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Bilingual Voices and Parent Classroom Choices
Mother and Daughter Battle Over Homework
Ines Campos didn't know what to do. Her daughter Nina sat under the kitchen table crying, refusing to continue with her homework. “I don't like it! Don't like it! ¡No me gusta!” Nina screamed. Ines was exasperated. She had been helping Nina with her homework assignment for the past three hours and was beside herself. Ines wondered where her creative and artistic daughter was—the girl who loved to paint portraits of the neighbors. Nina's homework difficulties were beginning to make her hate school. Nina was not doing well academically and did not have many friends. Ines wondered if in choosing a monolingual classroom for her daughter she had made a poor decision. “I am the defect for my child,” she thought…
Ines Chooses an English-Only Classroom for Nina (translated from Spanish)
“…I know I am the defect for her. She's not doing well in school because she doesn't speak English well. She doesn't like to read English books. She loves to hear stories—but she always asks that I read Spanish language books. She asks for Spanish because I put some flavor into it. You know when I read in Spanish I get animated. But in English, no. So, she doesn't even want to bring out a book in English.”
Ines came to the United States from Mexico for a short vacation. She had not intended to remain in the United States and had never imagined coming to the country to work. In Mexico she was a schoolteacher in good economic standing and surrounded by a loving family. When she became pregnant with Nina, however, she changed her mind.
“I feel that here Nina can do something. I don't say that in Mexico she can't do it, it's just that I think she has better chances to do it here. But the key in America is English. Nina has to learn to speak English quickly. I know from my own experience. Everything is hard for me. I work at a childcare center, sell products door-to-door, and clean houses and I still depend on the government welfare. I sometimes feel trapped. I need to learn English so that I can undertake my own business and my own dreams. Right now I can't work with Americans because I don't understand English. So that is my goal—to learn English.”
Ines reflected on her own struggles in not understanding the English language and was determined that her daughter should learn English first and foremost. Ines enrolled in adult English classes at the nearby high school and knew how difficult acquiring a second language was. She was adamant about placing Nina in an all-English classroom to bypass her own hardships. As well, she had been instructed by close friends at her church group not to speak with her daughter in Spanish so that she could develop a better grasp of the language.
A later version of this teaching case is featured in the book Preparing Educators to Involve Families: From Theory to Practice, available for purchase from Sage Publications at www.sagepub.com/
In the beginning of the year Nina was placed in a bilingual first grade classroom. Ines went to the school and talked with the principal to request the all-English setting. She was grateful that the principal permitted the switch, but then faced the problem of not being able to help her daughter with homework.
At the parent-teacher conference in the beginning of the year, Ines was afraid to tell the teacher, Ms. Chesin, about her difficulties in helping Nina with homework and understanding what was being sent home. Nina translated throughout most of the meeting. When Ines asked the teacher for more direction on how to help, Ms. Chesin encouraged Ines to read with her daughter in Spanish at home.
“The teacher says it doesn't hurt for children to learn both. So that's what I've been trying to do. I try to teach her Spanish because I promised the teacher that I would. I was a teacher in Mexico myself and I notice that the different sounds get her a little confused—you know, the vowels all make different sounds. But we work on it. I've also been getting help from my friend Cora at church. She speaks both English and Spanish and I send Nina over to her house to practice her English. But I don't like being so far from her. I feel a little like I'm losing her and I don't want her to know how little English I know.”
Ines did not tell Ms. Chesin that they were working on homework assignments for up to three hours each night.
“I don't want to tell the teacher too much because I don't want Nina in a bilingual class. I think where she is now is better as far as I understand. She has to learn English. If she learns Spanish she will go down. But it worries me because I know she's very far behind. Too far behind. I ask her questions when she reads to me in Spanish and I give her reading comprehension to see if she knows what she's reading—but she doesn't know. I wonder if she'll even go to second grade…?”
