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  • Writer's pictureNepantla Teachers

Universal Language Part II

Updated: May 28, 2020

This is a continuation of a previous post. Click here to read Part I

Part II Norms for Reading Our Blog

In Part II of the blog post, each author will have engaged with a reflective tool to analyze the powers at play in the situation. The purpose of reflection is to refine and redefine oneself, so that one can continue growing into a more disciplined self. Nepantla Teachers Community is using a reflection tool called Levels of Oppression (created by Mariame Kaba). This reflection tool is included below with the definitions of four types of oppressions. When we analyze the levels of oppression we are looking at, we are asking ourselves the questions “Who had the power?”, “Who had control?”, and “Who had access to what?”.

Part II Analysis and Resolution- (Written by Anonymous Teacher)

Levels of Oppression


-I had to recognize that student participation in mathematics was not a reflection of their mathematical ability.

Often, we interpret silence as not knowing, when in reality it may reflect not feeling invited or included. When I am in spaces where I am not sure my voice is welcome, I keep my ideas to myself. Why would it be any different for my students?

-I had to recognize that collective silence is more than just a group of introverted individuals.

Previous teachers had described many of my bilingual students as “quiet,” normalizing their lack or participation. Pero, no one asked, ¿por qué es que todos los que hablan español son los quiet ones? I had to push myself to look past the simpler explanation that required less of me y reconocer what was happening in my classroom.


-Students were learning a lot about what it meant to be smart in math, and that had everything to do with access to content in English.

Cada día, the same kids raised their hands, answering questions, sharing strategies and demonstrating their mathematical understandings. And the same kids sat silently. They weren’t just learning whose voices were valued, they were learning who was good at math.

-Students who could not access content in Spanish were not silent during Spanish lessons.

During tiempo en español, English speaking students would complain loudly that they did not understand, or they would simply answer questions in English. They knew which language really mattered, era obvio que el español was optional, whereas English was not.


-I was required to enforce language times and model monolingualism for set hours of the day.

It would have been easier to say that rules are rules and I don’t have a choice about whether I follow them or not. But our classroom was in a trailer, separate from the school building and always behind a closed door. We had distance and space, no one was monitoring what we did every day other than me. Era mi responsabilidad--punto.

-I believed that the rules set for dual language education had an important rationale and that I did not know enough to violate them.

A stumbling block for me was that I believed that the dual language model we were following was based on research--who was I (an alternatively certified third-year teacher with two master’s classes in education) to question experts? ¿Quién te crees? As I reflected, I realized that I had learned a lot in my first two years of teaching about what it meant to teach math through dialog and in community. That had to mean I had some degree of expertise, verdad? Observing my students and comparing their experience to the way prior students had been able to engage in learning told me there was something serious wrong. And if I wasn’t going to do anything about it, then no one would.

-There was a belief that if we didn’t follow the model, dual language would be taken away and bilingualism would no longer be supported by the district.

Because dual language had just started, many teachers and administrators believed that if we did not stick to the rules, the program would not work and we would lose this chance to continue bilingual instruction through fifth grade. At the time, the district was considering continuing the program in certain middle schools--was it worth the flawed program if it meant kids would have continued access to bilingual learning?

-Some students in my class had been retained as a direct consequence of their perceived English proficiency.

English had already operated violently in many of my students educational lives--multiple children had been retained because they weren’t seen as having enough English. As a result, many students were being pulled for all-English special education services and for reading interventions in English. A nadie le importaba lo que podían hacer en español o en los dos. No one viewed their skills in combination.


-Despite the rhetoric of dual language, we all knew that our schools only really valued the learning of English.

Every year, Texas students labeled English Language Learners have to take a standardized language test and provide writing samples to demonstrate their progress in learning English. If they don’t demonstrate enough progress, this can (and more often than not, does) affect their academic tracks going into middle and high school. There was no test to track students’ Spanish language development. Students who started school speaking Spanish (many of whom also spoke English) were required to show that they were becoming English proficient and students who started school speaking only English were not seen as needing to have their language skills monitored. The goal was never bilingualism--our priority was siempre inglés.

-We live in a monolingual society that really doesn’t get what it means to be bilingual.

Like other bilinguals, I don’t have a switch in my brain that I flip to go into English-mode or Spanish-mode. El bilinguismo no funciona de esa manera. When you are bilingual you are bilingual all day--my thoughts don’t see a barrier between languages. (I mean, they called it Inglés Sin Barreras for a reason!) To pretend that bilingualism means speaking only one language at a time asks bilingual people to deny their own reality. In this case, bilingual teachers found themselves required to teach bilingual children that there was a right way and a wrong way to “do” bilinguismo. Y eso no tiene sentido.

-Teaching math only in English meant kids who were already marginalized at school were further marginalized in mathematics.

Bob Moses* tells us that math literacy is a civil right because of its ability to determine economic access--what did it mean that I was limiting access to mathematics in my class? It was one thing to follow what I thought I knew about language teaching, but what about what I knew about enseñando matemáticas?


*Moses, R., & Cobb, C. E. (2002). Radical equations: Civil rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. Beacon Press.

So what happened?

In my confusion and frustration, I reached out to a friend who is a bilingual mathematics education researcher and asked her for her perspective. We researched the rationale used by the designers of our district’s dual language model and learned that the only reason math was being taught in English was because they believed that math was a universal language. She explained the problems with that assumption--math is only a universal language in so far as you know math. For elementary students, es súper importante that they have time and space to talk through their mathematical thinking and explore ideas. The more we talked, the more I knew that math research was saying one thing, while these dual language researchers were saying another. I couldn’t just rely on “experts,” I needed to look at the kids in front of me and teach to them. I had to fight the idea that these were just niños calladitos, and that the kids speaking up were just better at math. I had to prioritize the kids who had been marginalized. No me quedaba de otra.

Together with my amiga, I decided to start teaching math bilingually, as I had in my previous years of teaching. Con la puerta cerrada, my day to day teaching immediately included both languages interchangeably. Not only was I able to include all my students, I was also able to include my whole self, lo cual era un alivio total.

At the same time, we knew we had to seek official permission and make our concerns known more publicly. It wasn’t just the kids in my classroom who were being affected by this program. With the help of my researcher friends I prepared a rationale for my choice and argued my case with my principal. I explained what math learning looked like in our class and how it was different from textbook-based instruction. I told him what I was seeing my students do and why it made me uncomfortable. Finally, I argued that if my bilingual students didn’t learn math, their test scores would be a problem for the school. My principal, who is also bilingüe and who genuinely cared about estudiantes bilingües listened to me and agreed to let me do things my way.

Looking back at this story, I know I made the right decision for the kids who I was teaching. Over time, everyone was speaking up in math class. I followed my students from third grade, to cuarto y quinto, where I saw them develop their voices and their beliefs in themselves as math learners. But that would not have been possible in the same way had it not been for my principal’s willingness to listen to and trust me, and for the support lended by researchers who took the time to support me. While we grew and learned together, our school changed. It is important to note that we were the last all Latinx group at our school, as the draw of a dual language program in our gentrifying neighborhood meant that there stopped being space for nuestra comunidad. When my students graduated from 5th grade, after we had spent three years together, they went to middle school and I went to a new elementary school on the edge of the city, where I kept teaching matemáticas en dos idiomas with my door wide open.


Thank you for reading our blog series of Nepantla Teachers Community. We will be posting a mathematics educator's story on the first Sat and following Wed of every month. Subscribe to get email notifications.

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