Why My Undergraduate Students Represent the Hope for a Better Future
My responsibility as a professor at a university on the US/Mexico borderland, the Brownsville/Matamoros border, was to facilitate my undergraduate students in acquiring knowledge and understanding in the art and science of teaching young children to read and write, to think critically and creatively, and to lead them toward a perception of themselves as effective teachers and agents of change.
In the year and a half as a full-time professor I took on the charge of working with my students, presenting my best foot forward with 45 years of teaching experience, and most importantly, getting to know each one as individuals and aspiring bilingual teachers.
Any kind of development, especially educational and psychological, defies specific standards of measurement to assess progress, but as many teachers will agree upon there are different ways to determine how much and what specifically students learn.
To be specific, I followed a simple plan but a critically-focused process in my investigation: I selected a few collections of my student papers and used them to discuss questions about them – who they are, why they want to teach, and how they plan to develop their “teacher role.” Without any pre-determined measurement notions, I chose an unfiltered dialogue framework, using my own experiences and perceptions as guideposts and springboards to elaborate on my responses.
How did you learn how to read?
This question asked my students about their earliest memories about how they begin to decipher meaning from texts and to any extent the contextual basis for their learning to read. Since their responses were in an essay format, I chose the most common and salient factors, which I organized in order to create a discussion thread. For the most part there were no surprises in their narratives, although some of their experiences were specific or unique to living on the border unlike anywhere else in Texas.
Before Entering School: The Role of Parents and the Availability of Books
I collected a total of 25 essays and from these I selected 19, which in my opinion contained the most vivid insights into the question of how they learned to read. Only three did not respond to the extent to which parents played a vital role prior to their entering school and whether they had access to children’s literature. But, of the remaining 16 essays, six students’ narratives relayed positive experiences concerning the availability of books that they could enjoy and were read aloud to them by their parents, usually their mothers. However, ten students wrote about how there were no books or other reading material in their homes, and their parents did not read to them. Some explained how their parents were too busy working to take time to read to them, and that the economic situation was so dire they couldn’t afford the luxury of buying books. Whatever the reasons, the students seem to understand the impact of social, economic, and educational factors that surrounded them and in most cases didn’t fault their parents but rather focused on their abilities and experiences that helped them overcome their problems.
Early Schooling Experiences: In Spanish and English
All of the students have Spanish as their first language. I wanted to know in which language they learned to read in school and how they learned English.
Twelve of the 19 students said that they learned to read in Spanish, their native language. But only four explained that they had learned to read in Spanish upon entering school in the Brownsville schools, while one of the students stated that she had taught herself. Seven students related their learning to read in Spanish due to their schooling experiences on the Mexican side of the border. Two students had spent their entire elementary schooling experiences in Mexico. One of the students described how she and her mother lived in Matamoros and crossed the bridge to Brownsville every day for six years. Her mother would drop her off at her school while she went to work and then, picked her up after work, usually getting home passed 6 PM. The remainder five students had completed a year of kindergarten or in one case, attended school in Monterrey, Nuevo León for three years.
The four students that had learned to read in Spanish in the Brownsville schools described their instruction as traditional and very brief, an average of one year. Usually, the Spanish language instruction helped students learn the basics of letter and sound recognition but very little on building comprehension skills.
All students had a common experience once they enrolled in the U.S. schools: they were required to learn to speak and read and write in English as quickly as possible. So, even though a handful of students received a very basic Spanish language reading instruction, everyone had learned the basics of English language reading by the end of the second grade. Usually, the common instructional method by which they learned to read was the Phonics Approach. But, most of their accounts included descriptions of an emotional, difficult, even traumatic process. They felt overwhelmed with the pressure of learning to speak in English, and even read and write it at the same time.
How did they accomplish this seemingly impossible multiple task? Several students credited their teachers for their extraordinary assistance in helping them. But there were friends or neighbors who also helped the students. One described the Summer School program and its invaluable resource. Some of the students benefitted from the computerized reading programs with their built-in motivational and incentive strategies. Even though most of the students’ parents were unable to help them in English they were instrumental in motivating them to do well in school.