Ms. Chesin Believes a Bilingual Classroom May Suit Nina Better
“I'm going to send Nina to second grade. I think it's normal that she is having so many problems in school because English is her second language. It's very hard for children who speak Spanish to learn English. Since English is her second language I expect her not to do as well as some of the other children. I'd be more concerned if she were a native English speaker. I guess Nina wouldn't be in my room if she really needed more Spanish support because I'm not the bilingual classroom. But I definitely think she needs remediation. She'll never be at the top of the group. You know, she just doesn't have the support at home. These are working people, you know, they're working people and they don't have access. They probably don't go to the library a lot or go to museums or go to plays. They don't come from that kind of background so it's pretty hard for them to give their children that kind of knowledge. Getting a job, staying alive, and putting food on the table is just a big chore.”
As a veteran teacher at Morrison Elementary, Sonya Chesin believed that a bilingual placement might be a more enriching experience for Nina. She worried about Nina's reading and writing skills as well as her social emotional progress. Nina was very sensitive and cried a lot, especially when things were too difficult for her. Ms. Chesin attributed these difficulties to Nina's second language acquisition. Ms. Chesin's homework policy followed the school guidelines of twenty-minute assignments every night except Fridays and holidays. She attempted to individualize the work and send notes in two languages, but due to the time constraints and a busy teaching schedule, this often did not happen. She wished she had more regular communication with parents.
“I mentioned to Nina's mother at the first parent-teacher conference that she should really consider a bilingual placement for her daughter. She seemed very negative towards this suggestion. I think Spanish is a beautiful language and a real asset if she can speak both. So, I made some suggestions about how she might work with her daughter at home and work on beginning sounds. We have to abide by the parents' wishes…”
Principal Andy Beber Identifies Bilingual Issues at Morrison Elementary
“A number of parents in our school advocate for their children and bilingual education has been a hot topic around here. Parents will often come to me and request one program or the other. What's interesting is you never know where someone will come out on the issue. The controversy is not just one side against another. I speak Spanish, so I think it's easier for parents to come to me. Some native speakers will come requesting a bilingual placement for their children while others come demanding a monolingual one. In our school, I think the most common problem that parents and teachers in our bilingual programs face is when children's English becomes stronger than their Spanish. The bilingual program becomes hard for them. So the system is often hard for language delayed and English improved students.”
Morrison Elementary has transitional bilingual, two-way bilingual, and monolingual classrooms (see Appendix). Ms. Beber is responsible for determining children's placement in the traditional rooms, then a random number system assigns whoever is left to the dual classrooms, creating a mixture of language-ability children. The transitional bilingual class includes basic instruction in Spanish and 20-30 minutes a day of English instruction for English language development.
Third grade is typically the year when full bilingual students start making the transition to English instruction, but this is dependent on passing a Spanish test. The test is difficult for some students. For many who can never pass the test, the school eventually places them into English out of desperation. They often do poorly.
“I grapple with what the best system is. We have a wide range of families in our school so it is hard to target our resources and audiences. I have parents who live in palaces and I have families who live in one-bedroom apartments. We have a number of parents who are very unresponsive and hard to reach. Because of this, as a principal, it's hard to know what kind of support parents need. We don't have a lot of parent involvement in this school so it's just hard to know.”
Ines Wonders What To Do Next
Exasperated, Ines did not know what to do. Her daughter Nina continued to sit under the kitchen table crying, refusing to complete her homework. With the spring parent-teacher conference coming up in the next few weeks, Ines was prepared to ask again for help with the homework, but she also anticipated Ms. Chesin recommending a bilingual placement. She wondered if she had made the wrong decision by choosing a monolingual classroom for her daughter. Would Nina be better served in a bilingual classroom? How could she know? “I am the defect for my child,” she thought….
The people and events in this case are based on real-life accounts, but have been disguised to protect confidentiality. We would like to thank ethnographer Gisella Hanley for conducting the in-depth interviews from which this teaching case was developed, early analytical insights, and reviewing the final case. This work was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of its Research Network on Successful Pathways Through Middle Childhood.
