Open House is always a great night … seeing the learning that has gone on throughout the year, families milling about, students’ work proudly on display. But this year’s celebration was memorable for a different reason.
Back in the fall, I had the good fortune to collaborate with the teacher-librarian at one of the schools I support. We reviewed the home languages of students and purchased additional dual language books, which were eagerly checked out as soon as they hit the shelves. And every now and then when I visited the school, the teacher-librarian had a new story about a family who had enjoyed the books, or a student proudly exclaiming, “That’s my language!” when the latest batch was brought out. These books had been used all year, by all students, so it seemed only fitting to showcase them at Open House.
We set up the multilingual books everywhere, at every centre in the room: hardcovers and paperbacks, QR codes to scan for free online multilingual books, forms for free international language classes, translated tip sheets on reading with your child … every display and centre we had was in multiple languages, not just English. There was no “ESL table” off to side. Instead, the displays throughout the room reflected how learning normally happened in that space, where it was natural to see many different languages, where students’ linguistic repertoires were centred.
The Learning Commons was situated in the middle of the school, and virtually all families passed through it on their way to various classrooms. Before long, it became a hub of activity. Parents strolling past book displays … older children suddenly noticing the QR codes and tugging on sleeves to ask for the phone … families asking questions about the international language courses. At one point I saw a very tall dad crouched down as low as he could next to his tiny preschooler, whose full height barely reached his father’s chin. The two were happily reading a Punjabi-English version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, the tiny boy jumping and pointing at the pages. Just a brief moment, and the story was over quickly. The dad placed book back on the table, and eventually the family drifted off. But the energy of that moment remained.
Many years ago, I came across an apt statement by Dr. Jim Cummins, who likened the ESL programs of decades past to “satellites” rotating around the main operations of the school and classroom. Indeed, many years ago it seemed the main goal (perhaps the only goal) was to teach English — and to teach it at a remove from the “regular” learning of their classmates.
Now of course we know so much more.
We know that language is learned through meaningful interactions with others, and for that reason the mainstream classroom is an ideal place to acquire oral language, with the right adaptations in place. We know about the benefits of maintaining first language, and the essential linguistic, academic, and social-emotional benefits to including it in the classroom. We know the irreplaceable connection to family and culture first language provides to students, and the strength and vitality a multilingual society provides to everyone. And finally, we know there are achievable ways to include all learners, their identities and their languages, in classroom and school communities.
The sun was setting as the last of the families left the school, and the hallways that had been so lively earlier suddenly felt heavy with stillness. As I drove home I thought again of the father reading the dual language book to his son, how natural and joyful that moment was. And I hoped our little Learning Commons, throughout the year and that evening, had given a little bit of joy to everyone.