But in each narrative I recognized a sense of determination to succeed in spite of the barriers or problems. Their conscientious-driven efforts seem to transcend their plight and even give way to the realization that they could do something so much better than what they experienced to improve the educational conditions for other children. Indeed, they felt empowered in their upcoming, new professional role as bilingual educators.
Consider the following excerpts from their narratives that point to their earliest memories on learning to read, and the language, cultural, and social contexts for which they had to adapt and/or negotiate. (English translations in parenthesis.)
*A1: Yo recuerdo cuando era niña yo no leía nada porque ni había libros en mi casa. Cuando cumplí cinco años mis papás decidieron ir a otro estado llamado Oklahoma porque aquí en el valle mi papá no ganaba mucho dinero. (I remember as a child I didn’t read because there were no books in my house. When I turned 5 years-old my parents decided to go to another state called Oklahoma because here in the valley my father didn’t earn enough money.)
A2: Ya que por venir de una familia humilde de los barrios de Matamoros estaba rodeado entre tanta ignorancia y entre la famosa pandilla del barrio Kerroli, la cual tenía abundancia de pandilleros metiéndose mugrero y haciendo de las suyas en el callejón donde pasé los primeros 9 años de mi vida. (Since I come from a family with humble beginnings in the barrios of Matamoros, I was constantly surrounded between ignorance and the famous gang from the Kerroli barrio, which had frequent occurrences of violent gang activity, where I spent the first nine years of my life.)
B: Yo no hablaba inglés. Mucho menos lo leía. Mis padres son de México y ellos en ese entonces no hablaban el inglés. Mi primera lengua hablada fue el español.
Muy a menudo tengo la misma conversación con mi madre de qué solo Dios sabe cómo yo aprendí el inglés. (I didn’t speak English. Or, much less read it. My parents are from México and at that time didn’t speak a word of English. My first language was Spanish. A frequent conversation I have with my mother is about how only God knows how I learned English.)
C: Mis recuerdos son de que en mi casa no había libros para leer pero si me contaban muchas historias del pasado. (My memories are that we didn’t have any books to read at home but I was told many stories about the past.)
D: En mi casa mis padres solamente hablaban español así es que no comencé a hablar inglés hasta que comencé la escuela. (At home my parents spoke only in Spanish so I learned English when I started school.)
D: En ese entonces tenía una vecina que estaba estudiando para maestra en la universidad, y tenía hermanitas de mi edad y siempre nos daba clases y se ponía a leernos libros, actividades o simplemente nos ayudaba con cosas que no entendíamos. Eso fue una gran ayúdame para mi desempeño con el inglés y con la lectura. (At the time, I had a neighbor who was studying to become a teacher at the university and had young sisters about my age and would teach us lessons, reading books, activities or just helping us with the classwork. That helped me a great deal in my learning English and with reading.)
I1: Mi mente podría haber entendido las cosas de diferente manera pero claramente recuerdo mi maestra casi gritando detrás de mí forzándome a leer. Me gritaba y agarraba mi dedo apuntando a las oraciones que debía de leer. (I might have remembered things differently, but I can clearly remember my teacher yelling at me, forcing me to read. She would yell and grab my finger pointing at the sentences that I was to read.)
I2: Yo me acuerdo que lloraba de niña porque por mas esfuerzo que hacía no podía aprender pero la maestra nunca se dio por vencida. (I remember crying as a child because no matter how much I tried I couldn’t learn, but the teacher never gave up on me.)
K: Yo aprendí a leer en español primero porque español era mi primer lenguaje. En mi casa se hablaba español siempre. Yo aprendí el inglés en la escuela, pero no recuerdo cuando. Lo que si recuerdo es que mis clases eran en ingles desde primer grado. Solo recuerdo que estuve en español mi primer año de escuela (kínder), y empezando primer grado todo fue en inglés. (I first learned to read in Spanish because my first language is Spanish. At home we spoke in Spanish at all times. I learned English at school but I don’t remember exactly when. What I do remember is that all of my classes were in English starting from first grade. I remember I had Spanish language instruction in kindergarten but starting in first grade everything was in English.)