Appendix: The History of Bilingual Education
In 1968 Congress for the first time endorsed funding for bilingual education through the Bilingual Education Act. This was significant because up until this time, students were discouraged from speaking non-English languages. Backed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court followed Congress's lead and ruled in Lau v. Nichols (1974) “there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.” Politicians and educators hoped to ensure that no student would fall behind academically because of a poor command of English.
Bilingual education continues to be controversial. Many critics argue that the approach keeps students in a cycle of native language dependency that ultimately inhibits significant progress in English language acquisition. Proponents reason that if students first learn to read in the language in which they are fluent, they can then transfer the skills to English and develop stronger literacy in the long term. However, the controversy extends beyond educational issues and into politics and immigration sentiments. While proponents of bilingual education concede that often teachers are not trained sufficiently to teach in bilingual settings and that inadequate funding exists for the programs, many ballot initiatives calling for English-only schooling reflect anti-immigrant or “white only” attitudes.
Complicating the debate is the range of programs that fall under the definition of bilingual education. English immersion refers to instruction that is entirely in English. In this case the monolingual classroom. In English as a Second Language Classes (ESL), students work strictly on English skills for one period a day among students who may or may not speak their native language. Transitional bilingual education students spend the majority of their time learning in their native language, but spend a certain amount of the day developing English skills. “The aim is to increase use of the majority language in the classroom while proportionately decreasing the use of the home language” (Baker, 2001). Two-way bilingual or dual immersion bilingual education is instruction divided equally in two languages. This approach is intended for equal numbers of language minority and language majority students in the same classroom, with the ultimate goal of students becoming proficient in both languages.
A growing movement within the debate argues to give families more control over deciding the placement of their children. Under most policies, parents are permitted to pull their children out of bilingual education only after the students are in such classes; schools are not required to seek the parent's approval before making placements. Schools are increasingly required to provide descriptions of program options and seek parental approval of students' placements in advance. However, proposals concerning parents “rights to choose” often draw some of the strongest criticism. Opponents fear that the school system will not make information easily available to immigrant parents, especially those who speak little or no English, negating any informed parental choice.
Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed.). Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters.
Ada, A. F. (1988). The Pajaro Valley experience. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas & J. Cummins (Eds.), Minority education. North Somerset, England: Multilingual Matters.
Allexsaht-Snider, M. (1995). Teachers' perspective on their work with families in a bilingual community. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 9(2), 85–95.
Calderon, M. (1997). Staff development in multilingual multicultural schools. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED410368)
Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. North Somerset, England: Multilingual Matters
Fueyo, V. (1997). Teaching language-minority students: Using research to inform practice. Equity & Excellence in Education, 30, 16–26.
Soto, L. D. (1997). Language, culture and power: Bilingual families and the struggle for quality education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Harvard Graduate School of Education. (2002). Tongue tied: Bilingual education in the nation of immigrants. Retrieved April, 2002, from http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/features/bilingualed04012002.html
Valdes, G. (1996). Con respeto: Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
To request instructor notes for this teaching case, send an email to FINE at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vivian Fueyo is a Professor of Elementary Education and Chair of the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Florida State University. Her research interests focus on teacher education reform, action research, and the educational needs of diverse learners.
One of the most striking features of Ines' confusion about how to select the best educational setting for her daughter, Nina, is the role played by both the principal and the teacher in this case. Both say that it's up to Ines to decide—the parent's choice—yet neither of them appear to be well informed about what the current research on educating English language learners can offer Nina and her mother. In my opinion, both Ms. Chesin and Ms. Beber have abrogated their roles as professional educators by failing to anchor their educational practices on the impact that they will have on the children, consequently failing their responsibilities in educating the students as well as the parents.
