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Multilingual, Multigenre Conversations

Written by Alicia Wright
September 18, 2011

Sitting in a seventh grade Language Arts classroom, Lissa and Osbaldo are discussing our latest short story we are studying. They have no problem describing the elements of plot and which point of view it is written. They begin reading the story in the dominant language of the class, but when in conversation about the questions, they begin conversing in Spanish and English. As the teacher gets closer, she can hear the mix of Spanish and English slowly transition to mainly English. Their teacher really never says anything about the languages they are using, but does ask follow up questions to ensure they are understanding the text and the understanding of what is being asked of them in the assignment.

In a classroom down the hall, the same story is being discussed and the same elements within the story; however, two students are discussing it in their home language of Spanish. The students do not transition from speaking Spanish to English, but do notice the teacher approaching. The teacher walks over to the students, who are deep in conversation about what the teacher asked, and he asks them, yet again, to stay on topic and to stop speaking in another language. The students comply and continue their conversation in English. He walks away frustrated and wondering why they just can’t speak English when he asked them to do an assignment.

The products the two sets of students hand in to the teacher are graded and they all get a passing grade. The process of how they arrived at the completion of the assignment (discussions, attitude, and teacher input), however, was handled differently. Who decides that because we are in an “English” classroom we have to only and answer in English?

All students discussed are real students in seventh grade, and at home the dominant language is Spanish. Lissa and Osbaldo are in my class. They speak a mix of Spanish and English in the halls, at lunch, and out on the bus lot with their friends. I look in their daybooks and work they turn in and there is a shift. They only express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas in English. I never said that once you pass the threshold of our class there is never to have only English written. Nor do I have a sign only walls saying that only English is spoken here. Why is this, to me, loss of identity happening?

When the teacher was talking about how his students try to talk in other languages when they are supposed to be doing their work, there were some questions that I wanted to ask but didn’t know how he was going to respond. I asked anyway. What languages do they speak? How do you know if they are on or off topic? Do they complete the work you ask of them? He was stand-offish, but answered some of the questions with some vague, around the question answers. This sparked even more questions for me about language, conversations, place, and time.

Sitting with these questions, I feel I need to reach out to a broader audience before I begin to construct answers to some of these questions.

Teachers are supposed to want to build a sense of community within their classrooms, but while building that community, is everyone included? Whose community is it really? Who is being left out and what might those reasons be?

Teachers want (or are supposed to want) students to feel like they belong. What is it that they are belonging to? Do they want to belong? Is there room to belong to multiple communities within the same space and it be looked upon positively by each community within the community of the classroom?

Who or what is the deciding factor(s) in where, the physical location, where conversations can be held? (Right now I’m thinking in terms of classroom, community spots, Internet, Twitter, Facebook, text messages). How does that impact the sense of belonging within a community as a whole and the sub-communities within the whole.

What makes the topics we discuss specific to gender, race, age, culture? How does that impact the sense of belonging?

In order for me to begin to make some sense of the questions I am asking, I want to turn to my students, colleagues, peers, friends, and mentors. I set up a Google Map to pinpoint what is said, with whom, why there, dominant languages, dominant conversations/topics, counter narratives and conversations and anything else that comes to our minds.

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