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Commuter Series: Centering Multilingual Learners in the Classroom

Heinemann Podcast Commuter Series: Centering Multilimgual Learners in the classroom

The number of bilingual students in the United States is growing, and most of those students speak Spanish at home. What can teachers do to help these students feel not merely included but centered in classrooms?

Doctors Carla España and Luz Yadira Herrera have named six essential practices for centering the voices and experiences of Latinx students. During today’s commute, we'll get to hear about two of these practices—getting to know students' journeys and understanding our students' literacy traditions—in an excerpt from their book, En Comunidad. You'll hear Carla and Luz share stories from their own lives that help illuminate the importance of these practices, as well as a few questions to connect them to your own classroom.




Heinemann Audiobooks


Below is a transcript of this episode.

Brett: Hi. This is Brett from Heinemann. Thanks for joining me on the commute this morning. The number of bilingual students in the United States is growing and most of those students speak Spanish at home. What can teachers do to help these students feel not merely included but centered in the classroom? Doctors Dr. Carla España and Luz Yadira Herrera have named six essential practices for centering the voices and experiences of Latinx students. On today's commute, we'll get to hear about two of these practices, getting to know students' journeys and understanding our students' literacy traditions. In this excerpt from their book En Comunidad, you'll hear Carla and Luz share stories from their own lives that help to illuminate the importance of these practices, as well as a few questions that connect these ideas to your classroom. 

Carla: Practice number one: Get to know our students' journeys.  

We use journeys to describe those experiences that continuously shape and influence our students' realities. It may mean navigating identities that do not fit neatly into boxes that students check off on a form or questioning how others define them versus how they self-identify. Some students have had varied immigration experiences and maybe growing up as the first generation in the United States. Perhaps, it is a combination of experiences that include the ways their language practices have been interpreted and other aspects of who they are, all of which impact their lives in various ways. These also reveal how students respond to issues of marginalization. As educators, we have to create meaningful spaces for the sharing and learning of all of our journeys. 

Carla's story 
I was about to turn five years old when I stepped foot for the first time in a school in the United States. I had just left my family in Chile and traveled with my mother so we could join my father who had been in New York for a year. That transition as undocumented immigrants brought out many tears and fears throughout my childhood. The rejection at times was palpable, as was the resilience I witnessed in my parents. I remember getting lost with mamá once in Queens, New York, right in the middle of winter. This was before smartphones and mamá feared asking for help as it could have resulted in being deported. 

Eventually, we made our way back home, but to this day, every time I pass the street where this happened, I feel the fear and pain and can never hold back the tears. Toward the latter part of my elementary school years, my abuelita from my dad's side joined us from Chile. This was the first time we had someone from our family back in Chile live with us in New York. It made a huge difference as the transition leaving our entire family behind was a very lonely one. Papá was super happy to have his mom in our midst, but worked so hard that only mamá and abuelita were able to attend my school events. 

Luz: Luz's story 

My father first arrived in San Jose, California on his own while my mom and I stayed in Mexico. He started out as a custodian at an office building and cleaned offices after hours late into the night. He arrived with $10 in his pocket, and since it took several weeks for him to get his first paycheck, he would eat leftovers he would find from office meetings and parties earlier that day. Later, when I asked him about that experience when he first moved to San Jose, I will never forget how I felt when he told me about the time that he was so hungry that he picked up a half-eaten apple from the garbage bin in an office he was cleaning. My mother and I joined him before my first birthday. Sometimes my mother would help him clean so that he could finish faster, and on those days, they left me in the care of a neighbor. 

We shared an apartment with others, and when my father had some of his savings stolen from a jacket pocket (he didn't have a bank account then), my mother told him she was going back to Mexico and taking me with her. We had been together in San Jose for less than a year. For the next several years, my father went back and forth from California to Mexico to see us at least once a year.  

In discussing these stories from our lives, we must acknowledge our privilege in being reunited with our family and eventually becoming documented. There are many children who experience extended or permanent family separation, and the trauma that ensues must not be ignored throughout their schooling.  

What this means in our work 

Teaching approaches for bilingual or multilingual Latinx students that focus on strategies often fail to contextualize the students' experiences. Even the terms used to label our students exemplify this practice, for example, English language learner (ELL). 

In this text, in our research and in our work with schools, we use the term emergent bilingual learner, EBL, to describe those students who are at the beginning of the bilingual journey or bilingual continuum. Although our stories are not representative of all Latinx students, we share these as examples of our own lived experiences and their impact on our school life. Family relationships, documentation and socio-emotional factors are just a few but important aspects of our students' multifaceted journeys. Consider these questions both from your own and your students' perspectives. These can help you develop your knowledge of yourself and possibly your students.  

How would you describe your journey through schooling?  

How would you describe your relationships with family and community?  

How would you describe the way you navigate the many aspects of your identities?  

Where are the areas of privilege in your journey? Where are the areas where you've been disadvantaged? 

Carla: Understand our students and their families' traditions of literacies.  

In this book, we take a broad view of literacy following the legacies of sociocultural approaches. These approaches consider that literacies happen in context. For example, the various practices that families engage in, such as oral traditions, including storytelling, proverbs, and elder and community wisdom that have been passed down through generations. These also include digital literacies as well as literacies most commonly associated with youth culture: you may have students who can fully explain the use of social media platforms, online gaming communities, music related literacies like hip-hop, K-pop, and the informational how-to videos they watch repeatedly to learn more about their interests. 