Ines needs answers to her questions from the educators at the school about what will work best for Nina. Despite ongoing debates about the merits of bilingual education, both advocates and opponents agree on several key issues: “the best setting for educating linguistic minority pupils—and one of the best for educating any pupil—is a school in which two languages are used without apology and where becoming proficient in both is considered a significant and cultural achievement” (Glenn & LaLyre, 1991, p. 43). According to bilingual education theory, students will achieve at higher levels in English if they first achieve at high levels in their native language. High levels of Spanish literacy do not guarantee high levels of English literacy, but poor achievement in Spanish is unlikely to lead to success in English (Goldenberg, 1997).
Both critics and supporters of bilingual education appear to endorse dual language, or two-way bilingual, immersion programs that involve language minority and majority students with the goal of enhancing bilingualism and literacy among all students. These programs usually involve at least 50% minority language instruction form kindergarten through sixth grade, and, thus are considerably more primary language intensive than the vast majority of transient bilingual programs such as those at Nina's school (e.g., Cummins, 1999a, 1999b; Jimenez & Gersten, 1999; Nieto & Rolon, 1997). In fact, by offering three different educational options at Nina's school, the principal runs the risk of perpetuating confusion instead of engendering confidence. Parents may be more inclined to ask themselves—if the school has several options for my English language learner, then any of them should be fine, but how do I choose?
Successful educational programs for English language learners share other important characteristics (e.g., Cochran-Smith, 1997; de Leon, & Medina, 1998; Gersten & Jimenez, 1998; Goldenberg, 1997):
For several years, I coordinated a school-university partnership for teacher preparation at an elementary school, which served 900 children and their families from 18 different language groups. The principal of the school, in collaboration with the parent organization and the teachers, developed a series of videotapes for parents in each of those languages. The videotapes describe the school's philosophy of education, stated the goals for the students, introduced the parents to the teachers, and answered the parents' most frequently asked questions. A classroom in the school was dedicated as the new parent room, and it contained over-stuffed chairs, a refrigerator, a coffee pot, and a videotape player. How different would Ines' and Nina's experiences have been if Ines' first visit to the school had been to the “new parent room” to have refreshments and view one of those tapes with the school principal and a Spanish-speaking volunteer?
Also Written by Vivian Fueyo:
Fueyo, V. (1997). Teaching language-minority students: Using research to inform practice. Equity & Excellence in Education, 30(1), 16–26.
Cochran-Smith, M. (1997). Knowledge, skills and experiences for teaching culturally diverse learners: A perspective for practicing teachers. In J. Irvine (Ed.), Critical knowledge for diverse teachers and learners (pp.27–88). New York: AACTE Publications.
Cummins, J. (1999a). The ethics of doublethink: Language rights and the bilingual education debate. TESOL Journal, 8(3), 13–17.
Cummins, J. (1999b). Alternative paradigms in bilingual education research: Does theory have a place? Educational Researcher, 28(7), 26–32, 41.
de Leon, J., & Medina, C. (1998). Language and preliteracy development of English as a second language learners in early childhood special education. In R. Gersten& R. Jimenez (Eds.), Promoting learning for culturally and linguistically diverse students: Classroom applications from contemporary research (pp. 26–41). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
Gersten, R., Taylor, R., & Graves, A. (1999). Direct instruction and diversity. In R. Stevens (Ed.), Teaching in American schools (pp. 81–102). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Glenn, C., & LaLyre, I. (1991). Integrated bilingual education in the USA. In K. Jaspaert& S. Kroon (Eds.), Ethnic minority languages and education (pp. 37–55). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.
Goldenberg, C. (1998). A balanced approach to early Spanish literacy instruction. In R. Gersten& R. Jimenez (Eds.), Promoting learning for culturally and linguistically diverse students: Classroom applications from contemporary research (pp. 3–25). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
Jimenez, R., & Gersten, R. (1999). Lessons and dilemmas derived from the literacy instruction of two Latina/o teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 36(2), 265–301.
Nieto, S., & Rolon, C. (1997). Preparation and professional development of teachers: A perspective from two Latinas. In J. Irvine (Ed.), Critical knowledge for diverse teachers and learners (pp. 89–124). New York: AACTE Publications.
