Lifting the Voices of Multilingual Student-Writers by Emily Rosenblum
I take a deep breath. My hand inches toward a button that I frequently hit by mistake.
Now I am terrified to touch it, even accidentally.
I know my writing in my second language is not perfect.
With an unsteady hand, I click the “send” button and submit a draft of my first complete paper written entirely in my second language.
I hope those who read it understand.
Like those I teach, I was once a student of a new language.
I am now privileged to teach emerging bilingual students who grapple with knowing what the world values. They wonder if what they have to say will meet the “approval” of those around them.
They have stories to tell but wonder if they will be heard.
Sometimes, despite our best attempts to incorporate culturally sustaining pedagogies, students know that their stories may be unheard, generalized, or invalidated if they do not tell what the school expects.
Many language learners experience a “silent period” when learning a new language. They fear saying or writing anything because it could be considered wrong.
Silence is not golden.
The challenge of being an emergent bilingual writer is one where the spotlight too frequently shines on the “emergent” part and neglects to validate the beauty of the “bilingual” part.
This challenge tells a story about what our society values.
Our students know it.
Yet, despite the challenge of writing in another language, our multilingual students have an immense privilege. Their stories weave a basket across languages and cultures.
Teachers must embrace students’ stories and validate them as worthy. Otherwise, everyone loses.
A student writing a narrative once informed me that she had no good ideas. Yet she is a great storyteller!
We brainstormed, looked at mentor texts, and brainstormed some more. She ended up writing a heartfelt piece about a tiny moment when she was reintroduced to her mom for the first time in years.
Then I remembered.
Pushing “submit” in this world means that some people might not see her story as important. They might tokenize it or generalize it. That is unnerving at best.
Layer those feelings with being a preteen.
No wonder our students choose silence.
Writing is a statement, an act of courage, an act of persistence, and for some, an act of resistance.
When teaching emergent bilingual students to write, I am also teaching them to find validity in their language acquisition process and to understand that dialogue and certain words might be better represented in a language other than English.
There is a process to language acquisition. It is a lot of work, but the outcome is glorious!
It requires celebration to ensure the continuation and avoid the suppression of stories that could beautifully come to light bilingually.
My job description implicitly reads that I am to validate the stories my students share, to help ease the tension when they have to submit writing. They can exercise the privilege of being bilingual.
Every curriculum should ensure that emergent bilingual students can submit their writing without fear.
Teachers have the privilege to be able to lift the voices of multilingual learners. We can use multilingual mentor texts and help our students and ourselves grow when we work together to revise their work for clarity and understanding.
Our multilingual students need the space to tell their stories.
Will you provide it?
Emily Rosenblum is an elementary ESOL teacher in Northern New Jersey. Her second language is the majority of her students’ first language and she spends a lot of time with her students sharing stories and ideas.