Saturday, April 21, 2012

English Language Learners

This week I attended an English Language Learners workshop with my coteachers. In our classroom, we have 4 families who have bilingual homes, and soon we'll get 2 more from our toddler room. Our families speak French, Spanish, German, Polish, and Dutch. Although we're supportive of these language differences and attempt to bring books and language into the classroom to reflect the children's homes, myself and my coteachers are all English language speakers. I often wonder how it feels for children in our class used to the fluidity of bilingual households and what it means for them to come to our fast-paced, all English classroom.
In high school, I attended a school where many of my classmates spoke English as a second language or were multi-lingual. My advisor was also multi-lingual, speaking English, Hebrew and Spanish interchangeably and flowing easily from one into the other. Our advising group discussions were often interspersed by bursts of Spanish phrases and words, and the majority of my classmates spoke Spanish at least half the time at home. I grew up in a culturally rich but monolingual household, before the era of Dora the Explorer and bilingual children's toys. My first real exposure to “foreign” language wasn't until junior high, when I took Latin for two years. Following that I managed to get out of high school with only one year of foreign language (French, taught by an ancient multi-lingual Brother who often lapsed into German, Latin and Somali) and attended a college that had no language requirements. In all of my 22 years, even after a month touring Europe, I've managed to learn no more language than I could pick up on a show like Dora.
For my students, the world is slightly different, both from my own experience and that of my high school classmates. The children in our class come primarily from upper middle class households, families that chose to immigrate to our country as opposed to refugees, migrant workers and other less choice based immigrants. Even our bilingual students speak English as their primary language, with their parent's native tongue being their second or third language. Many of the cultural and linguistic difficulties between families and childcare providers don't effect the often American educated bilingual families we serve. Although the workshop was interesting, and important for providers working with many families, it didn't feel particularly relevant to our current families.
In fact, as my coteachers and I discussed later, many of our bilingual students have developed better letter recognition and literacy skills than our students who only speak English, probably in part because of the focus their parents put on English literacy in the home. Food for thought.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Alone Box

In a corner of our classroom, next to the door to our playground, is a cubby. On top of the cubby is the teacher shelf, where we keep our stereo, class clipboard, and a constant rotation of "in progress" tools and projects. Inside the cubby is our alone box.
The alone box is all white, with a few handmade pillows and a soft knit blanket. Its a small, quiet place for the children in our class to center themselves away from the noise and chaos of a classroom. There are only 2 "rules" for the alone box: only one child at a time, and no one can bother you while you're inside. For some of our students the alone box is a refuge from others, a relief from an argument with a friend or from a particularly rambunctious activity. For others, its a safe place from themselves, an area where they can rage or cry or scream until they're ready to rejoin the wider world.
As a child myself, I spent much of my time in a variety of "alone boxes". The car on our camping trips, screaming and kicking at the windows or the closet in my grandparents room, sobbing into my grandfather's wool trousers. And my mother was always there, waiting patiently outside, often in tears herself, for the waves of my sorrow or anger to subside.
As a teenager, I had my own set of silent refuges. The RISD art museum, home to a large wooden Buddha who I poured my heart out to on a near daily basis. A special spot by the river where the only noise was waves and passing traffic.
Unfortunately, as an adult, I'm too big to fit into our alone box. That special cathartic space is physically off limits to me, but the safe place it provides is still something I need to process our classroom, my students, and my own life. This blog will provide that space: a place for raging, a place for sobbing, a place for celebrating all of the things that test me and invigorate me about being an adult in a child's world, about holding their small hands in my own and letting us walk together.