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Universal Language Part I

Part I Norms for Reading Our Blog

The goal of the Nepantla Teachers Community blog is to provide an honest and encouraging space to navigate sociopolitical situations that occur in mathematics education for the purpose of working towards justice in traditionally marginalized communities. By using the word political, we mean any situation that involves power dynamics.

Each post will be published in two parts (Part I: The first Saturday of each month at 5 PM and Part II: the following Wednesday at 9 AM). Part I will give a math teacher author’s real dilemma that they have recently experienced and to share some information about themselves. Part II will provide an analysis of the powers at play and the author’s response (or lack of response) to the situation. Before Part II is published, readers are encouraged to interact with the author and each other by asking questions, comments, and/or providing ideas on how they would respond if they were in their shoes.


We as readers and/or participants agree to keep the following in mind as we engage with other educators’ sharing their stories:

1. Each author is choosing to be transparent/vulnerable at the risk of disapproval or disagreement. These are not meant to be places of attack but a place to empathize and grow together.

2. We use the word nepantla to connote the space of tension and grey area that people experience as they navigate multiple (and often opposing) philosophies, truths, or identities. We offer this blog as a space to remain in nepantla to guide creative and nuanced responses to the contexts we encounter.

3. Note that all students’ names are pseudonyms. Some details may need to be obscured to protect the privacy of individuals.


Part I: (Written by Melissa Adams-Corral)


In the summer before my third-year teaching, our district made a decision that I thought would be a game-changer: mandating dual language education district-wide. Previously, most schools in our district operated under bilingual education models that were focused on quickly moving children to all English instruction, with many schools refusing to offer clases bilingues at all. Moving to dual language meant that the district was taking an explicit stance advocating for students to continue to develop their English and Spanish side-by-side. I remember feeling very excited and hopeful about this shift…finalmente, I thought, policy would reflect the goal I had going into teaching—pride in bilinguismo, and meaningful, relevant language and content area instruction for mis estudiantes. It was a dream come true…that is, until I saw the model that all teachers were told to follow “with fidelity.”


This model required that certain content areas be taught in one language only and that teachers practice and enforce strict separation of languages in the classroom. My bilingüismo doesn’t work that way—it flows effortlessly, trying to stop it is like putting a wall in the middle of a river. I grew up in a bilingual home in Miami, where my language never needed to be split in two. During the summer, I would spend weeks with my primos en Honduras, singing along to Boyz II Men and Shakira, watching movies and telenovelas. Back at home in my city, bilinguismo and latinidad was lo normal. I became a bilingual teacher in large part because my language y mi cultura are a large source of my joy, pride and hope. I imagined bilingual teaching as being the work of supporting children as they grew from similar raices.


But now I was being told that there were right and wrong ways to be bilingual. That Spanish and English should be kept separate. And as part of the language separation policy, this model required that mathematics be taught entirely in English. If I went along with the model, that would mean that all the mathematics we did would be en puro ingles. To not go along with the model meant that I would be in acting in opposition to a change I thought I supported. At the same time, the rationale for choosing mathematics as an all-English content area struck me as deeply mistaken: “Math is a universal language.” Solo si ya lo hablas. What about kids trying to learn the language of math, asked to share their ideas and thinking in yet another uncomfortable tongue?


When the year started, I was working at a school that had piloted a dual language program prior to the district’s full-blown approval. This school had previously transitioned students quickly to English, but as gentrification led to lower enrollment, a dual language program was started as a way to draw in new families. The third graders who walked into my classroom were the first group of the pilot program and had been receiving math entirely in English since Kindergarten. Looking at my roster I realized that many of mis estudiantes latinxs had either been retained at some point or were “placed” in third grade, a designation that meant they could be returned to second grade if they did not do well enough in the first six weeks of school. I could feel myself becoming more and more incomoda—wasn’t this dual language thing supposed to help my hispano-hablantes?


During my first math lessons, I designed problems and tasks that I thought would be exciting and challenging. I wrote my problems in English, but I couldn’t help but feel that same discomfort. In my previous classrooms I had always provided bilingual options for students, mostly because I felt that the goal of mathematics class was mathematics learning. I had also experienced so many beautiful discusiones bilingües, where español e ingles worked together to help us make meaning out of las matemáticas.


Throughout those first couple weeks, it became clear that we had un problem enorme. In every math discussion, students who were comfortable speaking in English dominated. And mis estudiantes who preferred to read and write in español? They were silent. I could call on them and ask them questions, but they would shake their heads no, refusing to speak up. I would remind them that they could share their thinking in any language, already moving away from “total fidelity.” But they would sit there and wait.


When they worked on problems, they would leave their papers blank, or quickly add numbers, shrugging when asked about their thinking. One student, Antonio, burst into tears when I asked him about our problem one day and insisted me encantaría escuchar tus ideas. He had been held back and was repeating the third grade because his previous teacher felt his English wasn’t strong enough. Now, all of a sudden, half of his day was in Spanish, but even then matemáticas was left out of reach.


Each day the pattern repeated itself: students who felt comfortable in English confidently shared their mathematical skills. Students who were less comfortable with English sat quietly, waiting, tal vez to see whether I really wanted to hear their ideas, or if I was just going to keep following the rules. I had come to teaching with a background in community organizing--I had always seen teaching as a chance to organize communities of young people to demand better from adults and systems. Wasn’t this an example of a time to stand up? Was there some way to be the teacher I had set out to be while following this rule? And if not--what kind of maestra did I really want to be?


Part II of this story comes out next Wednesday at 9 AM. Subscribe to our blog and check it out. Comment below!

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