#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

Clara Lew-Smith

8 Responses to “#3: A school system tailored to English speakers

  • Clara,

    I loved reading about this topic as I find it easy to agree with and in many ways relatable after living abroad myself. I think the fact that schools are almost entirely relying on students being native English speakers is imperative to your project and may help you to find a solution to this problem. I know here in Middlebury we weren’t given the option to learn a foreign language until 8th grade and once we finally were, we were limited to Spanish, French and Latin. While I understand the difficulties in having many different languages taught at every school, I think it is important that measures are put in place for foreign students to be able to get the same education that all of the native English speakers are receiving. Furthermore, I think the few languages that we are taught don’t serve for much because we are taught when we are already 14 or 15. In Mexico, students were given classes in English, French and Spanish beginning in elementary school and by the time we are starting a foreign language for the first time, they had already become fluent in three.

    I’m a huge fan of languages so I’d love to keep hearing about your project as you make progress in the future!


    • Justin:

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post and respond so thoughtfully! The direction you took in your response made me realize just how much of the cultural ignorance (for lack of a better term) among Vermont students is a direct result of their lack of exposure to instruction about other culture. I’m not sure if you said this outright, but I think one of the messages you touched on was the fact that learning a language inherently makes one more appreciative of a foreign culture, and I really agree with that. It’s definitely made me think about whether a route I want to go with this is advocacy for more foreign languages/cultural awareness classes in Vermont high schools, because I think that low enrollments often lead to course offerings being sacrificed, and people don’t always realize just how detrimental that is. This is especially important in a place so low in ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity, where if these classes aren’t being offered students may really have no other way to learn how to appreciate other cultures and interact respectfully with people from different backgrounds. I’m excited to talk to you more about this!

  • Clara:
    What a great blog post this week. I loved reading about your thinking and the conversations you had about language and culture in general and ELL specifically. In particular, I love the question you posed to Lydia. You “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.” What an amazing question given that, for many of us, it’s hard to understand a concept until we personalize it, and your question forces Lydia to personalize the issue.

    You’ve got a lot of different angles here and that is a good problem to have. Justin mentions the lack of diverse language offerings in VT school districts, which is a great angle in this story. That is, if we’re only learning Western European languages, how are we supposed to understand the global world? To add to that, in history and English classes, is there a focus beyond the European-centric world, and if there isn’t, why? (You may want to take a look at Edward Said and his wonderful “Orientalism” and ” Culture and Imperialism” for food for thought). I’m envisioning your attempting to change curricula in a meaningful and global way.

    Write me back if you want to dialogue more about this. Can’t wait to keep working on this with you!

    • Ben:

      Thanks for giving me so much to think about! I’m very busy right now but I’ll definitely try to look at those resources when I have a chance, they sound like things I’d be interested in. One of the reasons I feel so connected to this issue is that my Social Studies teacher last year took a really excellent approach to U.S. History, in that he had us look at more alternative resources and think about the side of history that isn’t often touted or recognized, specifically centered around issues of equality throughout American history. Understanding how much this has done for me has made me realize how essential it is, and especially considering you, Justin, and Dianne were all interested in how this related to curriculum, I think this might be a focus for me this year. I think that pushing for more equitable curriculum is a way to narrow down the broad, nebulous scope of this idea, even if it might be difficult to measure (that’s something I’ll probably need support for if this idea gets going), so thank you for really bringing my attention to this.

      Also, your response about the question I posed to Lydia was very affirming–I sort of came up with that in the moment, but my thinking behind it was that the reason issues of racism and insensitivity are so prevalent in Vermont schools is that students from small, sometimes sheltered communities have really never considered a life dramatically different from their own, and as such don’t know how to feel empathy for those people. Of course, Lydia is very mindful of these issues, so the response they gave was very thoughtful, but I’d be interested to pose this prompt/question to a lot of students because I think it can be very revealing.

      I look forward to continuing this conversation!

  • Dianne Baroz
    7 years ago


    I’m happy to be a guest responder to your blog! I work at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College and was briefly at the kick-off meeting. I’m so excited that you chose to be part of this program, and I’m here to help you with your research and project in any way that I can.

    Your topic about equity in education for ELL students and immigrants is so relevant today. Language is probably the biggest obstacle that an immigrant student would face in Vermont. I remember years ago there was a large influx of Bosnian refugees who settled in Middlebury. Were schools in Vermont prepared to help them then? Have there been any lessons learned?

    I think it was a great exercise to imagine what it would be like for a student coming to Vermont with not only a language barrier but who is culturally different as well. Since this is rural Vermont, would you consider looking at some sort of cultural diversity training? Lots of great ideas to think about. Look forward to hearing from you.


    • Dianne,

      Nice to meet you and thanks for responding! I agree that the issue is timely; a lot of things led me towards it but especially meeting students from diverse schools and a UVM professor studying ELL students in classrooms and the people who translate for them. I had some awareness of the topic but not very much, which was a serious deficit on my part. I’m excited to learn through the process, and in that vein I’ll be interested to check out the situation you mentioned.

      I also think that cultural awareness/diversity training is probably essential, and I’m not sure if that overlaps with the idea of pushing for more progressive, inclusive curriculum…if students are learning about this in the classroom, maybe the ideas are one and the same. Please keep in touch!

  • Hey Clara!
    Your topic is one I haven’t given much thought about, but realize it’s very important to Vermont and to the country as a whole. You said (roughly) that a student that isn’t welcomed into a community or school maybe become bitter towards that school or the country as a whole and may miss their country. I feel that this is extremely important and is very relevant to current times and the presidential election. I can see how coming to a new country is terrifying and if that country seems like it shows hostility towards that individual because of a language barrier, it could lead to a hostile citizen, when we only want to create an environment of community and connection. I look forward to continuing to see where you want to go with this topic and what other topics may connect to this one.


    • Elsa,

      Thanks for responding! I definitely feel that there is a danger of creating a divided society when people who are new to the U.S. are not only not given the educational help they need, but also expected to learn English at the expense of their native language and cultural education/identity. This really brings to mind something which stuck with me from Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, in which she mentions the remarks people would often make to her about how she must be happy to be living in Birmingham, England instead of her native Pakistan. In reality, she missed her home, but they had such a narrow vision of her country and life that they couldn’t understand the value of both places and cultures. I think a big part of this work is spreading awareness around the detriment of this exclusively Western world view.


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