Cortney R. Costa
Imagine walking into your new classroom on the first day of school, looking at the beautiful posters, pictures and books displayed around the room. Envision yourself watching as your peers stare at these objects, imagining themselves in the places of these characters. Still, as your imagination is trying to place you in these fictional settings, your subconscious just will not allow it. You sit down at your desk and listen to the teacher introduce you to her classroom library. You are overjoyed to hear that you are able to borrow and take home any book you want as long as you promise to take care of it. Still, as your new teacher gives you a glimpse into some of her favorite picture and chapter books, you can't help but wonder why none of these seem all that appealing to you. You soon realize after losing yourself in your thoughts that this classroom reflects some of the students who will spend the year learning here, but not you. There are no pictures of students like you, no books that contain characters like you, and no representations of you anywhere in the room.
You are a Latino student, in America, where you just don't feel at home. You have no connection to the books you are reading, and you feel completely isolated from your peers. Because of this, you shut down academically and decide that you were not meant to be a high-achiever. From this day forward, you will do only the bare minimum necessary to get by. The days of pushing yourself forward and striving for excellence were left behind the day you realized that your school does not reflect all of its members. You will finish your academic career without showing the world what you can do. Maybe you will go on to college, but sadly, you may assume that you aren't meant to be there either, so you immediately begin working. Still in your work environment you do only what you need to do to get by, because by this time, that moral has been instilled in you. It is too late for you to realize that your work ethic does not allow your full potential to shine through.
The past description is a frightening reality for many Latino students in schools today. I can remember being in elementary school, struggling to take on all the changes and learning of an academic life. I cannot imagine adding a feeling of isolation, and the struggle with battling two languages onto that list. Still, many students are confronted with these challenges daily. As educators, it is our responsibility to show the students that every ethnicity, language, gender and personality is an essential part of our classroom. Feeling safe and loved in a classroom can allow each student to reach higher goals, and achieve greatness.
I currently teach fourth grade in a building that is on its way to becoming a kindergarten through eighth grade Dual Language Program. In this program, the goal is for the students to become equally fluent in English as in Spanish as well as to learn the greatness that each individual brings to a classroom. This program has made phenomenal gains in the arguments about and solutions to the struggles of English Language Learners. Still, this learning environment cannot succeed without the support of materials that allow the students to "see themselves" in the literature they are reading.
New Haven has recently created and implemented Keys to Comprehension, a shared reading curriculum designed to use with whole-class instruction, and to carry into your literacy centers and guided reading groups. The program teaches the importance of fluency, and comprehension, while tying in the skills necessary to succeed on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT). Although I feel that this program is a phenomenal model, I noticed that it contained only one book that told the story of a Latino character. Because my classroom is over ninety percent Hispanic, I immediately realized the necessity of finding literature that allows students to connect with the characters on a deep, personal, even cultural level.
I chose to teach the book Esperanza Rising by Pam Mu–oz Ryan to allow students to see and understand the struggles of a family moving into a new country. I expect that many of my students will understand and recognize those struggles, and also connect with them. I believe that many of my Latino students will have a better insight into these struggles and adjustments than I ever could. Many of my other students also come from families that arrived to New Haven within the last generation or two, so will be able to connect to these experiences. In this unit, I plan to help the families of my students to share and write down their experiences in adjusting to life in a new city. I feel that this will be extremely beneficial to my students, but also to their children, and the generations to come. The experience is not one to be taken lightly, and I believe that it is beneficial for children to see the struggles their family has overcome to better their life.
Although this unit is designed for Latino students, it can be used with, and benefit students of all ethnicities. It is intended to expose all students to the struggles of families who have come to America, and the adaptations they must make to a new culture and environment. By the end of this unit, I hope that the students have understood the pain and the reward involved in moving from one area to another. I also hope to spark interest in those students who may be withdrawn from their own culture, and where their family originated from.