New Jersey Department of Education

Episode 29: Multilingualism in Schools—Standing with Families for Language Learning

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Hello listeners. I'm excited for this month's topic: standing in solidarity for language learning. At the New Jersey Department of Education, we believe in the power of multilingualism for all students in New Jersey, and the importance of standing with families, parents, and guardians to foster multilingualism in schools.

In New Jersey, we have so many powerful examples of this, including teachers and other educators taking classes at a local university so that they can speak to parents and students in their native languages. We have seen educators traveling on educators' social justice tours to explore issues of race and language in the home countries of students from their schools. We've also seen educators work with families to start dual- language programs where students who grew up speaking English are able to learn side by side with students who grew up speaking Spanish in both languages.

As we explore these issues, pay careful attention to what my guests say about the importance of working as an educator to look at assets of language learning.

Now we'll hear from Shirley and Anel, my two guests on this episode.

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Shirley: Hello everyone. My name is Shirley Santos. I'm a bilingual basic skills teacher in Vineland, New Jersey and in the county of Cumberland.

Anel: My name is Anel Suriel. I am a doctoral student at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, specializing in language education. I am also one of the graduate representatives on NJTESOL/NJBE {NJ Teachers of English to Speakers of other Languages/NJ Bilingual Educators}. And I live and have taught—continue to teach in Middlesex County.

Ken: Thank you so much so. I just wanted to start with this question. It's really general, but I just want to want to hear about your personal connections to language learning. Anel?

Anel: i have a few connections, and all of them connect specifically to my research as well. So I am a multilingual learner and speaker myself. I grew up speaking Spanish and English simultaneously, although I was educated mainly in English. I learned to read and write in Spanish in high school through world language classes, and I continued that throughout college. But I also was a bilingual educator between New York City and New Jersey for 13 years just prior to becoming a doctoral student. So both of those aspects connect me to language learning, multilingual learning, multilingual speaking.

Ken: Shirley?

Shirley: In my case, I was born in New Jersey to Puerto Rican parents who spoke Spanish and English at home. My first language was English. And at the age of five my parents moved to Puerto Rico. And, as you can imagine, moving to a new country where they spoke a language I was familiar with but I didn't speak was very frightening. I did go through a very short, silent period, but soon after that I was finding ways to make friends and interact with others.

Academically is where I struggled a bit. My first grade teacher understood the importance of native language development, and she proceeded to teach me how to read in English. And that experience, obviously, really helped me make more sense of my learning and it was crucial to my second language. Two years later, I was speaking, reading, and writing in Spanish. So that was great.

Emotionally, I struggled with issues of cultural identity as I was growing up. And it wasn't until I began teaching that, in Puerto Rico, my first year, that I realized that it was okay to be bilingual and be bi-cultural. And when I moved back into United States and began teaching here in the district of Vineland, that that idea was cemented.

But those experiences were the experiences that helped me realize that I wanted to be a bilingual teacher.

Ken: That's so powerful. I think that how you kind of took those experiences and then used them professionally is just super compelling.

So, could you explain the importance of schools standing in solidarity with the parents, guardians, and the communities that they serve, around language learning?


Anel: It doesn't just fit together, it is together. Whether we acknowledge it, harness it, connect to it, or not. We only have to quote Ofelia Garcia. We have opportunities to use language, only we don't have language in terms of it's nothing something you acquire. It's not something you mass. It's a verb. It's a tool. It's something that you use depending on where you are.

We don't just in language in schools and we don't just language in community with family. It goes both ways. So it is essential and fundamentals that schools connect language to real-world practices.

So, if we as teachers can recognize that the students come in withal these priceless, invaluable assets, and we leverage that for uses in different contexts—be that reading and writing for classroom purposes or even connect with families—then I think we have meaningful learning. We have real learning. We have relevant learning. And we have ways to combat the equalities in our society as well.

We also have to remember that the more the home and the school is connected, the better it is for the child. The child to support in both ways. I always think I go back to my Spanish roots, educación. We have two definitions of that word of education. It's the upbringing of the child. The manners. And the well-being. The comportamiento. The conduct of the child. As well as the reading, writing, the arithmetic. When we connect the two, then there's meaning and where there's meaning, that's where students really ingrain and adopt, and really connect and find real-world uses to education and what they're in the classroom.So it has to be both ways. We have to be able to support families and what they're doing with their children, and the uses of all these languages, whether it be a home language, whether it be English or an additional language if it's the other way around. But also make that connection so that the learning is real and valuable and useful for everyday life. Especially after this time where we've been home for a good 14 months at this point, some of our students. That's a whole language as well. It's a whole digital language as well.So what are the students already doing with language? How do they communicate with one another? And how do I connect that with what I want them to do? How I want them to speak? How I want them to write? How I want them to engage language within the context of a unit of study, for example?