Edward Gallegos is a second grade teacher at the Dual Language School at Cameron Elementary in Odessa, Texas.
This case captures the heart of the dilemma that many parents of English language learners have. I have talked to several parents that want to either put their children in an all English class or do not want them in the bilingual program at all. They want their children to learn English as fast as possible. They simply have not been given enough information to make an informed decision. Many like Ines hear something from someone they know rather than investigating further. They make their decision on that information no matter how misinformed it is. There is something to be learned from this. That decision is made based on the trust they have in that individual giving them the information. Trust is what is missing between the school and parents. They would much rather listen to another parent than those “educated”—the administrators and teachers. No trust, no belief.
There are a number of problems in this case revolving around communicating research-based information about bilingual education to parents. First, there is a lot of research out there on effective dual language programs. Why has it not been suggested by the principal? The dual language program is a solution that would help set aside fears Ines might have about Nina learning English. For this to happen the principal needs to be up to date on research and establish trust.
Research also shows that reading with Nina every night will be a big help. Ms. Chesin needs to tell Ines that it's important for Nina to learn the academic Spanish first to enhance her English later. She needs to stress that parents are a child's first teachers and give Ines some concrete suggestions to use at home. Nina will learn English regardless. What is important is that she learn the academic Spanish first to enhance her English later. Ms. Chesin would benefit from workshops that would enhance her knowledge of bilingual education so that she could communicate this effectively. A culturally sensitive teacher also must be able to draw parents into the classroom and make use of their funds of knowledge (Moll, 1992). Ms. Chesin has not completely succeeded in doing this since Ines is frightened to talk with her.
This school must demonstrate a deeper commitment in supporting immigrant family needs and increase awareness of their rights and responsibilities. So many times we expect our parents to go along with what we want instead of making them full partners in the decision making process. Minority parents often do not think they can make demands for their children's education. They have rights yet they do not exercise them because they do not know how. Ines feels that the school will not value her opinion. The school has not conveyed to her that she is an equal partner. She has a lot to offer the school, but is not given the opportunity.
Try a Teaching Umoja Approach
We have seen this scenario played out countless times. Watching a child struggle with completing academic work in English while at the same time trying to learn English is extremely painful for the parent. Seeing them lose their love of learning and creative spark and excitement is even worse. And then, feeling that you, your culture, and your language are the causes is unbearable and it couldn't be farther from the truth.
However, due to countless negative messages about her language, Ines feels that “I am the defect for my child.” No, Ines, you are not. We would like to tell you, Ines, that we see that you have done a tremendous job supporting Nina's first language development. Nina enjoys reading in Spanish and is known for painting portraits of the neighbors. In a Teaching Umoja Approach,* we would say that you have successfully supported the first level of literacy for your child: knowing the oral and written traditions of the family's language. The only part missing is what Samuel Betances (1991) calls “rejecting rejection.” You have been paying attention to Nina's well-being and emotional state. You noticed the lack of interest, distaste for homework, and interruption of Nina's creative expression. This has troubled you and you should be troubled—your child's spirit is under attack.
The second level of literacy in the Teaching Umoja Approach is learning the codes of power (Delpit, 1995) of dominant society, which includes learning standard or academic English. Some people call this “cash English.” Ines, we see that you know the importance of learning this language for your family's very survival. You have made it a priority in your life and you do not want your daughter to have to struggle as you are struggling. In the United States, one's intelligence and worth is often judged by their ability to speak standard English. You came to the United States as an accomplished teacher and educated person. You have experienced English as the barrier to accessing your dream. It would be helpful for you, Ines, to develop your own critical voice and to gain a deeper understanding of how discrimination impacts your life. You would then be able to better advocate on behalf of yourself and your child. We are talking about the development of a bicultural identity and biliteracy (Darder, 1991) for both you and Nina.
