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My Journey Navigating Strengths-based Teaching: A Global Activists Project
09/17/2021



By Alex Itzler, a NYS School Teacher


    With a growing diverse population in schools and communities, there is a greater emphasis on multilingual education. As educators, it is our job to challenge ideologies favoring monolingualism. There are numerous students in my classroom that speak multiple languages, and it is up to me to utilize this asset in the classroom.
As a native English speaker, myself, I never truly thought about the challenges multilingual learners face on a daily basis. These students are adapting to a new classroom, peers, environment, all while learning an unfamiliar language. I now understand that a multilingual approach can educate teachers and give insight into the students' linguistic and literacy practices and patterns. Multilingual learners new to a language may find conjugating verbs or utilizing certain vocabulary challenging. When I began learning Spanish as a second language, remembering the meanings of vocabulary words was something I found challenging. It wasn't until my teacher showed me English and Spanish cognates that I began to make sense of the vocabulary. Using both languages allowed me to strengthen my understanding of vocabulary in my L1 and L2.
 
    With the growing number of classrooms filled with diverse learners, I believe it is essential that teachers create an inclusive classroom. Each student brings a unique cultural background and perspective that can be utilized to enrich their learning process. This semester I had the opportunity to interview two multilingual students who are entering the fifth grade come the fall. Through these interviews, I was able to learn a great deal regarding the students' backgrounds and their literacy and language skills. I was able to utilize this knowledge to create appropriate supports and incorporate student interests. For example, I learned that my students feel comfortable speaking their native language when speaking with friends in my interview. As a result, I tried to incorporate numerous opportunities for partnerships throughout my unit. Additionally, I learned that my students are very familiar with technology. In my Thematic unit, I want to build on this knowledge during research and learning experiences.
Surveying Student Strengths
 
Student A was the first student I had the opportunity to interview. I have known student A for a little over a year; however, this interview allowed me to get to know her on a deeper level. She is nine years old and entering fifth grade come the fall. Student A immigrated to the United States from Honduras when she was five years old. At this time, she only spoke Spanish. It wasn't until she moved to the United States that she began speaking, reading, and writing in English. Student A shared with me that her name has a cultural meaning, Christmas Day. When discussing her home life, Student A shared with me that she lives at home with her mom, dad, sister, and brother. She was very proud that her grandparents and cousins live in both Puerto Rico and Honduras currently. I was curious whether Student A could communicate with her grandparents and cousins in Spanish. She explained to me that her mom speaks only Spanish. Student A, her father, and her siblings are bilingual in both English and Spanish. While at home, Student A speaks mostly in Spanish; however, she will communicate in English to her sister occasionally. This means the only true exposure to English is at school. When given the option, Student A chooses to read books in English. At home, Student A had limited exposure to Spanish books. When given the chance, she likes to read with her friends or her mom. I thought it was incredibly sweet that she likes to read to her mom to help her learn English. I believe working with someone who speaks the same native language can help clarify any new vocabulary or questions regarding content.
 
When discussing learning a new language, Student A shared that she believes learning a new language is important because you can communicate with the people around you. Traditions are something I and Student A found very important. Her favorite Puerto Rican tradition is Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day). I was curious if Student A felt comfortable speaking Spanish with her friends at school. She explained to me that she is, and it makes her feel like she is not the only one to speak a foreign language. In many schools, students may be the only ones to speak a foreign language. I believe having someone who shares your experiences and is on the same journey can help eliminate any anxieties or apprehension about language learning. The most challenging thing for Student A when learning a new language is that when you begin, you do not know all of the words and how to use them in sentences.
 
Student B was the second student that I had the opportunity to interview. Student B is ten years old and entering the fifth grade come the fall. Student A calls her grandparents "Abuelo and Abuela." Most of Student B's neighbors speak Spanish to her when communicating either on the phone or in person. Student B is El Salvadoran and has family living there currently. Similar to Student A, Student B's mother speaks entirely in Spanish. Her father and siblings speak both English and Spanish. At home, Spanish is the main language spoken. School is the main place that Student B is exposed to English reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
 
Student B has used translator apps to learn Spanish words to communicate with her mother at home or stores. When given the opportunity, Student B likes to read fiction either by herself or with friends. Since friendship is so important to Student B, she frequently communicates with friends via Roblox game chat in both English and Spanish. In her free time, she also enjoys baking with her mom and siblings. They frequently make meals and desserts from her mom's El Salvadoran childhood. I have learned that meals can be a very special tradition for many cultures and families. Student B communicates with her family in El Salvador twice a month and speaks Spanish during the conversation. In addition, student B watches shows in Spanish with her mom. Her mom puts English subtitles on for her younger siblings. I believe exposure to both English and Spanish simultaneously can further the acquisition of Student B's L2.
 
