Bilingualism is a superpower

AFT members and leaders joined 2,700 participants at the National Association for Bilingual Educators conference Feb. 8-10 and were inspired by speakers like Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to embrace bilingualism as a superpower. They left the conference equipped with practical resources that will help them teach their English language learners in the best ways possible.

NABE conference

Cardona, a former ELL himself, talked about the important role educators play in reaching students and making them feel like they belong. “It is because of the bilingual educators I have been blessed to serve alongside that I often remind our students that their bilingualism and their biculturalism is their superpower,” Cardona told attendees at the New York City conference. Too often children for whom English is a second language are seen as less capable because their English skills are still developing, but Cardona rejects that notion: Bilingualism is an asset, not a deficit, he said, so much so that “multilingualism should be the norm, not the exception.”

The conference included many such affirmations from leaders like Betty Rosa, New York’s commissioner of education and president of the University of the State of New York (the state’s governmental umbrella organization for its public and private institutions); Ofelia Garcia, professor emerita of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York; Luis Reyes, member at large of the New York State Board of Regents; Maria Hinojosa, renowned journalist and longtime host of Latino USA; and local education leaders from across the country who shared their expertise and best practices in working with ELL students and their families.

Hands-on resources and 1 million books

The hands-on sessions, including several workshops led by AFT members, covered topics such as dual language immersion, gifted and talented bilingual education, avoiding burnout for ELL and bilingual teachers, supporting English language learners in math, empowering them through lessons in civics and democracy, and accessing federal and local funds to carry out these crucial services.

NABE conference
AFT President Randi Weingarten spoke about the resources the AFT offers on Share My Lesson and Colorín Colorado, two free, online platforms full of lesson plans, professional development and other guidance for ELL educators. “With our professional development we’re trying to make sure that people have the support and materials they need to have the skills to teach reading and literacy,” said Weingarten, who described the AFT’s current literacy campaign, Reading Opens the World, as part of that effort.

The multimillion-dollar campaign, launched in December, will distribute 1 million books to children across the country; set a national bookmobile in motion this March; build connections among families, communities, educators and schools; and offer robust professional development around the science of reading as well as hands-on resources to help students read and read well.

AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus led a conference panel on literacy that dove into the “why” of such a campaign. It’s about students like the ones Cindy Martin, the U.S. deputy secretary of education, taught: “The first book that they held was in that classroom,” she said. “The first crayon they held was in that classroom.” Teaching those children to read, and to love reading, truly does open the world for them.

NABE conference

But, asked Weingarten, “What happens if there are no books of their lived experience? What happens if there are no books in Spanish?” Reading Opens the World will distribute books in a variety of languages and that reflect diverse cultures.

Professional development identity and the future

The AFT campaign is not just about distributing books: Professional development is crucial. Travis Bristol, chair of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, advocates for pairing new teachers with board-certified teachers, and pointed conference participants to Atlas, the National Board’s online videos of veteran teachers at work. He also talked about having a board certification for teaching English language learners.

On another featured forum, Unapologetically Bilingual y Que?, DeJesus dove into the future of bilingual education with Supreet Anand, interim director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education; Margarita Pinkos, president of NABE; and Richard Carranza, former New York City schools chancellor. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that the only way ELL and multilingual learner students will get the services and support they need is to cut through the politicization of bilingualism. Parental empowerment is key to children’s academic success.

Another high point of the conference was a conversation between DeJesus and Maria Hinojosa, founder of Futuro Latino and 25-year host on the media outlet Latino USA. The two talked about Hinojosa’s new memoir, Once I Was You, detailing her journey as a Mexican American immigrant, making her voice heard in a male-dominated profession, and describing love and hate in a torn America. DeJesus noted how Hinojosa embraces her multiple identities—born in Mexico, raised in Southside Chicago, a resident of New York’s Harlem, Latina, indigenous, feminist. “I think that this idea of multiple identities speaks to our members,” said DeJesus.

Hinojosa talked about additional identities, calling out discriminatory treatment of Black migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border and comparing immigration detainment with the carceral system in the United States—calling for solidarity among people mistreated because of race, immigration and the carceral system.

She also remembered being a Mexican child in an American school and what a difference the kindness of teachers made And she recalled how, later, the college professors who really brought their whole selves to class, telling personal stories and allowing themselves to be vulnerable, built trust among their students.

“It was always about, ‘I’m right here with you,’” she said. And now, as a college professor herself, she said, that “is the way I teach.”

[Virginia Myers]