This is tragic when it happens to one family; it is devastating when it happens on a large scale as we see happening in so many of our communities. What is the role and responsibility of local institutions like public schools? Ines, we suggest that you seek out other families who have gone through this already. What advice can they provide? Are there parent or community groups who advocate for Latino children in your community? Have you visited a Dual Language School? Why don't you talk with parents from the school to see how their children are learning English, furthering their Spanish, and gaining skills in the subject areas?
* “Umoja” is the Kiswahili word meaning unity. The Teaching Umoja is a 15-year commitment using participatory action research as the base that supports the concept and practice of unity in the campaign to improve the quality of education—and of life—for children and families of color in the United States. It is a signature project of the Early Childhood Equity Alliance with the purpose of bringing together parents, teachers, and community members to gather the collective wisdom and construct new knowledge on raising children of color to access strength in their cultural identities—to “reject rejection,” access equity in education, and develop skills for cross-cultural interactions. The results of this work, specific approaches, and strategies are being disseminated in the form of books, articles, videos, and presentations. For more information email email@example.com or call 206-324-4744.
Elise Trumbull is a senior research associate at WestEd, the regional educational laboratory based in San Francisco. She is director of the Bridging Cultures Project.
“What is this a case of?” as my colleague Judy Shulman might ask. It seems to me that it is fundamentally a case of disconnection. It is a case of disconnection between school and parent, in terms of the school's ability to provide a parent with the key information she needs to make a good placement decision for her young daughter. It is a case of a child's increasing disconnection between her own creativity and knowledge (love of painting and knowledge of Spanish). And it is potentially a case of a child's disconnection from family, heritage, developing identity, and school success.
First, as (presumably) the repository of expertise on the pros and cons of different language programs, the school has primary responsibility for communicating effectively with parents and working with them to support good decision making for children. How is Mrs. Campos to know that a decision to place Nina in an English-only program may well lead to problems like the following?
Mrs. Campos's commonsense notions that Nina will not learn English unless she is immersed in it to the exclusion of Spanish and that speaking only English at home will be best for Nina need to be countered by information from those who are familiar with research on bilingualism. School staff—preferably including at least one native Spanish speaker—ought to be able to lay out the educational choices and their benefits and disadvantages. Using Nina as a translator in school meetings puts her in the awkward position of mediating between her parent and the school—something that would be hard on any child, but may be particularly inappropriate for a Mexican immigrant family, where a child's taking on such a role would defy norms of respect for elders.
Ms. Chesin's observations that Spanish is a beautiful language and an asset are not enough to help Mrs. Campos take a new perspective. Nor is Ms. Chesin's idea that the bilingual program would provide “enrichment” for Nina particularly persuasive, in light of Mrs. Campos's belief that learning Spanish will take away from learning English—a common misconception among people who have not studied bilingualism.
What is needed is a two-way relationship in which school personnel not only “instruct” a parent like Ines Campos, but also learn from her about her family, its goals, and values. A trusting relationship in which Mrs. Campos and the teacher(s) are working together to support Nina's development would have allowed Mrs. Campos to express her fears and concerns and her dissatisfaction with the homework process. It sounds as though Mrs. Campos would be open to some explicit directions about how to help with homework, but with the present relationship, that opportunity is lost. It should be noted that even though schools expect parents to help with homework, many immigrant parents do not think that is their role, though they may respond to requests for “help” by the teacher.
With regard to program choice, if there is truly a two-way bilingual program (dual immersion) at the school, school personnel should explain its potential benefits to Mrs. Campos. The research on such programs suggests that they lead not only to proficiency with two languages, but to higher academic achievement than many other program models designed for English learners. What a shame that this program cannot be expanded to include all who want to participate!
The principal laments the low level of parent involvement in the school. We don't know what avenues for participation are provided, but research suggest that many “minority” parents would like more opportunities for informal interactions with their children's teachers and not have to rely on “back to school” nights, sports events, and parent-teacher conferences for contact. Perhaps she could survey the parents to see what they would like.
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