Helen Westmoreland: Buenos días and welcome to another very special episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. Today we have a very special episode and we're going bilingual.
Welcome to another episode of Notes from the Backpack, Notas de la Mochila, a PTA podcast. If this is the first time you’re tuning in [00:01:00], I’m your cohost, Helen Westmoreland, National PTA’s Director of Family Engagement.
As you will have noticed, today we have a very special episode, recorded entirely in Spanish. This week’s topic is: how can you be sure your children are getting the support they need at school? I’m joined by a very special guest cohost.
Cynthia Mejía: Hi, I’m Cynthia Mejía, National PTA’s Membership Outreach Manager [00:01:30]. I’m really looking forward to help facilitate the conversation today so that Spanish-speaking families can address all the obstacles they face, whether it’s a matter of struggling to understand the language, or the fact they are unfamiliar with the United States school system.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. How do you navigate the US school system if you don’t speak English? How can you be sure you and your children get the services you need? We’re going to answer these questions [00:02:00] in this week’s episode.
Helen: Absolutely, Cynthia. Learning English is a challenge for both families and children. Some schools have a broad set of services for students to learn English, while others struggle to obtain services. Spanish speakers also face communication challenges with the schools, and sometimes with their children.
What should you do? [00:02:30] This is why we’re really looking forward to talk Doctor Lorena Mancilla, who is here today to help support our children. Dr. Lorena Mancilla is the Director of WIDA Early Years. She is an educator with over 15 years’ experience in the field of bilingual education and language learning.
Her work with students and parents, together with the experiences of her own family, have led her to become an advocate [00:03:00] for parents of students in bilingual programs or English-learning programs.
She received her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her area of research is with Latina families and family engagement practices to support the language development of students and their academic success. Dr. Mancilla, thank you for being here.
Lorena Mancilla: Hello, hi, good afternoon. Thank you so much for having me here and letting me [00:03:30] talk to you and share a little of the information with this podcast’s listeners. I’m very proud to be here and I want you to know that it’s not just me who’s proud, but also my family—my mom, my dad, my grandparents—who know I’m here with you and that I have this opportunity.
Helen: Could you start off by telling us a little about yourself? What motivated you to become a bilingual teacher, [00:04:00] and then a researcher and an advocate for your students and their parents?
Lorena: I decided to become a teacher because of the experiences I had at school. I come from a Mexican background. My family is from Michoacán. My parents have been in this country for just over 50 years, and for my mom and dad, education was always a top priority. They made sure that, from a very young age, my sister, my brother and I [00:04:30] learned we had to finish school, graduate, and be successful. That’s what was expected.
For me, when I decided to become a teacher, I wanted to have the opportunity to work with Hispanic students because when I went to school, where we used to live at the time, there weren’t many Hispanics in that community. At school, I always felt alone. My Spanish teacher [00:05:00] in seventh grade, she learned Spanish as a second language. I never had a bilingual Hispanic teacher.
I decided to become a teacher because I wanted to work in communities like my own, helping Hispanic families. I was a seventh- and eighth-grade bilingual teacher. I have been working with WIDA for 10 years now. WIDA is an organization that belongs to the University of [00:05:30] Wisconsin in Madison. We are dedicated to developing resources and services that focus on helping language students to succeed, particularly those who are learning English.
In my WIDA Early Years program, we focus on early education, supporting the teachers, state leaders and leaders of programs that work with the youngest children who are learning English [00:06:00] and other languages at home and in their early-education programs.
We work here in America in the WIDA consortium. There are 40 state agencies that are part of our consortium and also nearly 450 international schools that use WIDA resources.
I decided to go back to school to finish my PhD [00:06:30] in the area of family engagement because, in my work as a teacher, I realized the importance of families and at the same time I noticed all the challenges they may encounter when getting involved in the school.
They don’t speak English, are unfamiliar with the system, but at the same time, I noticed that the schools lack the know-how to help the teachers, to know how to form a [00:07:00] relationship with families, how to invite families into the school and to feel welcomed when they come to the school and to be part of their children’s education.
Cynthia: The term English-language learners, or ELL, has a specific meaning in American schools.
Could you tell us more about how this this term is used and what steps need to be followed to obtain this designation?
Lorena: It’s a term [00:07:30] used in the school system, and it comes from federal and state policies. For many parents, they don’t see their children as an English learner. I say to parents, “You just have to know that this term exists to know whether the student qualifies to receive services in support of language development, especially in English.”