Student B is able to read and speak in Spanish; however, Student B finds writing in Spanish challenging but can do it with help. When visiting Spanish restaurants or out at stores, Student B reads signs in Spanish. Student B speaks both Spanish and English to her friends at school. She finds it helpful when the ENL teacher uses Spanish to help her understand words she is unsure of in English. I was really interested to learn about Pupusas (tortilla stuffed with cheese and vegetables), which is her favorite food to cook with her family. When writing in school, Student B finds it challenging to come up with ideas to write about.  
 
Toward Strengths-Based Teaching
 
After conducting my interviews, it was evident that Student A & Student B have culturally diverse backgrounds and languages. It was important to me to incorporate my students' backgrounds and personal experiences throughout my Thematic unit. In my interview, I learned that both of my students are able to read and speak in Spanish, preferably with friends. I incorporate many opportunities for partnerships in all of my lessons, "Think-Pair-Share" and "Turn and Talk." My multilingual students have the option to clarify any misconceptions or questions using their native language.
Additionally, I learned that my students use captions when watching T.V. at home. In my lessons, I incorporate Spanish captions to support the video being presented in English. Finally, my students shared with me during my interview that they love getting to use technology. Therefore, I tried to incorporate meaningful technological experiences throughout my lessons that allowed them to explore and learn about different cultures.
On day 1 of my argumentative writing unit, my students learn how to support their opinions using solid reasons. Students walk around the room in pairs and provide supporting reasons. If needed, students can discuss reasons with partners in their native language. When developing my lessons, it is important for me to choose prompts that my students can make personal connections with. For example, "Should classrooms have more diverse libraries?", "Should people volunteer in the community?", "The best tradition is..." and "Should students be allowed to use technology?" Additionally, knowing that my students use captions at home, I incorporate Spanish captions when a video is presented in English.
 
In a diverse world, I think it is essential for students to be aware of the world around them. My goal for this unit is for my students to become global activists. On day 2, my students research a country and a global issue and utilize a well-supported argument to make a difference. Knowing that both my students are bilingual, I incorporated both Spanish and English cognates and captions when appropriate throughout my lessons. I chose the book Si Se Puede (Yes, I Can) to utilize my students' cultures to motivate and educate them about activism. I love that the book has both Spanish and English on the same page. To build knowledge for all, I utilized several global activists as a model:
 
  • Greta Thunberg-Swedish climate control activist-used speeches
  • Malala Yousafzai- Pakistani activist for women's and girl's education-wrote a book sharing views
  • Mari Copeny- 11yr old girl from Flint, Michigan- activist for water access- used visuals for peaceful protest)
 
I encourage students to choose a country they feel a connection towards and to focus on an area they wish to change, something people should do more often, or something people should stop doing. During my interviews, my students mentioned that it can be difficult to generate writing ideas. To support my students, I incorporated a few activism topics they could choose from but were not limited to. For example: stop pollution, equal pay, fair labor practices, food/nutrition relief, voting rights, and water conservation. Each lesson allowed students to engage in a peer editing process.
 
On the last day of my unit, it was important to me to have students report their knowledge and research in a clear and well-supported argument. I acknowledge that all students learn differently; therefore, students are given several multimodal opportunities to showcase their projects.
 
My students are given the option to write an essay, conduct an oral presentation, create a poster, PowerPoint, or brochure. Students are encouraged to bring in photographs from home if they support their argument. If students do not have any photographs, they are encouraged to print images at school. At the end of the lesson, the students participate in a "gallery walk" where each student has the opportunity to present his/her project. Through this process, all of the students are able to demonstrate their hard work while also learning about global issues around the world and how we can help.
 
This action research project has pushed me to incorporate meaningful cultural
experiences for my multilingual learners. Through this project, I have gained insight into how speaking another language can impact second language acquisition. Additionally, I really enjoyed getting to conduct two interviews with my multilingual learners. I was able to gain a great deal about my students' interests, backgrounds, and cultures. I now understand how to incorporate a student's native language as a support in the classroom. Finally, this project has taught me the importance of collaboration and partnerships in the classroom.