Just listening to the kids. What exactly are they saying and how do I engage that in writing? And then how do I leverage that to bring them to a more complex form, or the form that I want them to master within my classroom?

Ken: Shirley?

Shirley: That's a very good question. I think it's very crucial for schools to stand in solidarity with parents in regards to many issues, but especially when it comes to language learning. Schools have an obligation to inform parents so they can understand the language learning process, the curriculum, the programs that are available for their children so they can make the, you know, correct decisions for their child.

I think schools should have very deep connections with community. Know, obviously, where the students live. Know what activities they participate in. Have an open school policy where parents can feel welcomed and attended in terms of their language needs.

In my experience, my school particularly does offer a lot of the resources that students need in order to be successful. And one of those components is definitely parent involvement. We do have a bilingual advisory committee that meets every other month where parents are welcome to come in and, you know, present any issues that they're having.

We provide them with information. We provide them with workshops on the federal laws, the state laws, in terms of language learning, the different programs that we offer.

At the same time, we take the opportunity to listen to parents to see what their needs are and how we can fulfill those needs. Our school has personnel that speaks both languages, and I think that makes parents feel welcomed as well.

With the COVID pandemic, it's been a really interesting year. But I think because of the close connection that we have established with our parents, this year has been—it has been a little easier for us to cope with all the changes, because we have kept ourselves in constant collaboration with them and communication, and it has made the transition a little bit easier.

Ken: That's awesome. And that constant contact, and those constant touch points with parents and the community are just so essential.

So how can increased parent and guardian collaboration lead to equity for multilingual learners?


Anel: Ooh. That's a big one. So students with families that can engage their language practices, for equity, a lot of it is access. There are so many tools that have been made available to us, that we have now encountered

—I don't want to say discovered, because they were always there and we've always used them, those of us that are in the fields that deal specifically with language learners and multilingual speakers—but, you can also reach out to your families. You can use that Google translate tool to send a letter home, to send a message. There's so many apps out there—Remind is one of them—that we’ve engaged to "here's this one, quick little message. I don't have Arabic. I don't have Chinese. I don't have Spanish. But this button will allow me to do that."

So you can have that one-on-one connection. Having that communication back and forth with the family is critical. So, parent-teacher conferences: are you bringing in a translator? Do you have someone on behalf that's supplied by the school that will allow that access of information? Will you accept parents writing you notes in their home language and finding a way to connect back to them within that home language on your google classroom, on your school website? So you have that little translate button where parents can see  what exactly that you're doing and those kind of key principles and those charts?

So you create space for students to engage their multilingual practices within a course assignment where you're looking at content and not necessarily language acquisition, so that parents can also bring that in.
What experiences are you showcasing in your readings, in your content? Can parents bring in some of that fund of knowledge? Can they also showcase their skills?

Another way is flexibility. We've learned that, through Zoom in particular, through all of these virtual platforms, it will create access if we just facilitate that. So those that can't come in to a parent-teacher conference or a school event because there's no childcare, for example, or there's no public transportation to get to school. Can you create a little Zoom meet and use some of those tools, as well, to communicate with parents and involve them in that way?

It's these little teeny-tiny efforts that, I think, make the world of difference. Because I don't think there's any family out there that doesn't want to have that relationship, doesn't want to be engaged. It's just, "how can I be engaged within the context that I have?"

Another bigger kind of macro-level thought is, "how do you create a multilingual ecology in your school as a parent who doesn't English, for example, sitting in that waiting room for a while before you can locate someone?" Or can you create a little picture chart that says, "I need to speak to the office. I need to speak to guidance. I'm here for a meeting." Where they can just point and that way you know why they're there.

What are you sending home in the languages of your community? Small, little things, but they make a world of difference for our families.

Ken: Shirley?

Shirley: Well, first of all, I think an empowered parent, right, with the right information will drive a lot of the decision making in a district. And I think that's what we look forward to in the sense that bilingual learners, second language learners, ESL students come with unique needs. You know?

Empowered parents can be that agent of change, can create that movement in the district to seek out other ways in order to provide the services for the students. Parents have the opportunity and the power to to make movements and to create awareness. To have their voices heard. And I think that that's extremely, extremely important. That creates equity, right?

So when I think of equity, I think of the, you know,  monolingual program. What services are available for other students who are monolingual students should be available for students who are bilingual.

Ken: So I want to move now to talk about what you would say to educators who are thinking about working with parents and guardians around increasing multilingualism in their schools.


Shirley: Well, I would tell teachers that it's extremely important that they embrace the multilingualism in their school, in their classrooms. For those who don't have a specific training or coursework, that they go ahead and dive into it. I think it's a fascinating world to see the mag—not the magic, but I call it the magic, right? [laughing]—to see the wonderful transition that students make when they arrive and  they don't...they only speak Spanish, and to see them flourish into English speakers and eventually bilingual people is just amazing.