The reason why you need to know that is [00:08:00] because if your children qualify and are identified as English learners, they have many rights to receive assistance and services for their studies, to make sure your children can achieve academic success, and to make sure they can understand what it is they are being taught.
Sometimes parents recognize, or do understand, or do know that these programs exist. Each type of program has [00:08:30] its goal. A bilingual program may be transitional bilingual, or it may dual bilingual, but the goal is for students to become bilingual. They are offered support in their native language, and they are offered support in English learning so that the children will become bilingual.
For example, the goal of the ESL program is to learn English. It’s not designed to help them become bilingual. [00:09:00] That’s where parents sometimes say to me, “Oh Miss, I didn’t know that, they put my son in ESL.” Then they ask me, “So, why don’t they offer bilingual?”
Cynthia: When a child is designated as ELL or ESL, what is the process for them obtaining that label or that designation as ELL?
Lorena: How does that happen? Okay, that’s where it gets interesting [laughs]. There are federal laws and then there are state laws. They have to be given an assessment, [00:09:30] to assess their linguistic development in English. If my child is given this assessment, it’s going to look at how much English my child knows, how much he or she is able to communicate in the areas of speaking, writing, reading and listening.
Normally, for students in grades one through twelve, they are given an assessment that measures the four areas of speaking, listening
[00:10:00] reading and writing in English.
Young children, little ones who are entering kinder, are simply given an assessment to measure their speaking and listening skills in English. There’s no reading and writing assessment for them.
As I work in WIDA, nearly 40 states use WIDA assessments to identify a student’s skills. When parents register or enroll a student in [00:10:30] a school, they fill out a form that normally asks them if there is another language spoken at home. If the parents check the box that says there is another language spoken at home, they have to be given this assessment. It all depends on the children’s results, and each state may be different.
If they are identified as an English learner, the parents have the right to receive information in a way that they [00:11:00] are able to understand about which examination they were given, when the assessment was done, what the results were, and what types of services the child is going to be offered. If the child was identified as an English learner, the parents have the right to accept or reject the services.
Helen: You spoke about services and programs for children designated as English learners. Can you give us a few [00:11:30] examples? What are these types of services and support?
Lorena: The most common type of program is ESL. For example, the student can work with an ESL teacher. What that teacher does is to help the student in different ways. They can take an ESL class, the teacher can work with the child’s other teachers in supporting and sharing [00:12:00] strategies that may be used to make sure the student understands the information they are being given in their classes.
So the teachers give their classes in, say, Spanish, and also in English, because the goal of that program is for the children to be bilingual.
There are different types of programs. It may be what is known as transitional bilingual, where, normally in kindergarten, [00:12:30] first, second, or third grade, it may be Spanish and the children start switching to English.
A dual program, so in those programs the goal there is for the children to continue in both languages for several years. Typically, they continue on up to eighth grade, perhaps even to high school, with both languages because the children manage to become bilingual.
I always tell families that they [00:13:00] have the right to know which type of program their child is going to be offered. I always say to moms and dads, if you don’t understand the translation you are entitled to ask, “How are you going to support my child.” Every year they must be given the information about how their children are coming along in English learning, what their academic grades are, and if they are in bilingual programs, how they are developing in the other language, and in this case, if it’s a [00:13:30] bilingual English and Spanish program, how their children are doing in Spanish and how they’re doing in English.
Cynthia: Dr. Mancilla, thank you very much for sharing that. Now, we’ve heard about cases where ELL students aren’t catered for so well. We have heard of cases where there are other children or other students in the same classroom who are required to act as interpreters for other children, or sometimes for their parents.
In those cases, can you tell us what would be some of the challenges you see [00:14:00] ELL students coming up against in our system?
Lorena: The reality is that the students in our schools are very diverse, and more and more of them are speaking different languages, not just English, not just Spanish. But now in this country, the important thing is to know that English is the number one language, that is, in terms of speakers, but Spanish is next.
It is also a reality [00:14:30] that most of our teachers in this country are not bilingual, or multilingual. So, in my opinion, that’s where the problem lies. But there are also strategies that can be used to help students. There are more and more resources for teachers. Teachers are offered career development workshops, but what I say in my work with Hispanic parents, [00:15:000] I tell them, every year your children will be given an assessment to measure their linguistic development in English.
