Visto y Escuchado
by Isabel Callaway, a first year AmeriCorps member at Denny International Middle School
Before class, Alex can be found exchanging high fives and friendly insults with his buddies in rapid Spanish. Once the bell rings, he slinks into Mr. X’s ELA class, wearing a Giants baseball hat pulled low. Self-defined by his IEP and ELL status, Alex struggles with self confidence. He regularly asks, “Is this good enough?” in his persistent attempt to be deemed “smart.” Sometimes it takes Alex longer to finish his essays or to read a book than his peers. What Alex views as a weakness, I see perseverance and tenacity.
If Alex is behind in class, he asks to come work in the City Year in-school office during lunch. He lurks, usually with a friend, by the office door until someone sees him and invites him in. “Do I have to do work?” Alex pleas before promptly opening his backpack and starting his essay. He shows up to after school tutoring every Monday and Thursday. He and his friends are chismosos, always trading bits of 8th grade gossip while catching up on homework (and scolding me for being a chismosa when I get too nosy).
Towards the end of Quarter 2, Alex was hitting a stride. He was turning his work in on time, asking insightful questions and speaking up in class. Then Mr. X announced that the final assessment would be an in person, oral essay. Students would have 15 minutes to read an extract from Flygirl and identify big ideas, setting and character development. Paralyzed by nerves, Alex did not pass the test. That day Alex walked into after school, dejected. I asked him what made him nervous about the oral assessment. He replied, “Sometimes I can’t say what I want to in English. I have the thoughts in here,” he points to his head, “but I can’t get them out there.” Curious, I waved Mari, a bilingual, ELA City Year over. She and Alex chatted for a few minutes, and came to a conclusion: Alex was going to ask Mr. X if he could retake his oral exam with Mari, switching between English and Spanish as necessary. Energized by this idea, Alex spent the rest of after school taking notes in preparation.
On the day of the test, Alex shakily began his analysis. As he continued, alternating between English and Spanish, his confidence grew. Finally, Alex was given a space and a chance to explore his potential. Rather than molding himself to fit an exclusive curriculum, Alex spoke up and demanded a space that fulfilled his needs. By allowing him to take the test in both languages, Denny and Mr. X validated Alex’s identity and experience as a bilingual scholar. He passed the test, but more importantly, Alex learned that school is a place where he can, and must, advocate for himself and celebrate his identity. He merely needed to be visto y escuchado, seen and heard.