English Language Learners make up about 15 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ students. Bilingual education programs exist for some, but since standardized tests are taken in English, schools are under pressure to teach students English as quickly as possible.
Balancing the need to learn English with respecting a student’s native language and culture is a challenge for teachers. Elisabeth Trost-Shahata teaches at Boone Elementary School in West Rogers Park. She teaches a fourth grade self-contained ESL classroom.
Trost-Shahata says valuing her students’ home cultures is critical. Teaching them being bilingual is an asset – not a flaw – gives them the self-esteem needed to succeed.
What are the demographics of your classroom?
Primarily I have Spanish speakers but I also have kids who speak Urdu, from Pakistan and India, and I have a student from Vietnam [and] a student from Ethiopia. And then I just got a new boy today from Iraq. So he’s starting at zero. Everyone’s family has come from a different country so when somebody asks a really obvious question, there’s not any snickering because they’ve kind of all been in the same boat at one point or the other. So there is a level of trust I think in here and kind of an ability to address those things that I wouldn’t be able to have if I had a mixed classroom.
What's the most challenging part of teaching beginning ESL readers?
Kids who’ve been here for a while often get good at what we call decoding, which is just sounding out the words. So you have them read and they read beautifully and you think ‘Oh, he or she is a great reader.’ But then when it comes to asking them what they really read about they don’t really have any idea.
Your students read Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. Spanish speakers get a Spanish copy of the novel in addition to the English version. How does that aid their reading comprehension?
The book is published in both languages. So I give the Spanish speakers the book in Spanish. I never say ‘You have to read it in Spanish first’ or “You have to read it in English first’. I just give it to them. They often come back saying they read with their parents. And that’s a great way to bring parents into the whole thing.
Why is it so important to you to value students' native languages?
When you really think about what language is, it has so much to do with your identity as a person. And I always say it’s not fair for those kids for whom that culture and that language is their heritage to not be given a chance to really develop it. So if they come into a school and no one speaks their language and someone says ‘hey you shouldn’t be speaking Spanish you should be speaking English, you’re in America’ or whatever, that’s a really direct message to them that you’re broken and you need to be fixed and there’s something wrong with you.
I always say to my kids you can be smart in any language. If the kids could really develop their native language literacy they would be confident, they would experience that academic rigor that you can have in your first language and that would really transform them as students.