It is no secret that teaching can bring about the most wonderful moments, and I love the ones that come out of nowhere. You know the kind I mean. They last only a second or two. They are over almost as quickly as they began, but their sudden and unexpected beauty lingers long afterward. And when I reflect on them, some come back with such clarity it seems as though they happened yesterday.
Over two decades in teaching has allowed me to accumulate many such memories, little snapshots in time of students’ insights and identities, talents and kindnesses. When I recall them, it is in no particular order. After some time has passed, I can never remember what happened just before a particular memory … no idea what happened right after. But those fleeting moments gifted to me stay happily cobbled together in a patchwork of images, a colourful tapestry reminding me of all the joyful moments that have occurred in my schools over the years.
This fall, a few new multilingual images have been added to that happy medley.
The first one happened a couple of weeks ago, right after morning yard duty. The bell had just rung, and the tableau of students playing in the field at once turned to unified running, as they streamed in a single direction towards their class lines. The bell also prompted my thoughts to switch ahead to the morning’s tasks … an assessment, a meeting with a new family and an interpreter, emails I had to return …
As I walked briskly toward the school doors, thoughts preoccupied with all of the above, I noticed a class walking towards me. The teacher was leading them at the head of the line, each student carrying their backpacks and books along behind her. It must have been that my gaze was turned down a bit against the wind, for my eye caught something bright and colourful under one student’s arm. The lettering on the front was bold, balanced … the shape of the script suggesting a hint of direction and movement. As I drew closer I could see it was hangul, the Korean letter system (which, by the way, was designed with very specific movement and direction in mind … if you want to look it up, it is a beautiful creation story). The student was walking confidently, his book for class tucked proudly under his arm.
And that is the snapshot that comes back to me now, that lifted my spirits out of morning routines to a little bit of delight. There was a time, many decades ago, that it was uncommon to see multilingual books in schools. Where it was presupposed that English was the only language that needed to be developed, maintained, and used in instruction. Where first languages — the languages in which parents comfort children, in which children sing and play, in which identity resides — were disregarded as irrelevant to learning in school.
What is that Jim Cummins quote again?
It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when school policy dictates that students leave their language and culture at the school house door.1
Indeed, the benefits of meaningful inclusion of home languages in learning are vast; the consequences if they are omitted, devastating. (I discussed some of these benefits and consequences in my blog Lost in Translation, if you want a quick summary).
The line of flapping backpacks and scuffling running shoes rounded the corner, and I was left with that ordinary-extraordinary memory. And I hoped that those school house doors would continue to be thrown wide open.
1 from the article “ELL Students Speak for Themselves: Identity Texts and Literacy Engagement in Multilingual Classrooms” (Cummins et al, 2006).