Bilingual educators: Language is a power and a right

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In an event that mixed aspirational talk with pedagogical advice about teaching English language learners and multilingual students, the 47th annual National Association for Bilingual Education conference March 1-3 in Albuquerque, N.M., immersed participants in all levels of teaching and learning, and succeeded in inspiring many to recommit themselves to students who are often underserviced in our public schools.

Titled "Resisting Inequity: Language as Power and Right," the conference boldly embraced a mission to stand up for the many students and families whose native language is not English—1 in 10 public school students is an ELL—and find the best ways to provide high-quality education to them.

The AFT delegation at the conference

"Every child has a right to attend a public school that is safe and welcoming, with the staff and resources to help them thrive," AFT President Randi Weingarten told the more than 2,000 educators in attendance during her keynote presentation. "We want that for every child—yet we know those rights are denied to too many children, and far too many English language learners. Extending those rights to all our children is our common fight."

Weingarten also pointed to the many advantages of multilingual capability. Research shows bilingualism has cognitive, social and emotional benefits, she said, and in an increasingly nationalistic, anti-immigrant, racist environment, it is important to remember that, "while xenophobes may not see it, the cultures, languages and experiences of ELLs are assets for their development and for the nation."

AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker, who spoke on two conference panels, pointed out the power of union contracts in promoting diversity. When she was president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers in Minnesota, she negotiated a future teachers program that uses scholarships, college credit and student teaching opportunities to encourage more students and paraprofessionals of color to consider teaching as a profession.

Nearly 40 AFT leaders and members attended the conference, participating in panel discussions, workshops and presentations. They also distributed information about First Book, the AFT partnership that distributes books to low-income families; AFT deportation defense toolkits, to help support undocumented students; and handouts from Colorín Colorado, an AFT-initiated online resource for teachers looking for the latest research and best practices for ELL families and educators, including videos, lesson plans and tip sheets for parents in 10 languages.

Randi Weingarten speaking at the conference

AFT-led workshops ranged from advocacy and curriculum design to teaching and implementation. Ingrid Cruz, from East Baton Rouge, La., talked about using STEM education, robotics and 3-D printing to engage ELLs. Other sessions focused on bridging the learning gap for ELLs with special needs, emergent bilingual students, and students with limited or interrupted formal education. Evelyn DeJesus, an AFT vice president and NABE board member, inspired participants with her plea for respect for Puerto Ricans in a forum titled, "The Untold Story of Puerto Rico: Over 150 Days since Hurricane Maria." She told participants: "We need to stop treating Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens. They are American citizens, and it's unconscionable that they are still struggling to rebuild while the government drags its feet."

The AFT partnered with the National Indian Education Association, Pathways2Teaching and others from the AFT's teacher diversity collaborative to examine diversity, cultural competency and racial pedagogy in a variety of platforms. "Teachers need to be aware of their own cultural identity and views about difference in order to have the ability to learn and build on the varying backgrounds of their dynamically diverse student population," said Margarita Bianco, a University of Colorado Timmerhaus Teaching Ambassador and executive director of Pathways2Teaching.

Other speakers included Saul Ramirez, the Texas middle school teacher who wrote The Champions' Game, a book about the team of "border kids" from south-central El Paso who he coached to compete in national chess championships; and Regis Pecos, co-founder and co-director of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School, a culturally and community-based think tank addressing Native tribe issues in New Mexico. Workshops covered a broad swath of topics from oral history projects and project-based learning to bilingual music and movement, parent engagement and equitable assessment for multilingual learners.

The AFT has a deep commitment to ELL education and the people who need it. In addition to providing free resources and sponsoring the NABE conference, the AFT has led the way advocating for undocumented immigrants and dreamers, with "Know Your Rights" deportation defense trainings, resources to address anxiety and chronic stress among immigrant families, and constant advocacy on the state and federal policy level.

"We care about the civil rights of every person in our country," said Weingarten. "We will fight to protect dreamers and their families. … And we show up—in the classrooms, clinics and cubicles that AFT members do such great work in every day."

[Virginia Myers]