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Bilingual Education Comes Full Circle

  ·  Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro

An imperative question guiding my work at the Latino Policy Forum is not if all Illinois teachers and educational leadership should be prepared to meet the spectrum of linguistic and cultural diversity in their classrooms, but how to implement plans that improve their linguistic and cultural responsiveness.  This question is motivated by two significant changes in education: newly minted intensified academic standards and a greatly changing student demographic. 

To address this issue of teacher preparedness, part of my ongoing work at the Forum involves convening a pre-service and in-service teacher preparation work group to review, reflect on, and make suggestions to developing a statewide approach to fortify teacher preparation for linguistic and culturally diverse students. 

Dr. Samina Hadi-Tabassum is a critical member of the work group.  She is an associate professor in the Department of Education at Dominican University where she coordinates the ESL and Bilingual Education Programs.  We are privileged to post her guest blog about the current changes at her university aimed at creating a future teacher workforce that is linguistically and culturally responsive.  -Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro

Guest blog by Dr. Samina Hadi-Tabassum, Dominican University

Dr SaminaAs a young girl growing up in South India, I spoke five different languages: Urdu was the language spoken in the home; Hindi was the national language of songs and films; Telugu was the regional language learned in school along with English; and Arabic was the language of religious school.  It was quite a rude awakening when we arrived in Chicago in the middle of the 1978 blizzard to find that we were now a linguistic minority. I attended public school in Albany Park which was back then composed mostly of Korean, Middle Eastern and Yugoslavian families. The strongest memory that I have of elementary school is of me being pulled out for both ESL classes and Hindi language classes on a daily basis. The truth is that I felt quite at home in a school that welcomed me along with many other multilingual children.

It was not until we moved to the suburbs did I realize that my elementary school was far from the norm. Now my siblings and I were the only non-English speaking children and the only non-white children in the entire school. Nobody asked us about our culture, language or country. Racial epithets were thrown at us quite often and we watched the teachers turn a blind eye and learned to navigate an alienating environment by ourselves. By the third grade, I was placed in a Special Education classroom where I sat alongside children with Downs Syndrome. There was not enough English in me to be able to protest, but my parents eventually did and by the end of the third grade, I was back in the mainstream class. It was not until the seventh grade when I finally understood all the words around me. Along with mastering English, I also immersed myself in Spanish—the language of my newfound immigrant friends and neighbors.

Although I may not have known it then, the tragic early years of my schooling eventually led me into the education field, and after graduating from Northwestern University in 1993 with an English and Biology degree, I joined Teach for America and became a Spanish bilingual teacher in Houston, Texas. Started by Wendy Kopp in 1989 as a non-profit organization, Teach for America’s mission is to “eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach” for at least two years in low-income communities in rural and urban America. Unlike my peers in the program, I immediately saw myself in my Mexican American students: the same love and obedience of family; the hard working parents who would do anything for their children; a love of God and religion; and a passion for a language closely tied to one’s identity.

As a middle school teacher, I created a Spanish-English dual language science curriculum which focused on solar energy. My students learned how solar energy works and eventually won a trophy for their solar energy cars at the National Renewal Energy Laboratory contest in 1996. We know now that bilingual students need to be offered an academically rich curriculum that develops their language ability along with their content knowledge. My greatest obstacle wasn’t the students; rather, it was the school administration that felt that the bilingual students would not be able to handle such a challenging subject matter.

In the 1990s, bilingual education was a politically tinged term and I soon realized that many people were opposed to teaching in a student’s native language. The research supporting bilingual education was not as strong then as it is today and there were many politicians speaking out against bilingual education. Teach for America was a growing national teaching corps in the 1990s and it too avoided the topic of bilingual education, even though many corps members across the country wanted our national organization to support the right to teach in a student’s native language. Eventually Teach for America did acknowledge bilingual education as a legitimate form of education, almost two decades later, along with many other complex subjects it had avoided such as racial disparities in the corps members, socioeconomic differences between corps members and their students, and the need to become politically engaged with the community outside of the school doors.

Today, as an associate professor at Dominican University, our School of Education is a university partner for Teach for America (TFA) in the Chicago region—one of the largest sites for corps members. Requiring TFA candidates to obtain an ESL/Bilingual Endorsement was once an option but now it is a requirement for all elementary and early childhood candidates to take 6 additional graduate courses composed of methods, assessment, language and literacy development courses. A bold move on the part of Teach for America but also a necessary one if the organization wants to continue advocating for an equal education for all—even our growing linguistic minorities. The ESL and Bilingual courses that I have developed for Teach for America are portfolio based courses and require teachers to implement, document and analyze methods of teaching that I have demonstrated in our evening classes. We also offer a two-week long course in Hyderabad, India—my hometown—when and where Teach for America candidates can mentor and coach first-year teachers. In many ways, my life has come full circle—a narrative twist in tribute to multilingualism all across the globe.