Saturday, October 1, 2011

I heart you mocho

It's hard for me to tell if I'm on the minority side of the immigration issue in our country, or if it's an availability heuristic and I only remember the people who scream, "It's America, speak English!" at whatever newscaster is listening at the moment. I just thought that I should preface this post by acknowledging that I know that some people who read it (those of you who are not my roommate?) will have different opinions on the matter. It's cool. I'm not trying to start a debate here. As always, I'm just trying to share a part of my amazing job.

In the past few weeks I've spent a lot of time at a particular elementary school. I met a little girl who does not speak any English and has somehow made it to first grade. (I don't know anything about her history, so it could be that she is new to the school this year. I would assume that's the case.) Her teacher does not know any Spanish. The day I met her I happened to be in the classroom to work one-on-one with another student, when the little girl was trying to tell the teacher something. It wasn't working. I studied Spanish from middle school all the way through freshman year of college (and promptly forgot most of it by the end of sophomore year) and knew enough to translate. The teacher looked at me like I was a godsend and the little girl lit up knowing that I could at least try to speak to her in her native tongue. I've been in the classroom a few more times, and even though the teacher didn't recognize me as the Spanish-speaking sub, the little girl continued to glance my way and share knowing smiles with me. 
Friday when I worked in the media center I had this girl's class with me. While I read a story to the class I watched as she and her friends whispered in the back. I told them multiple times to stop, but since the only Spanish I remembered would have been literally "shut up!" I stuck with English. Then finally I blurted out, "No me gusta!" The girl looked at me, puzzled, and then turned to her friend to ask, "No le gusta que?" Her friend explained in Spanish that I didn't want her talking while I was reading the story and understanding dawned instantly. When we moved onto our next activity, I decided to try to stretch my Spanish a bit further. I would ask a question to the class and then, if I knew how, translate it into Spanish. Instantly this girl was more engaged and would raise her hand. Her responses would be in Spanish, but either I or one of her friends (more often the latter- seriously, I need to take some more classes!) would translate for the class. It was that simple. I didn't know enough (or have enough time) to say everything in Spanish, but it didn't matter: as soon as she heard me speaking it a little, she was like a totally different student.

Regardless of one's opinion on what I did, you have to admit that it would be pretty frustrating and scary to spend one third of your day in a place where most people didn't understand you. Hearing your native language from a stranger (even if it is espa├▒ol mocho) must be a huge comfort. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to say that I was a hero who changed this kid's life or inspired her to learn or anything like that. I suppose what I'm trying to say is: considering the growing number of families dealing with language barriers with the local schools, sometimes simple gestures can go a long way. And it doesn't seem like a major commitment for school staff to sprinkle a few Spanish phrases into their lessons if it means making some students feel more comfortable. And couldn't making students feel more comfortable and welcome improve things like academic engagement, attendance, and graduation rates? Perhaps this is the idealistic guidance counselor in me talking? I'm constantly trying to think of ways to improve students' attitudes toward school and learning, and my method seemed to work for this child and her friends. Now if only I could find ways to reach out to remaining 28 kids in the class...

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