Depending on the student’s level, that’s where a teacher has to make decisions about how to support that student in a way that is appropriate to the student and the level of English he or she has.
Of course, classmates may be used. It’s easy to say “Okay, I have one [00:15:30] group of students, four of whom speak Spanish. As a teacher who doesn’t speak Spanish, I’m going to ask these students to help me.” That can be done, but by law, a student or another child must not be used to translate during conferences with families.
Helen: For Spanish-speaking parents, sometimes their children don’t want to speak Spanish. What do you recommend they do to enhance their Spanish [00:16:00] and their English learning?
Lorena: When I give workshops or presentations with Hispanic parents, I always say to them at the beginning, “I’m going to apologize right now because I know that I’m going to forget how to say something or mispronounce something, or, oh good lord, I’m not going to conju—” Conjugate? How do you say that?
Lorena: “Conjugate my verbs or I’m going to forget an accent.” They always laugh and I tell them I began listening to both languages when I was a baby, but I reached a point where I could no longer speak in Spanish. I spoke really mocho [broken] as they say in my family. And by the time I was 12 years old, it was really difficult because I only spoke English. I’ve been trying to improve my Spanish communication skills for more than 30 years now, to read and write it, because I never had the chance to [00:17:00] study it formally.
I took classes in Spanish as a second language. Now, imagine me there, aged 13, in seventh grade, taking my Spanish-as-a-second-language class, and there they were teaching me how to say “Hi, my name is Lorena.” Of course, I knew how to say that. What I needed was more experience with reading and writing Spanish, and in having different kinds of conversations. I like to share with parents [00:17:30] that it’s a fact that their children can lose their ability to communicate in Spanish.
That’s true for various immigrant groups in this country. They lose the language if they don’t use it. In my work I have had the opportunity to meet many, many educators for one reason or another, Hispanic, Chicano teachers, who live in New Mexico, in Colorado, in California, [00:18:00] who say, “Well, when my dad was at school, they’d hit him if he spoke Spanish, so he stopped speaking Spanish and he’d never let us speak Spanish at home.”
So there are many reasons why families sometimes say, “No, I don’t want you speaking Spanish, I only want you speaking English.” But the truth is, Spanish is a language spoken in most of the world.
The other day I was reading [00:18:30] in my social networks that if you speak Spanish you can communicate with 85% of the people in the world. So, being able to speak Spanish is a benefit in the future if you want to maintain communication with your families.
Many parents say to me, “Well, their grandparents can’t speak English. If my children can’t speak Spanish, they won’t be able to communicate with their grandparents.” So, right now your children may be [00:19:00] starting to speak more and more in English, because of school, because of their friends, the electronic games they’re playing, their use of social networks, everything is in English, and perhaps they aren’t yet thinking about the future or the opportunities they have, or that they are going to have if they are bilingual. However, I think there comes a point where, like me, they will find it hard to improve their ability to communicate in Spanish. It can be done, but it’s not easy.
Cynthia: [00:19:30] Yes, I agree with you. In fact, Helen and I were just talking about how different a Latino home is. It may be that the grandmother speaks Spanish, but no English at all, and the parents speak mostly Spanish, but very little or limited English. And then the children, maybe they do speak Spanish, but very little, because they gradually lose it, and they communicate better in English. So we do see many of those differences.
Now I want to ask you, what advice do you have for [00:20:00] families that are concerned about their children’s language development and what can they do at home to help their children?
Lorena: I always say to parents that the most important thing—especially if they are not offered services or a bilingual program at school—the most important thing a Spanish-speaking family can do is to speak Spanish with their children. They need to offer them those opportunities because if the school only has an English program, ESL, [00:20:30] then where are they going to learn Spanish?
And then parents often say to me, “Well, I do want my children to be bilingual in the future.” Many parents recognize the benefits of being bilingual, and I say to them, “Okay, let’s see, what sort of bilingual speaker do you want your child to be in the future?” They stare back at me and say, “What do you mean by what kind, Miss?” And I say to them “Well yes, what kind of bilingual speaker? What kind of job do you imagine or do you want your child to have in the future?”
[00:21:00] And many parents say to me, “Well, something professional, in an office, a doctor, a lawyer, but bilingual,” and I say to them, “Okay, so your child will need to have the opportunity to be able to read, write, speak and listen in Spanish.”
