The U.S. reached an important milestone several years ago—minority students now comprise the largest demographic group in our nation’s public schools. While there is great diversity within our student population, the majority of educators still do not share the same cultural experiences with the diverse students they serve.
However, many effective teachers have consistently been sensitive to and culturally aware of student backgrounds. These educators intuitively understand that the more inclusive their classroom is, the more engaged their students will be, and that engagement ultimately leads to achievement.
Culturally relevant teaching respects the traditional backgrounds of students as an asset in the classroom. In my own experience as a young child, I grew up in the U.S. with my parents having just arrived from Cuba, speaking no English. At the time, my teacher had very limited resources to help English learners, but she connected with me, and made a sincere effort to communicate with my parents and my family—and that made all the difference. My teacher made it clear through her words and actions that she was invested in me and my success. Just as my teacher did for me all those years ago, educators can all invest in the success of bilingual and multilingual students.
As educators, we are trained with the deficit model, which interprets that students who have limited English proficiency have an educational deficit that needs to be addressed. Transforming our classrooms necessitates that teachers investigate their own attitudes about different cultures—understanding any preconceptions they may have held and learning to value each student, including their background and the culture they bring to the classroom to share with their classmates.
Opportunities for bilingualism
In school year 2016-17, states reported almost 5 million emergent bilingual students across the U.S.—approximately 10 percent of the students in our public schools. It also may be surprising to learn that most U.S. students with limited English proficiency are actually U.S. citizens. Eighty-five percent of these were born in the United States, compared to 15 percent who were foreign-born. This truly sparks my curiosity: Why do English Learner (EL) programs typically assume all students are recently arrived immigrants when almost three-quarters of them were born in this country and speak some English?