Within the last few years, the demographics of Barnard Environmental Science and Technology School has changed significantly. When I began teaching there four years ago, there was a large Multilingual (ML) population, but not enough to have a full-time ML teacher. The majority of the students who qualified for ML services spoke Spanish. In my first year of teaching at Barnard in 2017, the school began enrolling refugee families from Western Asia, primarily Afghanistan. Between 2017 and 2020 the number of students from Afghanistan rose exponentially, to the point where not only did the school administration make the original ML teacher full-time, but also decided to hire another full-time teacher, which is how I came to have my current job. As of 2021, very close to 50% of the ML students at Barnard speak Pashto, one of the languages of Afghanistan. Spanish is the second most spoken language, followed by Arabic.
I have been looking at the materials that the district has provided as well as what the school might be able to purchase in the future. Most of what I see for Newcomer and refugee students are textbooks explaining how to survive in a traditional American school. There are common phrases, basic English and many smiling faces. These textbooks can be useful, but they oversimplify or do not address the complexities of what it means to be an American, an immigrant or a refugee. They do not address how and why English came to be the language of this country or the racialized structure of U.S. society. They certainly do not touch on the role race (and racism) have in “English as a Second Language” education. By curating resources at various English language levels that positively affirm the identity of multilingual, immigrant, and refugee students, the connection to the content will become more meaningful. Allowing students to have an active role in curating the content and being able to tell their own stories will ensure that the narratives showcase their personal identity and present the message that they would like others to see.
Oftentimes, ML students, especially Newcomers, are seen as being in a deficit because they do not know English or are still learning English. They are excluded from many in-class activities and assignments. I want to disrupt this assumption about ML students as not being able to understand concepts that may be more complicated or require analysis and higher order thinking skills, like racism and its effects on education. Instead, I want ML students to feel as though they can not only grasp the content, but contribute to a better understanding for everyone through authentic representation and sharing of their experiences, languages, and cultures.