M.I: Yo fui nacida en México. Mi primer idioma fue el español. Mis padres no tuvieron la fortuna de poder tener suficiente estudio. Mis padres crecieron muy pobres y tuvieron que empezar a trabajar a una temprana edad para poder ayudar a sus padres para que hubiera aunque fuera frijoles y tortillas todos los días. (I was born in México. My first language was Spanish. My parents didn’t have the good fortune of a good education. My parents grew up in poverty and they had to work at a very young age to sustain their parents so that they could at least have enough food. at least beans and tortillas on the table everyday.)
M1: The entire 1st grade for me was difficult. I was having a hard time reading so my Mom sent me to summer school and that is where and when I learned.
M2: I hope to some day help children who are having trouble learning how to read in English. It is one of my goals in life to do that. My parents and teachers changed my life completely. I would love to help someone the same way.
N: Cuando yo aprendí a leer en inglés mi experiencia fue terrible. Yo no sabía hablar en inglés. Mi mama hablaba puro español y mis hermanos le hablaban en español también. En la clase mi maestra no quería que fuera su estudiante porque yo no entendía el idioma. (When I learned to read in English my experience was terrible. I didn’t know how to speak in English. My mother and my siblings spoke only Spanish. My classroom teacher didn’t want me as her student because I didn’t understand the language.)
The students seemed to have learned an insurmountable amount of lessons as children growing up in a milieu that made specific demands on them in various aspects, including the border context where two different countries are literally joined together geographically but socially, culturally, and linguistically are quite distant from one another. Most of the students traversed across the border various times for different reasons, but in each case their crossing was mental and psychological as much as physical.
I asked them about what they learned from their early schooling experiences and how they would apply these to teaching; the following are some of their responses:
A: Lo que si se y no cambiara es que la literatura me ha hecho crecer culturalmente y mentalmente. (What I would change would be to increase the use of literature in the classroom – that will help them develop culturally and mentally.)
C: Like I mentioned before when I was growing up books were not at my disposal at home, maybe because my parents were not aware of it benefits and back then times were very different. Nonetheless, I did learn to read in school and I am very thankful for those few teachers I had who didn’t give up on slow readers like myself, I learned to gradually read at my own speed and I now enjoy reading as a hobby. Overall, the way I learned to read was perfect for me, and now it’s my turn to pay it forward and continue helping students including my kids how to continue reading and keep striving for more.
C2: Estoy segura de que todos los niños de primaria necesitan buenos maestros para que les ayuden aprender bien el L1 y así después cuando aprendan el L2 lo aprendan bien. Tras las malas caras que yo pase cuando era pequeña, eso me motivo a querer llegar a hacer maestra bilingüe y así enseñar bien a los niños a aprender bien las cosas que necesitan saber en la etapa de primaria por ejemplo el leer, escribir , aprender los colores, planetas, los diferentes anímales, etc. (I’m sure that elementary school students need excellent teachers that will help them learn in their first language so that when they learn their second language – English – they will learn it very well. Even though I had bad experiences when I was a child, nevertheless I’m motivated to become a bilingual teacher and teach my students what they need to learn, for example, to read, write, learn their colors, the planets, animals, etc.)
I: Ella creía que yo podía y no se equivoco. Al igual que ella yo quiero que mis estudiantes aprendan todos por igual ya sea que eso requiera de mas esfuerzo de unos mas que otros por que todos son diferentes y aprenden diferente. (My teacher believed in me and she wasn’t mistaken. Like her I want all of my students to learn equally well even though it means that with some students it will require more effort because everyone is different and they each learn differently.)
MI: Espero que en recordar mi propia experiencia, me ayude para hacer una maestra comprensiva con ese tipo de estudiantes y para animarles que así como yo pude superar el idioma, ellos también lo podrán hacer si le echan ganas. (I hope my past experiences will help me become a comprehensive teacher of students whose experiences are similar to the ones I had so I can motivate them, and just like I was able to overcome my language difficulties, so can they become successful.)
M: Pero ahora pienso que es bueno que los niños aprendan español primero y después el inglés. Lo que ayudaría mucho a los niños es que los papas empiezen a leer con ellos desde chiquitos, para que se vayan imponiendo con los libros y leerlos. Leer es muy importante en nuestras vidas, todo en este mundo se hace con leyendo cosas. Hasta ahorita siendo estudiante de universdad incluye leer miles y miles de libros. (But, now I think that it’s better that children first learn in Spanish, then in English. What can really help children is if the parents read to their children from very early in their lives so they enjoy literature and begin to read. Reading is very important in our lives and everything we do in this world requires reading. Even now as a university student I have to read thousands and thousands of books.)
