#3: A school system tailored to English speakers
I had conversations with two of the people closest to me, my little brother Elijah and my friend Lydia. I gave them a background on the issue and why they chose it, and from there I tried to let an organic conversation flow, so I tried to stay away from giving prompts or asking questions, with varying success. The topic, equity in education for ELL students and immigrants and new Americans, is interesting in that although it isn’t always (or even often) discussed outside of a professional or pedagogical setting, it affects everyone involved in education as well as the greater community.
Lydia and I discussed the fact that many of the small rural communities in Vermont are at a disadvantage when it comes to welcoming and understanding people from other locales and/or people whose first language isn’t English, because the tight-knitted nature of the communities (which a is a defining and often good factor) as well as the lack of diversity in Vermont (a decidedly less good factor) are conducive to whole populations of people who aren’t equipped to interacting with people whose lives have not been similar to their own. As Lydia put it, “It makes it more difficult for teachers and people who are supposed to be a student support system to know what the student needs, and since it has to be tailored to every individual student based on their culture and where they’re starting from, if the adults just have no idea where to begin in the first place … there’s not forward motion at all until [there’s a person who understands the student’s background there to help].”
Also, both Lydia and Elijah both hit on the topic of how completely English-dependent the U.S. school system is, and though that is understandable, it makes adjusting very hard if one grew up with another language. Lydia mentioned how it can be “detrimental to the learning process” if a person doesn’t feel “comfortable and trusting,” which is both proven and logically true: in a place in which someone is expected to learn, but a maximum of a few translators actually speak the same language as the student, that isolated feeling can breed some discomfort (to say the least), and doesn’t support an environment in which the student’s own culture and language are recognized. Especially for refugees who are more likely to miss countries that they didn’t have a choice but to leave, an environment as occasionally uniform as Vermont may feel smothering and make a student feel “bitter” about being “forcibly adapted [that is to say, they have very little chance of success if they don’t learn English and probably also Western norms].” Elijah and I discussed a foreign exchange student we know, for whom the language barrier is occasionally an issue because they have no way of communicating what they don’t understand.
Overall, my discussion with my little brother went in a very different direction. We talked about the necessity of individualizing each student’s learning plan, but also the use that a general law might have in uniting efforts. (There are definite parallels to Act 77.) As he said, “[It] doesn’t mean that there’s not a broad law, [it] just means the broad law doesn’t specify what you do with each student.”
One of the most interesting parts in either of the conversations was one in which I asked Lydia to envision a life in which they grew up in Syria until the age of 12, lived in a German refugee camp until 16, and then came to the U.S. as a junior in high school. Their response was profound and tapped into a very human sense of resentment that I think people don’t often consider, but the process of that exercise made me realize how little people do that: we talked a fair amount about relatively closed communities, and I think the act of putting oneself in another’s shoes could be a good step to remedying that issue.
Lew-Smith, Elijah. Personal interview. 25 Sept. 2016.
Wright, Lydia. Telephone interview. 25 Sept. 2016.
Featured Image is by Melinda Shelton