So yes, it depends on the kind of bilingual skill. In my case, for example, I was bilingual for many years in speaking and listening. There are things that can be done, but giving your children the opportunity [00:21:30] to speak and listen to their native language at home does help them, and it also helps them learn concepts and vocabulary in English.
Helen: That’s very good advice, thank you. Given that most families don’t have access to an ideal school system, what can they do within the current system to defend the needs of their children? [00:22:00] What should they ask their children’s teachers?
Lorena: It can be difficult, but it’s not impossible to find a teacher or someone who works in the school district—maybe sometimes, in English we call it family liaison—someone who knows how to navigate the school system or the school district, to help them.
For example, I know [00:22:30] a group of parent leaders in a school district near here in the city of Chicago. It’s called District 83, in Mannheim, here in Illinois, and the group of parent leaders are Hispanic moms, many of whom don’t speak English. They’re really dedicated to the success of their children and, little by little, step by step, they’ve learned what they need to do, what they can do [00:23:00] to work alongside teachers to help their students be successful.
For this group of parent leaders, what a district can do is provide parents with opportunities to learn leadership skills to become leaders and work alongside the teachers. They can give advice and opinions about what they would like for their children, [00:23:30] and they can also become more involved in class as volunteers.
This group of moms, from District 83, I’ve seen them organize an event, a conference for Hispanic parents in their district. And they have done this now for four years, but little by little—to me it’s fantastic because the moms always love helping their community—but it’s also with the support of the principals and teachers [00:24:00] of that district. They have to work together.
Helen: I think it’s very important for parents to know that they have rights, that there is support, there are services, and they can do something to change the system if it’s not working for their children. What resources do you suggest for families who want to know more?
Lorena: I know that on the WIDA website we have resources in Spanish about family engagement. [00:24:30] In particular, I'm thinking of a document that we published four years ago now, but it’s in Spanish and it has some examples of questions parents can ask in relation to whether their children are identified as English learners. It also provides a few examples of parent leaders.
Another web page, because I often [00:25:00] hear it mentioned as an example when I do workshops or presentations with parents, is the Colorín Colorado web page, which has a lot of bilingual resources. But as I always say, when teachers say to me, “We wish the parents in our community were involved here in these events. We offer them workshops, topics, and presentations, but they don’t show up.” So I say to the teachers, “If you want them to come along, ask them what it is they’d like to learn.”
[00:25:30] And the example I give is of this group of parent-leader moms whom I know. They offer up and organize workshops that are of interest to their community, and they always have a lot of parents attending them.
Cynthia: Perfect. Dr. Mancilla, given what we have talked about today, what is the one thing you think the listeners should remember? Could you tell us one thing that the parents listening today can do to support their children’s education?
Lorena: Hispanic parents listening to this show, I want you to know that all the sacrifices [00:26:00] you make for your children are important, and I assure you that in the future your children are going to recognize all the sacrifices you have made for them, that you make in your homes, and perhaps you are also volunteers, it all counts.
For me, I think the most important thing is for a child to know that his or her family is there, that it’s behind them. Parents, you have a very important role in your children’s [00:26:30] education. I know it’s difficult sometimes and not all of us have the opportunity to sit down and read a book to our children or help them with their assignments, but saying, “Honey, I love you, your studies are important,” that counts.
All the sacrifices you make, because I know many families have to work two or three jobs and can’t go to the school, that’s okay because you’re making a sacrifice for your children, and sooner or later [00:27:00] your children will recognize that.
Cynthia: Thank you so much. I congratulate you and I congratulate your parents for having helped shape education so much and for contributing so much of value to education. I think it’s had an impact not just on your own family, but on many students you have taught. Before we go, could you share with us some of your social media accounts where our listeners can find out more about your work?
Lorena: Listeners of this show can visit the WIDA website, which is [00:27:30] wida.wisc.edu. They can find me, Doctor Mancilla on Twitter too, under my name, that’s @ladramancilla, and also WIDA, which is @WIDAConsortium.
Helen: Thank you so much, Dr. Mancilla, and thank you also to my cohost Cynthia. To everyone who’s listening to us, thank you for being here. [00:28:00] Continue the conversation on this topic using the hashtag #backpacknotes on your social networks. We hope you tune in again next time.
Presenter: Thank you for tuning into Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. Be sure to follow us on social media at National PTA and online at PTA.org/backpacknotes.