By 2050, people of color will be in the majority in this country. In California, we will be mostly Latino. Today, I see that future in my class of first graders at Rosa Parks Elementary.
Half of my students are Latino, and Spanish is their first language. In our classroom, we celebrate that everyone has different abilities, and we all bring something to the table. Students work and talk in pairs every few minutes. Luis, as a strong Spanish speaker, is with Emma, a strong reader. Both become leaders and helpers in different ways. To make differences celebrated, not separating, I purposely teach in compassionate ways that connect with my students as individual learners, using rich, culturally relevant literature and music.
Two-way Spanish immersion
I teach two-way immersion; that is, I teach in Spanish to half native-Spanish-speakers, and half native-English-speakers. Of the native-English-speakers, generally one or two of them are African American, and the rest are white. The native Spanish speakers are always Latino.
At first, immersion can be quite frustrating for students; they leave exhausted at the end of each day. The native-English-speakers are pretty clueless about what is happening around them, and their Spanish-speaking counterparts are getting used to being in school. It’s an opportunity for the Spanish speakers to be leaders in the class. By the end of the year, most students of both language abilities are reading and writing at grade level in Spanish. I'm continually amazed at the ability of students to learn a second language.
All language learners require intensive strategies, and I use a lot of Total Physical Response (TPR). Because at any given time, half of my class is learning in their second language, I use big facial expressions, tone of voice, acting, miming, gestures, and drawing to explain new or more difficult words.
Every day I try to expose my students to a different language form or expose them to language at a higher level. So, when we are studying names of different farm animals, it’s an opportunity to learn about plurals: sheep and lambs. They use comparative language by brushing out and feeling wool: a little rough, softer, softest.
Touch and hands-on learning
Touching is a way to experience, and learn. In my second year of teaching, I noticed that certain kids liked to touch things all the time–these kids tended to be boys (surprise!). They would touch cheeks or ear lobes, things that were soft, fuzzy. I noticed they would do this to focus. Now I incorporate touch therapy in my teaching, using my rabbit, gecko, snake, and items with texture to help kids direct their attention.
We use our school’s outdoor learning spaces whenever we can: Monthly cooking classes tie in with garden and nutrition lessons. A solar-powered fountain and pond are used for habitat study. Our campus is strewn with strategically placed rocks for teaching geology. Edible berry patches and other foraging areas are ripe for exploring. I am extremely passionate about these aspects of our school for providing hands-on learning and connections.
Human relations outdoor camp
Like many fourth graders across the country, ours go to camp in the spring. Rather than a natural science focus, our camp emphasizes human relationships. The Mosaic Project brings together private and public school students of varying socioeconomic levels. They bond together in a way I've never seen elsewhere. They learn to love themselves for their differences, to empathize with others, to be proud of themselves and their peers. Through games, discussions, and challenge activities, they address social issues on a deep level and leave profoundly changed.
Before camp one year, I recall reading a story in which a white child and a black child are friends. Lakayla, an African American student, commented, "I could never be friends with a white person." After The Mosaic Project, Lakayla was having play dates with Emily, a white student she'd shared a cabin with. That’s a life lesson Lakayla will carry into adulthood. Mosaic creates new possibilities for kids.
Replacing cultural walls with compassion
I think about race every day inside and outside of my classroom. I think about the way culture alters the way we perceive the world, and how my life and experiences differ from that of each of my students. These different perspectives mean each word I speak connotes something different for my students, and I try to validate each individual's reality.
I am also aware how important it is not to make assumptions of my students based on my experiences, upbringing, and circumstances. Knowing my students’ individual circumstances prevents me from jumping to conclusions and makes me a better teacher, better able to meet their needs. Maria may be really cranky when she comes in on Tuesday. I ask her if she had time for breakfast. Eduardo may be angry when he walks in the door because he didn't get enough rest; I know he shares a bed with his parents and sometimes they work late. The more I know about my students’ backgrounds, the more powerfully I can connect with them.
Difference is strength
My students mirror our country’s future. In my class because of language and cultural differences, we have to learn to work together. If we don’t, we’re in trouble. What I want most for this generation of kids is that they have a love of humanity, an understanding that difference is strength, and a creative, problem-solving nature to move our country and world forward peacefully.
Each day is a new day at Rosa Parks Elementary. I greet my first graders at the door each morning and get hugs with each “Buenos dias, Lily,” “Buenos dias, Jesus.” Each day we all start fresh. Each day is another chance to shine.
Michelle Contreras wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Michelle is a native Californian who teaches first grade at Rosa Parks Elementary in Berkeley. In September, Michelle is going to make her dream of cycling in a 100-mile race a reality; she also dreams of world peace through meditation.
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