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  • Writer's pictureDerek Stoppels

Language or Learning?

Language or Learning?

At the last PD Day, we started the day talking about Building Belonging Classrooms. It’s not really a new concept, and when one of my colleagues brought up the fact that this wasn’t a new concept, the sad truth was revealed. The concept isn’t new, but it’s still not happening in all (or even in most) of our classrooms.

This led to a discussion about how students experience school and was followed by a letter being read to all the teachers in the room about how students in our school(s) still experience racism in our classrooms. The letter was really well written and thought out. It wasn’t directed at any teacher in particular and didn’t call out any specific practices, but the students were asking teachers to continue to try being better. It’s sad that our students felt they had to write the letter in the first place, but it demonstrates that our students still believe in us and are trying to help us be better teachers.

We took a break after the letter was read because it was heavy, and I think it was important for all of us to sit with our privilege and our white fragility. Not all the teachers at my school are white, but as a colleague succinctly put it, it’s still “a white kids’ playground.” After the pause, our day continued with a discussion about literacy. The way that I interpreted our discussion was that we were trying to find ways to help our students learn and express themselves, or communicate…in English.

For example, we were given sentence stems that ended in because, or but, or so, and the students are expected to finish the sentence. The curriculum documents include communication as part of the achievement standards, but nowhere in those documents does it mention that the communication needs to be in English. We talk a lot about supporting our English Language Learners (ELLs) and how to help them be successful, but I’m wondering if this is just a further demonstration of the inequities of our Ontario education system. There are so many supports for our ELLs in our schools and in our school board, but these supports seem to be geared to helping our students communicate and demonstrate their learning in english.

So here’s my question: Why is it so important for our students to demonstrate their learning in English?

To bring my questioning further, why does a student need to learn to communicate in english while a teacher just has to assess or evaluate the submitted work to see how it sizes up to the provincial standards (in english). This means that even with all of the supports that our ELLs are provided, if a student doesn’t answer a question the way a teacher wants them to, they are punished for it. This seems inequitable.

I have a student in my class who is new to Canada and has a very hard time communicating in conversation in english. So we had a conversation through Google Translate. It turns out that not only is the English language a barrier to this student’s learning and demonstration of that learning, they aren’t really able to do any homework because as soon as they get home they have to help take care of their siblings who have special needs and their mother who has health challenges.

While I think it is important for this student to learn English so that their life might be a little bit easier in Canada, how important is it that they demonstrate their learning in english? Furthermore, as a science teacher myself, I know many teachers out there who will tell you that science is a language in, and of, itself. I don’t totally disagree with this sentiment, but since science happens everywhere in the world, science happens in every language in the world too. I should mention that I don’t actually think science happens everywhere in the world, science just helps us predict, or observe, or explain the things that are happening in nature, but that’s a blog post for another time.

So with that being said, while science has, or is, its own language, the language of science is not specific to English because science is merely a way of understanding nature. If science helps us understand nature, is it more important for students to understand nature, or to understand nature in english? A logical argument could be that students can understand nature in any language they like, but then my question becomes ‘then why do students need to demonstrate their learning in english?’

What if we made an agreement with our students that if they did their best to learn english, because I think we can all agree that life is easier when you understand the common language where you are, then we (teachers) will do our best to find ways to allow our students to demonstrate their learning in whatever language they like.

I want my students to leave my classroom with a better understanding of nature by the time they finish the course. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if our students could share their ways of knowing in their own language?

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