Shifting Mindsets for our Latino ELs
By: Crystal Gonzales
My family’s history in New Mexico stretches back eight generations, before New Mexico was even a state. We are proud of our unique history and heritage. We recall, however, that it was just one generation ago when teachers hit my parents on their hands with a ruler as a punishment for speaking Spanish—their native tongue—in class. From hearing the awful things teachers and other students said to them and from their experience of being tracked into classes like home economics and shop, school wasn’t a place where my parents felt valued.
Unlike my parents, my experience in school was quite different. Teachers told me early on that I was smart. Later on, I enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, and I had no doubt in mind I was bound for college. A combination of factors led to this confidence, including my parents’ unwavering support for me in school and teachers whose encouragement and faith in me meant the world to me. Still, I have to wonder: would my experience have been the same if I had an accent or if were categorized as an English language learner, like my parents?
Kids know when they are valued. They know—by either words or actions (or lack of)—what a teacher thinks of them, and it can either build them up or tear them down. I recognize that the school environment and educator ethos played a major factor in what I experienced compared to my parents.
Sadly, my parents’ experience is not a relic of the past. While there are a number of factors affecting the kind of education students receive in this country, our beliefs about students and their capabilities have a profound impact on every aspect of their educational experience.
Right now there are over 4.8 million students (10% of the total US student population) categorized as English language learners (ELs) in K-12 public schools, and nearly 80% are Latinos who speak Spanish as their home language.
Has our education system figured out how to serve ELs better than they served my parents? Unfortunately, it has not. The achievement gap between ELs and non-ELs in reading and math is sobering as is their dismal high school graduation rates. The system is failing them.
What if we changed our mindset about what ELs bring to our classrooms, our schools, our community, and our nation? What if we saw their home language as something to hold onto and to build on? What if strong dual-language programs were common, particularly for Latino students, and not driven by middle-class, English-dominant families who want the social and economic advantage of multilingualism? What if ELs felt confident and excited to learn?
We must advocate on their behalf.
Contrasting my parents’ experiences with my own is what motivated me to make this my life work. As a fourth-grade bilingual teacher, I worked hard to instill a sense of pride in my students and to spark excitement for learning. In my most recent role as a national education grant maker, I had to consistently challenge the silos that exist between ‘general education’ and EL efforts. The fact that ELs were often not considered until “we figured it out with ‘regular’ students first” baffled me. This way of thinking sends out a message: that ELs aren’t equally important.
This must change.
This is why I started the English Learners Success Forum, a nonprofit organization working with educators, researchers, funders, content creators, and other education organizations to elevate the needs of ELs in English language arts and mathematics materials for teachers.
Why focus on materials? Backed by research, we know the materials teachers use can positively or negatively affect student learning (particularly for new teachers). We also know teachers don’t think their materials do enough for ELs. With less than a third of teachers trained on EL learning, there is a need for quality professional development and for materials that are inclusive of EL needs.
We are working directly with publishers who want to do more for ELs and we are sharing free resources with the field to show what this can look like. With the EL population predicted to grow to 25% by 2025, we must have a significant mindset shift in how we think of ELs and consider their needs.
4 actions you can take today
EL students, many of whom are Latino, need us to do more. Here are a few things you can do today:
1. Make sure systems or people stop “otherizing” ELs.
ELs are everyone’s responsibility and they are not limited to ESL, bilingual or dual-language programs. In fact, most ELs are in general education classrooms. This means if you’re doing anything in education – policy, teacher professional development, or leading a school –consider ELs from the onset, not as an afterthought.
2. Reflect on how ELs are perceived within your environment.
ELs enter classrooms with tremendous strengths and assets. We have to work to eliminate the “pobrecito” mentality that is so prevalent and not focus on their lack of English skills. Speaking more than one language, being bicultural, and having their own unique experiences are traits educators can celebrate and link to ELs learning and school environment.
3. Do a pulse check.
Are you curious how your instructional materials and teaching practices are working for your EL students? Take this quiz here.
4. Commit to advocating for ELs.
Fight for programs and policies that encourage students to maintain their home language while learning English. In places where this isn’t possible, fight for all educators to get the training and the instructional materials they need to better support ELs.
Crystal Gonzales, is the Executive Director of the English Learner Success Forum, a nonprofit that partners with national experts, organizations, educators and content developers to increase the supply of quality K-12 instructional materials that meet the needs of English learners. Previously, Crystal was a program officer at the Helmsley Charitable Trust supporting teacher professional development, quality instructional materials, and advocacy for underserved communities. She began her career as a 4th grade bilingual teacher in Houston. She is a member of Education Leaders of Color, Latinos for Education, and is a Pahara NextGen fellow. Crystal holds an M.A. from the University of Chicago, a B.A. from the University of New Mexico, and resides in NYC.