An Intensive Day of Interviewing and Consequent Realizations

Yesterday, our team visited Winooski and Burlington all day, conducting the bulk of our interviews. Organizing this was actually quite a feat, as the five of us go to four different schools and only one of us can drive, but we worked pretty intensively over the past month, and especially the past few weeks, to set up interviews, coordinate in regards to transportation and timing, and find time in between to meet as a team. This was a really fulfilling experience, both because we finally had a chance to speak with people intimately involved with our topic, and because the act of managing this, I’ve realized, has really upped our team’s ability to work as an efficient unit. We’ve had to increase both the depth and frequency of our communication and organization, but fortunately in November we came up with platforms for this which have proved to work really well. I had a sort of rough beginning to the day, between issues finding parking and technical issues which were my own fault, so I’m going to go back to Burlington sometime soon to re-record an interview, but overall it was a very positive experience, and even the interview which probably isn’t usable taught me an incredible amount.

In a group discussion at the end of the day, we talked about how the interviews we’d conducted really shifted our perspective of the issue. We learned that many of the people we talked to, from ELL and New American students, to liaisons, experts, and teachers, feel that VT has been a very safe and welcoming place for New American and ELL families, and that although there are challenges, everyone in the educational community is working very hard to make education equitable and enriching. We’d found some resources which suggested the contrary, so this news came as something of a pleasant surprise (especially given the current political climate). We knew that this was the case at least to an extent, and I’ve been involved in enough educational reform efforts to know that VT is an exceptionally progressive and forward-minded place when it comes to education, but the overwhelmingly positive response was still a really wonderful thing to hear about our state and its priorities and citizens.

This does raise some questions in regard to our project, both in terms of our immediate next steps and the overall frame of the final product. We visited the two schools in VT with the largest and most established populations of ELL and New American students, which means that they have the infrastructure and mindset to support this diversity, but we wonder if this is true statewide. Yesterday helped us establish a really good idea of the situation in high-incidence areas (a new phrase I learned!), but we also all acknowledged that even though we have been studying this topic for several months at least (and I’ve been researching it slightly longer, because it was my i-Search topic), we really have very little idea of how ELL and New American students are served in our own schools and districts. This may mean that the percentage of students in our schools who are English Language Learners or New Americans is very low, but it is telling nonetheless that we really don’t know what’s happening. This prompted us to choose immediate next steps which include interviewing people from our own schools, but it also means that as we see it now, our final project could have one of two frames (or, perhaps more realistically, a mix of both): the disparity between high-incidence and low-incidence areas, or our own personal journeys in understanding this topic.

This brings up several other points to consider. We are learning that we really must not assume we know what is happening before we speak to people involved (something which I worked very hard to be conscious of, but, as it turns out, I still need to shift my mindset to one of more pronounced curiosity). We thought we might be setting out to shift mindsets, but as it appears right now, we really may be trying to ensure those mindsets exist: this is becoming a topic of visibility, as our own ignorance indicates. Also, as I consider the possibility of making ourselves characters in our film and speaking to our own learning journeys (which I do think would be interesting), we must be incredibly vigilant not to monopolize the story. We would want to use our own evolving understanding to further the message of a final product, not define it.

A few other interesting things I learned yesterday: I’ve been viewing the difference between ELL and New American students and students whose first language is English and who have been in the U.S. longer as binary, but it is really a spectrum. In ways, this should always have been obvious, because many people who live here are immigrants, just less recent/farther back in their ancestry. However, visiting a school where many of the students in non-ELL classrooms had at some point phased out of the ELL classes, even if they now had little to no contact with current ELL students, was interesting. I interviewed a student who now knows ELL students very little, because they learn in very separate spheres, although she herself was in the ELL program in 1st and 2nd grade. This really opened my eyes, and I realized that I should be looking at communities as more nuanced and interconnected microcosms than simplistic groups.

Featured Image by Nate Archambault

Clara Lew-Smith

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