Family language: my family's sounds. The voices of my parents and sisters and brother. Their voices insisting: You belong here. We are family members. Related. Special to one another. Listen!
Richard Rodriguez, "Aria," 1982
We all come from our families, our childhood homes. One way or another, we have become the people who we are today, owing to our previous life in the parents' house. And our voices today take their origin in the remote days when we were just boys and girls. Richard Rodriguez, the Mexican-American writer, points out that a native language spoken by members of a family creates a sense of intimacy and, therefore, belonging. Belonging: what a desired feeling it is! We all want to belong - to the society, family, neighborhood, church community, other professionals, etc. We surely want our children to belong to these communities too. So, we all should speak the language that is functional within those circles of belonging. And the point is that, in order to belong to different communities, we sometimes must learn to use different languages, or to use language in different ways.
Students that I work with are Spanish speakers. Their language is one of the most meaningful indicators of their culture. They simply love speaking it wherever they can. It forms the way their voices sound, even if they speak English. Their Spanish gives them a sense of belonging. But they are learning English, so as to belong to communities outside the home. Rather than force them to give up the language of belonging they know in order to acquire a new one, I want to find ways to build on it and use it as a bridge to the use of English. I strive to teach English in a way that incorporates my students' fluency in Spanish and their background in Latin American culture - rather than ignores or suppresses these dimensions of their experience.
Our voice serves as a vital part of our identity, so we obviously cannot conceal our cultural and family belonging when we have a chance to use voice. As a teacher, I hope to carry this message to my students, and together with them begin an exciting journey into discovering and strengthening their distinctive voices. Family, culture, identity, voice - these important concepts intertwine so closely, that speaking of one of these, we automatically refer to the other three. I want my students to realize that when they speak passionately, they reveal something about their family and their culture. As writers, they should capitalize on this fact and learn how to make
voice an integral part of their writing. Sounding in American society - this multilingual and multicultural world, their unique voices, exhibitive of their culture, will add a peculiar "Latino flavor" to the American "salad bowl."1
Moreover, I don't want my students to be "embarrassed by (their) ethnicity," as Julia Alvarez, the Dominican American writer, was. She confesses: "the problem was that the American culture [. . .] left us out, and so we felt we had to give up being Dominicans to be Americans. [. . .] For many years, I didn't have a vocabulary or context to write about the issues I had faced or was facing. I didn't know it could be done. I had never seen it done. I had, in fact, been told it couldn't be done." She realized then that she needed "to put together (her) Dominican and American selves." Through observing other bicultural writers, she gradually learned how "to put her Spanish in her English": "I set out to write about my own experience as a Dominican American."2
Julia Alvarez also describes the process of discovering voice through childhood memories, the first world that is left behind. She writes in the chapter "Of Maids and Other Muses" from
Something to Declare
that she found her voice when she wrote down in her journal "this beautiful vocabulary of . . .(her) girlhood." The miraculous discovery happened when she could see her "Mami and the aunts with the cook in the kitchen bending their heads over a pot of
, arguing about what flavor was missing." She continues: "the thought of Mami recalled Gladys, and that thought led me through the house, the mahogany furniture that needed dusting, the beds that needed making, the big bin of laundry that needed washing." Thus, her "housekeeping poems" were brought to life, "using the metaphors, details, language of . . .(her) first apprenticeship as a young girl."3
Timothy Dwight Elementary school, where I have been working since 2004, is a small inner city school in New Haven, Connecticut. Its student population is constituted by mostly African-American and Hispanic students who originate from Latin American countries: Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and elsewhere. I am servicing bilingual students for whom English is not a native language and who have been in the district Transitional Bilingual Education Program for more than thirty months (they spend the first thirty months in bilingual classrooms with the support of their native tongue). Thus, every year I have my ESL (English as a Second Language) sessions with about thirty or thirty five children, who are primarily third and fourth graders.
Helping bilingual students to master the English language more effectively and efficiently, I strive to guide them to realize themselves as offspring of their native countries, who should preserve their cultural identity. As I get to know other cultures, I am fascinated by their uniqueness and originality. I believe that children who come from other cultures should learn about them and promote them. However, I observe how little my students are able to share about their cultural differences. This unfortunate situation is partially conditioned by the fact that most of the children were born in the United States, within a different from the country of their parents' origin cultural context. Sometimes, though the only language spoken in the family is Spanish, it becomes difficult to preserve and practice other cultural forms. Some families are unable to promote their native culture in another country, especially when these families are headed by a single parent or grandparents, and the adults are busy coping with various socioeconomic problems.
In mainstream elementary classrooms, lessons about a writer's voice are usually put aside until a better time. There is so much of the curriculum to cover, and so many tests kids have to take, that a teacher often does not have the "luxury" of time, to dwell on one of the central elements of a solid piece of writing: the voice. As a teacher taking students from their mainstream classroom to another room (ELL classroom), I do have an excellent opportunity to fill in those overlooked but still very significant aspects of the language mastery, such as voice.
Most teachers would perhaps agree that teaching voice is a challenging task. How do you do it? Is it possible to teach voice? What is voice? Though these questions are difficult, we should figure out the answers if we want to receive excellent writing from our students. To be more exact, I would say that our job as teachers is not to teach voice, but to draw out the awareness of the voice that every student has. Some of our students are lucky to be aware of the power that their voices have over readers. It is a true pleasure to hear those voices breaking through the plots of their stories. These students are lucky because of the books that have been read to them. Their favorite authors have influenced them through anger, sadness, humor, and other emotions. Donald Murray tells us, "It is the voice that attracts us to the story and makes us believe or not believe it. Voice is the magic that is hard to describe, but it is the most important element in the story, the music that supports and holds the story together."4 I could not say it better. Voice is always individual, recognizable, confident. It keeps our eyes glued to a story about sports cars, even though we did not think we cared much about sports cars. It sparkles with the passion that the writer has for the topic and that becomes clear and loud. A few students are lucky - they have their voices; the majority, though, are not.
Teaching students who come from Latin American countries, I want to help them find their voices through appealing to their cultural background, a subject some of them probably know well. Also, reading Latin American authors will encourage them to identify with the narrators who speak very explicitly about their Latino culture. Both of these factors - their own experiences of their culture's language, food, music, celebrations, etc., and newly acquired knowledge from books about the Latino identity - will enable students to create their unique voices based on cultural belonging.
Ruth Culham insists that "voice is the driving force behind effective writing, so the sooner we introduce it to students, the better."5 For myself, I can add that the sooner we draw the attention of our students to their cultural roots, the sooner their voices become unquestionably individual. If we want their writing to sound like them, then we must recognize their cultural identity. Let them write about their everyday lives, families, holidays, foods, traditions - everything that constitutes their culture, and we will hear the distinctive voices of Latin American kids.
This unit is designed for fourth grade bilingual students. It may cover a period of six weeks. I will teach the content material in the same sequence as it appears in the description of this unit.