonderful Way to Spend the Day”

Across some three decades of teaching in the New Haven Public Schools, Norine Polio has applied this principle in her instruction.  She began her remarks by alluding to her childhood in New Haven in an Italian American family.  Still living and working in her hometown, she for years has welcomed “newcomers” from around the globe to East Rock School (after earlier stints at Roberto Clemente and Betsy Ross schools).  Currently among her students, 21 countries (from Sudan to Bangladesh to Belarus) are represented, along with 11 languages.  Referring to teachers as “learners,” she said “the kids bring the world to me.”

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Her teaching is informed by influences including Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University, whom she met years ago when he was at Yale and engaged in research in the NHPS.  One of her “philosophies is to use the senses,” with the help of various objects and imaginative play and hands-on demonstrations – from kitchen sets and “stations” to a make-believe airport from which her students take one another on journeys to their home countries, with insights and inspiration for everyone (depending on the ages of the students in grades K-8 with whom she works).

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While acknowledging “there have to be tests,” she lamented the extent to which standardized testing (particularly “high-stakes” testing) can affect the joy in teaching and learning.  Calling for “a balance,” she urged her fellow teachers “to be strong enough to challenge” authority when necessary, and to use “common sense” in reconciling “rules” with “what is right for the children.”  According to her, “Our biggest challenge is to advocate for children.”  She appreciates the discretion and support administrators have provided her, and she remains grateful to be able to do what she does, saying: “Teaching … is a wonderful way to spend the day.”  Examples of her results range from a former student who has now returned to become a teacher in the district, to recognition for teaching “excellence,” to another former student featured in the Independent for his success on AP exams.

In the round of questions and discussion, Ofelia García said, “We have to deal with assessment” but thoughtfully, especially since testing of students in their second or even third language may not yield “valid” measures.  She warned of the hazards of labels such as “native speaker” that may “exclude” certain individuals.
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Miguel Cardona declared, “Challenges are opportunities,” for example that “unacceptable” achievement gaps demand “urgency” as well as “collaboration.”  He called for developing a “clear, not fragmented” set of strategies and then for rallying to “create the political will” to address gaps not only through schools but also from a broader societal and family angle.  Echoing the sense of gratitude that Norine Polio expressed, he said, “We’re fortunate” to be in education; let’s “promote our profession as the best profession” and recruit more students to become educators, as Meriden is doing through a “grow your own” program.

Moderator Abie Benítez drew out Ofelia García on the relationship between bilingualism and literacy learning, including in a district such as New Haven, where languages may include Arabic, Mandarin, etc. as well as Spanish – and where regardless of their origins, “We must affirm what students bring from home.”  Professor Garcia responded that while the former consensus was that “sequential” literacy in one language first was necessary, in fact “simultaneous biliteracy” can be successful.  She cited Kathy Escamilla and colleagues at the University of Colorado working with what they call “literacy squared” – growing literacy in two languages.  Miguel Cardona indicated the virtues of being “bicultural” as well as bilingual; he believes it helps him “empathize” with students and colleagues from various backgrounds, to understand “social-emotional” as well as academic factors, and to be “more sensitive and effective in my job.”

Norine Polio explained how her elementary school teacher’s practice decades ago shaped her own.  For instance, her students’ imaginary trips give them a chance to use books and maps, to write about everything from chopsticks and food to clothing and family.  Students from many continents are “thrilled” to share what they know with their classmates and teachers; “they have so much to give.”  She said, “We’re learning listening, speaking, reading and writing,” as well as geography.  Admiringly, Miguel Cardona observed that she is “empowering” her students and making them realize “they matter.”  Having distributed a handout suggesting the difficulty of learning English, she concluded, “So we have to work very hard.”

This free event reflected a collaborative effort.  In addition to the speakers, CALAS, and host Wilbur Cross H.S. (including Principal Edith Johnson and the school music department, which supplied extra chairs), thanks go to Coalition board member Rob Coro and Marcum LLP for donating promotional design/printing services, and to Mary Elizabeth Smith – Coalition board member and Junta’s program director, adult education & community outreach – for her Spanish translation, as well as for helping other board colleagues including Susan Holahan (a teacher of ESOL in the NHPS) and Curtis Hill (a technology maven and the founder of Concepts for Adaptive Learning) to organize the forum. 
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Other board members assisted with it, such as: Dave Braze of Haskins Laboratories, Cheryl Durwin of SCSU, Kirsten Levinsohn of New Haven Reads, Kyn Tolson of Read to Grow, and Genevive Walker (the board’s newest member) of ConnCAT.

Notes

(1)  This is consistent with themes that emerged, for example, in prior Literacy Forum events including in 2010, 2013, and 2015.

(2) According to a 2010 post at the “Samuel Johnson” blog at the Economist, “The Yiddish expert and linguist Max Weinreich is credited with the famous a sprakh is a dialekt mit en army un flot (though he was actually quoting an unnamed friend). Indeed, a ‘language’ is often ‘a dialect with an army and a navy.’”

(3)  Ofelia García later added, “Even though some European countries do well with multilingualism, they do not do well with the education of immigrants or refugees. Luxembourg is exemplary with regards to trilingual education, but the system works against the Portuguese immigrants.  And with all the Syrian refugees coming in, they’re all looking to us for guidance – especially Sweden! ... There are better schools in all districts and good teachers everywhere, but an entire exemplary school district is hard to identify.  On some of the work we’ve been doing with struggling schools, visit www.cuny-nysieb.org.” 

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization with a mission to promote, support, and advance literacy for people of all ages, was established in 2003 by a board led by the late Christine Alexander, who also founded New Haven Reads.

The Coalition – sponsor of the Literacy Forum series – has a LiteracyEveryday website with portals to Get Help, Volunteer, Donate, and Learn More, as well as a listing of News/Events, and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, @LiteracyGNH.  Visit LiteracyEveryday to share or obtain information on free events, resources, and ways to get involved in pursuit of a region of readers.  The Coalition invites inquiries and announcements at this email address.

There is a need for additional volunteer tutors and mentors at such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta for Progressive Action, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, New Haven Public Schools, and New Haven Reads.

Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue, in space at 4 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation.  The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers, and the Economic Development Corporation.  In the same building at 4 Science Park are the offices, classrooms, kitchen, cafe, and art gallery of ConnCAT.

You can help by:
  • Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Public Library—and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and New Haven Reads;
  • Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;
  • Volunteering as a tutor or mentor;
  • Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money—whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way—or of books and by advocating and voting.

For more information: info@literacyeveryday.org

Articles on the Coalition and Its Events:

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Colleague, Previews Forum”

“Early Literacy Experiences, the Brain, and Child Development”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Members; Forum Approaches”

“Why Is Math Important?”

“Libraries in the 21st Century”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Colleagues”

“Why Read?”

“It’s about WORDS”

“Literacy Paths Plotted”

“Literacy, Every Day”

“Learning in the 21st Century, in Ways New and Old”

“Reading, Culture, and ‘Quality Time’ at Home”

“‘Empowering Teachers,’ Reading Research, Instruction, and Supports”

“Margie Gillis Discusses Using the Latest Research on Reading”

“Early Reading, Community Action, and Catalytic Philanthropy”

“Literacy Coalition Forum: State Legislative Update and the Big Read”

“A Day for Literacy”

“Commissioner Ted Sergi: Their ‘Second Chance’ Starts with Reading”

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