Seeing English Learners through New Eyes

A colleague shows Michael Silverstone the value of using English learners' native languages in the classroom. See Debbie Zacarian's The Road Taken column, "Rainforests and Parking Lots," Essential Teacher, March 2005 (pp. 10-11).

Before the passage of the 2003 Massachusetts referendum prohibiting educators from using their students' native languages to teach, my second-grade students' guidance counselor, Naihsin Kuo, demonstrated what a powerful tool use of a non-English speaker's native language could be. At that time, she was working as a counselor and transitional bilingual education instructor for Mandarin-speaking students in my elementary school in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the United States.

My class included six Mandarin-speaking students. Naihsin offered to teach the whole class a lesson in Mandarin as a way for the native-English-speaking students to better understand their bilingual classmates. The remarkable experience did that and more.

Respect Becomes Awe

Naihsin brought in a poem chart in Mandarin, which she read aloud and then invited students to read with her. We non-Mandarin speakers watched and listened, initially in confusion but with a gradually dawning general understanding of what was happening.

The poem had a regular rhythm. We couldn't understand any of its content but could hear that it was a poem. The six students who knew Mandarin were at ease. Though they were scattered throughout our meeting circle, this became instantly apparent.

While the rest of us listened, mute and confused, the Mandarin speakers remained active, responding and muttering reactions. Naihsin addressed individuals, asked them questions, admonished, urged, and clarified. They were active in a language environment that the rest of us could not enter.

My respect for the Mandarin speakers' ability became more like awe. These sophisticated, very young people seemed like children with superpowers: They could function academically in my classroom and on the English-speaking playground, with its Pokemon conversations and make-believe games, while also being able to speak and write in Mandarin. What else could they do? Perform brain surgery? Play concert piano? Fly? None of these things would have seemed any more surprising or impressive to me than their dual language abilities.

Out of the Compartment

Naihsin, of course, knew the power of simply bringing the Mandarin speakers' language environment into the English-speaking classroom. The compartmentalization of their school lives into the English-speaking day, on the one hand, and the semisecret Chinese after-school program, on the other, obscured the simple truth: These classmates had two full, distinct language worlds in their minds.

The implications of the existence of these two worlds were lost on no one. Rather than being a source of difference and limitation, the children's knowledge of Mandarin became, in an unspoken but powerful way, a source of increased status and respect. The beauty of this revelation was that it was not an idea or an abstraction but a dramatized reality, conveyed in gesture, in tone of voice, and in the experience of witnessing the children navigating naturally in a milieu that was almost completely incomprehensible to the native-English-speaking students and me.

End the Prohibition

What did it mean, then, that in addition to skills in Mandarin, the students had almost perfect mastery of English? And what did it mean that such learning was taking place in my classroom? It meant that the entire endeavor of second-grade learning was elevated. Such competency was not to be taken for granted but was to be considered as part of something larger and inspiring.

To this day, I thank Naihsin for providing this experience. I also look forward to the day that native language use is no longer prohibited but is once again respected in the English-speaking classrooms of Massachusetts.

Michael Silverstone (Michaels@crocker.com), author of six books of nonfiction for young people, teaches second grade at Wildwood Elementary School, in the United States.