And it's a fascinating thing to realize how many connections we can have with each other, even when we don't speak the same language. There's other points of interaction that are as equally as important. And I would say that they should just embrace it and try to learn a second language themselves, and realize that they are able to.

Culturally, I think it's really wonderful to be able to learn about other cultures and not so much focus on the differences, but focus on what we have in common, and how bringing in students' culture into your teaching will make it more fun. But, at the same time, we'll give the opportunity for students to make a connection to the curriculum that perhaps, you know, won't be there if you didn't use the students' culture or brought the students' culture into your lessons.

Parental involvement, of course, would be key. It would give you an opportunity to really make those connections with the parents and, I think, it would enhance your teaching overall.

Ken: Anel?

Anel: That's it. And there's that home-school connection, as well, Right? I think it varies by the age of the child and the experiences of the family. So we have to remember that multilingualism can look in many different ways. Language has four modalities:

  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Writing

A lot of the times it's all about the reading at home, right? The writing at home. How are we developing these bi-literacy practices which are really, really critical?

But it's also about talking to your child, telling stories and sharing experiences with your child. Encouraging that...speak to your child in your home language. Engage them in song. For little ones, right, I love singing with little ones. Engage them in song and storytelling with you. Talk to them about anything and everything you're seeing. Have conversations. Tell me how your day went at school.

Especially though, with minoritized languages, what are the access points? What are the differences? So those amazing differences, those beautiful differences, those valuable differences that can be leveraged for something more.

Something I do with with my children, as second generation kids here in the United States, is a lot of conversation about our culture. Exploration about culture. It could even be different foods. It could be different stories and folklore. My daughter loves those kinds of old world stories, and this is how it looks in our culture, and this is how it looks in different cultures. And isn't that great to celebrate those wonderful things so that they find a strength and a value in them, and they don't internalize these ideologies of mono[unclear], monocultural, monolingualism.

The idea that "I'm not familiar with, that I wasn't trained and this is not my job, and this is not my content" is false. And I think we need to…what you don't know, you learn. Right? You seek training. You seek expertise. You speak to people. We all have a responsibility towards these kids— a federal and state obligation, number one.

Number two: perspective.

We all come in with assets. Our assets look different across all different families and all different types. We have to stop thinking that the children that come into our classroom fit into one little box, that the family—so, notice I'm not even saying parents or guardians, I'm saying families. There's so many children here who have different types of home family structures, embracing that, leveraging that.

What do you have? Start with that question. What do the children come to me with? What can they do? What do they love? Where do they come from in terms of their experience? I'm not saying cultures. I'm not saying language. Experience. Because that will envelop both culture, and educational backgrounds, and language practices. Right?

Read. Learn. So many wonderful authors. So many wonderful, very accessible ways of getting the information that you don't know so you can build your practice, right? Like, we all have responsibilities to join PLCs {professional learning communities}. We all have SGOs {student growth-objectives}. We all have personal learning plans. Take advantage of those and put it to practice in a way that's going to be helpful to you.

The trans language in classroom. Kate Seltzer. Colorin' Colorado. One very easy, accessible easy to implement strategies and ways to scaffold for our students and their families.

What's another one? I worked in districts where SIOP training {sheltered instruction observation protocol} is offered to the faculty. Sign up for that. Sign up for that and advocate for those families, because they need all of us to leverage our privilege and our languaging practice to provide access for them so that they can do more, and all that they want to do, for their children, for our children. At the end of the day they're all our children.

Finding those ways to connect as well. And I think also just by connecting, "here's what we're doing at school. you can follow up at home in this way. Here are some activities. Here's.." That, just the message of "what you have is valuable." Please encourage,  please continue to engage your students. And in these different ways of knowing, and speaking, and engaging with the world. I think that's another way that we can promote multilingualism as well. Getting rid of this, "they have to be reading in English. Only speak to them only in English. How am I going to speak [unclear] if I don't have that language? How am I going to speak to them in the other language if I don't have that language."

Just making that space for that interaction, as well. And engaging within different contexts with all these language varieties. At Rutgers, we did a family math night. Different languages coming in engaging around different ways of doing math, with a connection to school, of course. But just building the relationship. It's not family here, school over there. But where's that middle ground? And engaging in that middle ground. I think that's my way to promote multilingualism. Getting rid of the stigma. Getting rid of the fear. And really having a message of, "what you have is priceless to us, and we want you to encourage that in your child, and have your child understand that and internalize that. Leverage that in school."


Ken: Thank you to all my guests who joined me for this episode. And I'd also like to tank the Office of Supplemental Educational Programs, as well as the Bureau of Bilingual-ESL Education within that office for their help with this episode. I'd also like to extend a personal invitation and ask you to join me for our June 15, 2021 #NJEdPartners Twitter chat, where we're going to be talking about this important topic as a statewide professional learning community. Also thank you to Elizabeth Thomas who transcribes these episodes so that they're accessible for all.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

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