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“How did you learn in school?”

Last year, while on my lunch break, I texted my mother a question: “How did you learn in school?” 

My mother, who immigrated to the United States as a child, navigated school with limited English. Growing up in America with parents who didn’t speak the language, my mother relied on bilingual teachers (which she was fortunate to have) and her own discipline to catch up to American education standards on fluency. I think about her sitting in a classroom with teachers translating the assignment before she could begin to learn its contents. Then, individually, my mother translating her responses into English to receive full credit. Over time and with the added support, my mother reached these standards. 

Two months into my service year, I was tasked with leading a group of four 8th grade students who shared a similar path to my mother. Every day at 9:40 a.m., my students and I would walk over to an empty classroom – with Chromebooks in hand. As I wrote the terminology from today’s lesson on the board in both English and Spanish, my students distributed white boards and Expo markers.  

I’d start every lesson with translated classroom updates from that morning before shifting into the math lesson. For an hour and a half, we’d work through the PowerPoint presentation I translated that morning before sending them back to their homeroom. 

Admittingly, my Spanish wasn’t the best at the beginning of the year. I would quickly Google Translate phrases like “Pythagorean theorem” as my students settled into class, but even that wasn’t perfect. My students gently corrected my pronunciation and one of them – we’ll call them Jason – even helped elaborate on my lesson when their peers couldn’t decipher my broken Spanish. Still, I gradually gained their trust. In the hallways on our way to our classroom, we’d laugh about life updates and songs they had on repeat. During our small group meetings, students raised their hands to tell me about their weekend, before Jason quickly shushed them. Eventually, through these conversations, I regained my childhood fluency and even picked up new slang on the way. 

Most importantly, I hope schools continue to work with urgency towards equitable learning and continue offering students, like my mother, my small group, and many others, opportunities to grow beyond the language barrier. 

Halfway through the year, our student group grew from four to five. Sparked by a school crush, one of my students asked if their boyfriend could join and with encouragement from my partner teacher, we fulfilled their wish. Though our newest addition – we’ll call them Henry – was fluent in English, Henry was listed differently in the school system, thus placing them in remedial English courses. Henry rarely participated during our small group activities and preferred to keep to themselves.

Each time exam results came out; Henry was the only student who didn’t show improvement. I sat with Henry every day and worked through assignments together, even when the only response was a slight head nod. For months, Henry and I rebuilt their confidence in their academic abilities and by early spring they had fully integrated into our small group. The day before the math section of their state exams, our group of students – Henry included – shared with me how prepared they felt for an exam they would have to take entirely in English. 

I texted my mother the day of their exams. In tears, I shared how nervous I felt but before I could elaborate, Jason ran up to me with an exhausted smile on their face; they finished the exam and wanted to let me know. In that moment, I knew we would be okay.  

Though our small student group has disbanded, I hope the memories we made that year carry on with them in the classroom and throughout their lives. I hope they continue to stay in contact regardless of where their paths take them.

Most importantly, I hope schools continue to work with urgency towards equitable learning and continue offering students, like my mother, my small group, and many others, opportunities to grow beyond the language barrier. 

*Student names have been changed 

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