Sonia Nieto is Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she taught for 25 years. Before that, she was a junior high and elementary school teacher. She has written widely on issues of multicultural education and on the education of students of diverse backgrounds, and she has written numerous books, journal articles, and book chapters on these topics.
Sometimes as soon as I step foot in a school, I can tell of its commitment, or lack of commitment, to affirming the diversity of their students. Some things are obvious, of course: posters, bulletin boards, the nature of the books in the library, the diversity of the staff, and the language or languages displayed in the school – not only whether the home language or languages of your students are visible, but also the tone of signs in the building such as “Visitors must go to Principal’s Office,” versus “Welcome to our school! Please stop by the Principal’s Office to let us know you’re here.” Other things are less obvious: whether there is a consistent and committed outreach to all families; the curriculum and how it actually unfolds in the classroom; and whether or not students’ identities are truly accepted and honored.
It is one thing to say that all students are affirmed in a school but quite another to show this affirmation in concrete ways. Take language, for example: although many children in U. S. schools are native speakers of languages other than English – and the number is growing larger each day – they are frequently advised, either overtly or in subtle ways, that their language is not acceptable in the school setting. In my case, it happened almost 6 decades ago when my sister and I started school in our mostly immigrant school in Brooklyn, New York. My mother was asked by our well-meaning teachers to “speak only English at home, Mrs. Cortés!”, as if she could magically wipe out her own socialization and education, and her natural inclination to speak to her children in the language in which she had been brought up, nurtured, and loved. Naturally, she nodded her head in agreement (after all, one had to respect teachers) but then, luckily for my sister and me, she paid no attention whatsoever to our well-meaning teachers. My mother and father went right on speaking Spanish to us at home. I am certain that neither of us would be where we are today – both highly educated women, my sister a poet and short story writer, and me, a teacher educator and writer – had it not been for our parents’ insistence that Spanish be spoken at home.
Why tell you this story? For me, it epitomizes a small but significant action that principals and teachers can take to affirm students’ identities. Even if it is well-meaning, a teacher’s advice to bar students’ home languages from the school setting is in the end both self-defeating for schools and alienating for students. The usual result is that students feel unwelcome and unsupported in the school setting, and they may conclude that school is no place for them. Even if they do well in school, as my sister and I did, children may learn to feel ashamed of their identities and their families, neither of which is very healthy for them or for our society.
No matter how one feels about bilingual education – some see it as a scourge while others see it as redemption– the truth is that research is clear that when students speak a language other than English, and when that language is firmly established and developed, it is an asset to learning English (for a review of this literature, see Chapter 7 in Nieto & Bode, 2008, below). Even more important, research has also found that students who are bilingual (rather than those who are fluent in neither language, or those who begin as fluent speakers of one language and become fluent speakers of English while losing their native language) have a much better track record in terms of academic achievement, high school graduation, and even mental health (see Portes & Rumbaut, 2006).
Bilingual education is not the issue here. I wish it were available in more schools, but it is not. In the meantime, what can principals and teachers do to affirm their students’ languages? I offer one simple piece of advice: Even if they themselves do not speak the language of their students, teachers and principals can demonstrate their support for students’ languages by saying to parents, “Please, Mrs. Chung, keep speaking Chinese at home,” or “Mr. Rosario, read to Ricardito in Spanish at home.” Rather than making children ashamed of the tremendous resource they have – a resource that many native English speakers try in vain to attain – accepting and affirming students’ home languages is a concrete way for teachers to put into practice a respect for diversity.
Reminding parents that they have a rich literacy legacy to pass on to their children and that we all benefit both individually and as a society by our multilingual and multicultural reality is, it seems to me, a win-win situation.
Nieto, S. & Bode, P. (2008). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Portes, A. & Rumbaut, R. G. (2006). Immigrant America: A portrait, 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.