Eight years ago I left a small, religious private school to teach English/Language Arts and ENL (English as a New Language) classes to middle school students in a Title I district on eastern Long Island.
This was a change from my previous high school students, many of whom took gap years or had plans to work in the family business after graduation. My former school was a yeshiva, and my students came from Israel, Russia, Iran and the U.S. They were bound by the shared languages of English and Hebrew and a shared culture. My new students were coming from mostly Latinx countries, but lived in the divisiveness of our current political climate and the sudden changes of the school community, who had a 40% increase of Latinx families in the previous few years.
I was nervous about starting over, but I knew it was a good move for me: more money, better benefits, a chance to be in a new school with new experiences. I felt I might have more in common with my new students, too. I thought my own life experience, particularly in middle school, might actually be more similar to those of my new students.
I had a few knocks growing up, and eighth grade was a particularly tough time. My parents were emerging from a contentious divorce that began when I was ten, and both were in serious relationships with other people. This meant step-parents were on my near horizon, not something I was looking forward to. I lived with my mom, and my sister lived with my dad, further breaking any familial bonds that had remained. My sister’s behavior was so erratic in school that she was unenrolled from the alternative school in our district and shipped to a boarding school for troubled teens in Vermont, where she got pregnant at seventeen. With all this turmoil I learned to navigate adolescence alone and moved out on my own before I finished high school.
It was my childhood, though, that made me want to teach. Education, for me, was the way to make sense of a disordered world. It was stable and consistent. Each time I graduated from another program I found a new opportunity, a new chance at success, something no one could take away. I wanted to give my students the sense of empowerment education gave me.
It wasn’t long into my new job, however, that I realized my students and I did not share the same experiences at all. Some had traumas coming to the United States that were difficult for me to imagine: more than one witnessed their parents killed; two of my students were kidnapped, one in his native country and another while he was traveling to the United States. Other students had siblings and parents living in their native country that they had never met or hadn’t seen in years, parents who were incarcerated, or parents who had caused violence to them or their siblings. I thought our challenges would bind us together, but it seemed to make us drift further apart.
Many of my students did not find school to be the place in which they found success either. About 80% of them entered my classes reading below grade level, another challenge for which I was not prepared. As an English teacher, I was pretty well versed in how to help students identify an author’s use of figurative language or symbolism within a text, but I was not sure how to help students become better readers. The pressure of improving test scores was ever looming.
Once again, I turned to education for help, and in 2019 I began a PhD program in Literacy Studies. Quickly, my interest in learning about the power dynamics of literacy and language in schools grew.
James Gee and others write that literacy, a student’s ability to communicate through language, is as much a social practice as it is anything, and it is often based on a community’s needs and values. I also learned about Shirley Brice Heath, an ethnographer who spent ten years studying the literacy practices of a town in South Carolina, and discovered that the ways in which families told stories, read to their children and spoke with their children varied within neighborhoods and demographics. She discovered, as I began to discover, that there is only one way literacy is practiced within schools, those of the White middle class, but that literacy, and understanding the nuances of language and education, is not the same for everyone.
I began to realize that while I did have some difficult experiences in my childhood, I was still white, still middle class and still a native English speaker. Therefore, school could be my place in which I could find empowerment, where I could escape the chaos of my family life and find success. The transition from home language to school language was exactly the same. It was a lateral move.
This was not true for my students. They were not only surrounded by mostly, white monolingual teachers who did not speak their home language, but many of my colleagues and I had little understanding of the literacy practices and cultural values of their communities. Similarly, where I could get lost in novels that were available to me, many of the stories we read in school did not mirror their own experiences, preventing them from using the schema so important in reading texts and engaging with literature. As if to further distance my students from school, they were placed in ENL classes that remediated the curriculum and often prevented them from taking elective coursework that might expose them to finding their own educational interests. Therefore, for many, school was not a source of solace, but one that represented another set of values that did not take their perspective into consideration at all.
I also began to study raciolinguistics, the idea that questions the supposition that White, monolingualism is superior to other linguistic practices and recognizes that the assumption that any linguistic practice other than Standard English is deficient is based on racial positioning. In looking at my students through this lens, or removing the “White gaze” as Toni Morrison describes it, I understood my students had tremendous linguistic capabilities that were undervalued in schools: they could not only read, write and speak in two, sometimes three, languages, they could also navigate the multiple discourses required of middle school students. They could speak informal English to their English speaking classmates, their home language with their friends and family; they could speak formal Standard English with their other teachers and me. Many translated for their parents in conversations with English speaking adults, such as doctors or teachers, often helping their family members adjust to a new world. In considering students’ assets from this perspective, I realized it was not my students who needed remediation, but the system itself.
I realized that in order to provide the idea of education that existed for me, one of opportunity, I had to understand the tremendous amount of abilities my students brought to the classroom and build on those strengths. I began to bring in texts that were more likely to represent their experiences, such as the novel Trino’s Choice by Diane Gonzales Bertrand, a novel about a middle school Hispanic boy who witnesses a crime by the school bully and has to make a difficult decision. When we read that book in class, several students said, “This sounds like my life.” By teaching cognates and root words, I reminded students of what students already knew and helped them create bridges between their home languages and English. While this could help them improve their English literacy skills, more importantly, I wanted them to see that school is a place where they belong, where they can find support and community in a sometimes chaotic world. Gutierrez calls this the Third Space of learning. She feels learning is not binary, that there is learning at home and learning at school, but that it is fluid and exists in all places. I wanted my students to see they could not only learn in all spaces, they had a right to be there, just like me.
Eight years after I decided to make the leap from my comfortable teaching position to my current one, I can see all that I have learned since I started. I am not the same teacher, or even the same person, as when I began this journey. I am in the final stages of my PhD and hoping to begin my research in the next few weeks. Today, I worry a lot less about test scores and look for ways to create windows into the world of formal literacy and classic texts, while still providing opportunities for mirrors, as Sims Bishop describes, that reflect my students’ experiences. I also draw on the assets they bring to the classroom every day, understanding how much they have to offer the world, and still have yet to teach me.
Flores, N., Lewis, M. C., & Phuong, J. (2018). Raciolinguistic chronotopes and the education of latinx students: resistance and anxiety in a bilingual school. Language and Communication: Part A, 62, 15–25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2018.06.002
Gee, J. (1994). What is literacy? Rewriting literacy: Culture and the Discourse of the Other, edited by C. Mitchell & K. Weiler, 3–11. New York.
Gutierrez, K. D. (2008). Developing a sociocritical literacy in the third space. Reading Research Quarterly, 43(2), 148–164.
Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Paris, D. & Alim, S. (2017). “What is Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy and Why Does It Matter?” Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies. Teachers College, p. 1-15.
Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi
Kerry Jones-Golembeski is a National Board Certified teacher in English and teaches eighth grade English on eastern Long Island, where she loves learning from her students about literature, music and horror movies. She is a doctoral candidate at Hofstra University in the Literacy Studies program and hopes to complete her dissertation by May 2024. She can be reached at email@example.com.