In the Classroom: My feet tap nervously on the tiled floor. My mind is on cognitive overload and I have the feeling of wanting to throw up. I wish for an interruption; a fire drill, a phone call to the room, an announcement over the school’s speakers, a yellow slip saying I have to go to the office because my mom is picking me up early, just ANYTHING to get me out of the current activity we are doing.
I look at the picture on my desk. It is covered in plastic so that the teacher can torture another child with it the following year. It is a fancy glass, curvy with white liquid. On top is a mountain kind of looking thing, white and perfectly done with a red cherry on top. I have already figured out that the white liquid is milk so I know it comes from a cow. I know this because even though I may not know enough English, I have had many interactions with milk: I pour it on my cereal every morning, my mom uses it to make a delicious breakfast we call “arroz con leche” (rice with milk), my dad loves to pour it over hot yams, my brothers and I put some into coffee to make it so yummy, I always have to grab a little carton of it for lunch and the carton has the word ‘milk’ in bright red, capital letters so without anyone telling me, I already know that “leche” is milk.
I know all this, but I still don’t know what category this picture belongs to. And soon it will be my turn to go up, in front of the entire class, and stick this thing into its food group. But I can’t figure it out. There are six groups up on the board, each represented with a different color. The teacher put the names of each group on a bright label, but that is all and I don’t know all the words. I already used my Spanish to help me know that fruit is “fruta” and vegetables are “vegetales.” But the other four are a big mystery and I just can’t make sense of them. One label says, ‘Bread, pasta, potatoes.’ I have never seen or heard those words and so far it is empty. Another says ‘Meat, fish and alternatives,’ and it already has a picture of what looks like a naked chicken all plucked and hunkered over. I am guessing that is the place to put things that come from animals, but I am not sure. The yellow group says, ‘Cheese and dairy.’ A student put a picture of a block of yellow in it. What is that? I scramble through my mind, trying to think of my family’s once a week visits to the grocery store. Had I seen anything like that? Did we ever eat something that looked like a yellow block? I didn’t think so. The last group was small but it had an extremely long label, ‘Fats, oils and confectionaries.’
“Lorena!” the teacher hollered my name and it threw me out of my long chain of desperate thinking. Time was up.
With my heart hammering in my throat and my legs feeling like gelatin, I pushed away from my desk as if it was pulling me back, and slowly made my way to the board. My sweaty, nervous hands began to tug at the picture, folding the corners.
“Don’t do that!” admonished the teacher.
His reprimand accompanied with his glare that I was getting all too familiar with, only made me feel small and to wish I could run away. But I was stuck and my feet made their own decision to move me closer to the board.
The gaze of 20 something pairs of eyes on my back was tangible. I couldn’t see my classmates, but I knew they were all watching. I took another frantic look over the food groups pleading for a miracle. None came. No interruptions either. With hesitant hands, I quickly jabbed the picture next to the naked chicken. Milk came from cows and cows were an animal and this group had an animal in it.
The class burst into laughter. Did they think I was being funny? Or was this like all those other times when they laughed AT me, thinking, ‘jeez this girl knows NOTHING!’ I swallowed the hard lump of my heart in my throat, snatched the picture back and slapped it on the bottom group: Bread, pasta, potatoes. More laughter, uncontrollable this time. The teacher immediately stepped in, but first he shot me another glare.
Teaching Implications: No child, not even language learners or children of a different race, are empty vessels. They come to the classroom having had experiences AND language that they can use to make sense of what is happening within the classroom walls. We need to know our students, all of them, so we are familiar with who they are because they are people too. Let’s tap into their experiences, their knowledge, and most of all their language instead of thinking they know nothing.
Develop a community where students support and learn from each other. We are not the only teachers in the room. And our behavior is used by students as a model of how they should respond to each other. Glare at a child and the students will take your cue as a sign of how this student deserves to be treated. So they pick up on your glares and other body language and begin to treat the student in a similar fashion, often in worse ways.
Allow students to talk. Establish your expectations for partner talk routines and group work. What would have happened had I just been allowed to talk to one of my classmates about the picture in my hands?
We take for granted how much we teach with words, spoken words. It doesn’t take too much time (especially now when we can easily search with Google images) to get visuals and incorporate them into lessons. We can even make quick sketches in the moment to support new vocabulary.
Lifelong Implications: I am certain we all have nuggets of memories from our early school days. There are many different reasons of why we cling to those memories.
This memory tugs at me quite often. Because of it, I now see how in the preceding years of school I put my efforts towards fading into the classroom walls and becoming invisible. I was not the student with a hand raised or the student who wanted to be table monitor much less line leader. And if ever I was called on by the teacher, my face would first turn bright red and it always made my stomach go upside down and then I would barely mumble something out. This still happens.
I was suddenly embarrassed by my family and our culture. I had witnessed firsthand how everything I knew and was familiar with was not validated in school. So what if we had milk in our house? The way we used it didn’t count in school. Apparently all our visits to the grocery store didn’t matter because we didn’t buy yellow cheese in yellow blocks (ours was white and came in a wheel shape and we crumbled it over enchiladas, beans, and lots of over foods). And our language wasn’t helpful. Actually my first language got in the way of me learning. All of this came to my realization from that milkshake. And it has taken many years (honestly I am still working on it) to undo the damage and embrace who I am (Mexican culture and all) and to see how beautiful Spanish is and that it is a language worthy of knowing.
Lastly, I am so afraid of getting up in front of people. After that moment, I recall almost dying every time I had to do a presentation or a report or a speech or whatever other confounded project teachers made up to get students to show their learning. I remember many sleepless nights as I lay worrying in bed. Would they laugh at me, would they think I was dumb?