N: Aunque fue difícil y aterrorizante mi experiencia de cómo hablar y leer en inglés, lo pude lograr. Creo que pudiera ver otras formas de poder aprender, pero por eso quisiera ser maestra para poder enseñarles a los niños de una manera más eficaz. (Even though it was difficult and tortureous to learn to speak and read in English, I was able to do it. I think there are other ways to learn and that’s why I want to become a teacher – to help my students learn more effectively.)
How will they measure up to becoming the very best teacher that they aspire?
My immediate reaction after reading their narratives is that their early schooling experiences have left a profound effect on their self perception as teachers, specifically on a wide array of social, cultural, and language aspects of teaching and learning. Their approach to working with children is based on not only their experiences as border crossers, second language learners, and living in economically stressful life but as independent learners who have developed skills such as self-reliance, resourcefulness, and self-confidence. They have strengthened their resiliency and understand how children, in a survival mode, mature at an accelerated rate.
What are the most pressing problems that bilingual teacher’s face in today’s schools?
The final question was created as a platform by which the students could elaborate upon their own vision of the problems as they perceived them and become critical in the way that they would address these.
C: I feel that there is not enough high quality bilingual programs for students at this time in all our schools. Some schools don’t even offer the programs, and being so close to the border I feel it’s a need. How are these students expected to learn? For us the bilingual program is English/Spanish and further up it can be any other language with English. A huge factor that also plays a huge role is social economic standing of students, not all students have that strong support at home to continue motivation at home. Teaching is a job from public schooling but what about home, who picks up the pieces there. It has to be a continuous role, learning cannot be placed on a back burner. It takes commitment from both home and school.
D: The biggest problem I believe bilingual teachers have today is that children haven’t yet mastered their first language when they are already trying to learn their second language. By living in the border I have seen first hand how children have a little bit of difficulty truly mastering either Spanish or English and they tend to speak a little of both or mix them up. I believe in order to learn a second language you need to have a good foundation and have mastered your first language in order to move on and be able to speak, read, and write the second language.
I: I would work hard to make sure to make my classroom is truly bilingual. I would work hard to make every lesson in Spanish and English. I would also try to make sure to make my classroom fun and not put too much pressure on the students with the standardized testing.
Although the students were free to express themselves accordingly, and indeed, their responses are widely revealing, the fact remains that there are so many questions surrounding their perceptions, experiences, and so many about them personally. Their young voices seem fresh and determined, and what we know is that they have had extraordinary experiences and are fueled with visions and ideas for improving the education of children.
What we don’t know is how long they will continue to work as bilingual educators and how they will change as they work in the educational system that is continuously changing and not always in a positive manner, and how their view points will change, and will they follow a career path that will lead them to leadership roles?
What I know about the students is that they are truly the best hope we have for the future our children, indeed, much more beyond that. We can build a better future provided that our work with students as future teachers is relevant, genuine, sincere, and rooted in the very best quality educational curriculum.
As I ponder upon these and other questions, I reflect upon my own experiences and the changes I made during the course of my career. I was 19 years old when I begin my educator career. I worked as an aide at the same time participated in Teacher Corps, a specialized federal program whose goals were to produce teachers for a vast explosion of students whose first language was Spanish. I remember the awe-inspirational moment when I realized that I was going to become a bilingual teacher to teach children like myself when I started school – without knowing a word of English. It seems even more incredible that I have worked as a university professor for over thirty years preparing students to become bilingual educators. Indeed, I feel very fortunate to have a real connection to the students, not only because of my professional training and experience, but because of our personal experiences and our backgrounds as children whose parents brought them to the United States from México for a better life.
However, even though I was born in a border town (Ciudád Juárez) and grew up in border cities on the Mexican side (Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa), my early schooling experiences began in the south central part of Texas. My students have deep roots in the border area where they have lived most of their lives. These experiences have shaped them in ways that I still struggle to understand completely. And, perhaps, that is the nature of our border life: the border is a classroom of life and in an organic, chaotic and immensely interesting way, we are constantly learning.
* Students’ names are not disclosed for privacy purposes.