Carla's story  

During the school week, I would try my best to make something out of what I heard and read in school. "Hi, Dad!" came really quick when I was five. Papá would sit with me every day and help me with Math homework after he got home from his job at a local restaurant. From the second I walked into our home, I did not feel behind. I did not feel like I struggled or lacked anything as I was made to feel during the school day. “¿Vamos a comer charquicán?” I'd asked my parents or abuelita. “¿Mi hijita cómo le fue en el colegio? ¿Tiene muchas tareas? ¡Cuéntenos!” They would ask me to tell them about my day in school. I would listen to my mamá's stories and impersonations. I would tell stories about my school day, follow papá's instructions on cooking a Chilean meal and listen to music. Sometimes papá would show us a Bible study he was working on or how translations differed. At other times, we would listen to a sermon or a song and write out notes or the lyrics because I would practice these in Spanish and English in preparation for rehearsals with the church choir. My favorite activity (after singing) was walking over to the movie rental store and looking for films that had subtitles in Spanish. We would watch these films in English and read the subtitles. In other words, before I did my homework--or sometimes afterward on movie nights--I was already engaged in multiple literacy practices.  

I will forever be grateful to Professor Anaida Pascual-Morán, who came from Puerto Rico to Princeton, New Jersey to teach a liberating pedagogies course, and Professor Ernest Morrell, who at Teachers College engaged graduate students in a course on critical literacies. As an adult, I have been able to witness educators who are aware of students' multiple literacies and create curricula with this awareness. As a student in their classrooms, I have experienced how transformative it can be for instructors to really see our full humanity. 

Luz: Luz's story  

As a mother of a Black biracial son, one of my main priorities has been to build a library for him with rich bilingual children's literature. At minimum, we read one book in Spanish and one book in English before bedtime. Of course, he always pushes for more, partly also because he wants to delay bedtime as much as possible, and I usually oblige. When I insist on turning off the lights, he usually has one more request that I similarly can never deny. "Can you tell me a story? ¡Un cuento!” And I make up a cuento bilingually on the spot, “Había una vez . . .” Remi is usually the protagonist and hero. This always brings me back to my own mother's stories. We didn't have books for bedtime stories. Some may believe that our family was literacy-deprived since we didn't really have books except for my mom's romance novels. But our mother always told us cuentos and we would always beg for more traditional folk tales, but our favorite was her family's oral history. She told the stories of her and my father's childhood in Mexico, cuentos of that time that her mamá Lupe, her grandmother, was kidnapped by a young man, my great-grandfather who liked her, “se la robó,” she would say, and she was later forced to marry him and give up the love of her life to preserve her integrity as the old ways demanded. I have come to see just how rich my family was in literacy, even though we didn't have many books.  

What this means in our work 

Too often, emergent bilingual or multilingual students and their families are considered--and even labeled--illiterate. Sometimes, speakers who engage in using features of Spanish and English are even deemed to be “semilingual.” This kind of language does not validate the many literacies which our students engage with. In addition to our experiences shared here, we can see our students engaged in multiple literacies when they navigate across social media and digital media and know how to use these and other ways of communication across different contexts. For example, when taking students on a trip to a museum or to see a player or musical, we are all engaging in multiple literacies.  

Worse, this notion of emergent bilinguals or multilinguals as “semilingual” reflects a perspective that views bilingualism as a deficit. Although our individual experiences are not representative of all kinds of literacy experiences, they can give an idea of how bilingual students’ literacy practices can, in fact, be far more complex than those students are asked to show in English-only settings. 

Consider these questions:  

What are some of the multiple literacy practices you grew up with in your home and community?  

Were any of your own literacy practices present in your schooling? If so, why do you think these were welcomed? If not, why do you think these were not integrated in your school experiences?  

What do you know of your students' multiple literacy practices? How can you learn even more about these practices? 

How do you consider your students' multiple literacy practices in your planning and teaching? 

Brett: That last question really resonates for me. No matter who we are, we all have our own literacy practices. When the students' literacy practices are honored at school, students feel truly included and centered. Well, that's it for our commute this morning. If you'd like to hear more from Carla and Luz, you can stream or download the audiobook of En Comunidad wherever you get your audiobooks. Thanks for listening, and let us know what you'd like to learn more about in our time together. 

Carla EspañaCarla España, Ph.D. is a middle-grade language arts teacher, literacy consultant, researcher, author, and co-founder of the En Comunidad Collective. Her love of stories and teaching comes from her roots in Chile and has been nurtured by hundreds of teachers and students across schools in New York City and beyond.

She has a BS in communication studies from New York University, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, an MA in childhood education with a bilingual extension from Hunter College (City University of New York), and a Ph.D. in urban education from the Graduate Center (City University of New York). Dr. España’s teaching journey began in Harlem, New York with bilingual sixth graders and continues in her role as a middle grade language arts teacher and dean.

Her teaching, research, coaching, and writing live at the intersection of critical literacies, children’s literature, and bilingual education. Dr. España is co-author of En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students with Dr. Luz Yadira Herrera. Find her on Twitter @ProfesoraEspana.


Luz Yadira Herrera

Luz Yadira Herrera, Ph.D. is a teacher, researcher, author, and co-founder of the En Comunidad Collective. Dr. Herrera has over sixteen years of experience in the education of emergent bilinguals in both mainstream and bilingual settings. She started her teaching career in New York City public schools, teaching emergent bilinguals in K-6 in Harlem. In addition, she taught undergraduate and graduate courses at the City College of New York, Long Island University, and Brooklyn College. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Bilingual Education in the School of Education at California State University, Channel Islands.

Dr. Herrera's teaching and research are in culturally and linguistically sustaining pedagogy, translanguaging, critical pedagogies, and bilingual education policy. She is the co-author of En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students with Dr. Carla España. Find her on Twitter @Dra_LuzYadira.

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Carla España, Luz Yadira Herrera, multilingual learners, commute

Date Published: 08/14/23

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