This semester, I have an action research class. For those of you who don’t know, action research is sort of like research you do while teaching. It’s kind of a collaborative effort between yourself and your students. And I’ve been in the difficult situation of picking a topic, and where better to hash out some of my ideas than right here? My first step is picking a topic, or a question to answer.
Since my first volunteer day at the elementary, I’ve noticed comments from teachers about Marshallese students seeming less engaged than Spanish speaking students. But I’ve also noticed far more Spanish-English resources than Marshallese-English resources, for which there are roughly… 0. There’s a good reason for this. Lots of people make Spanish-English resources. Nobody makes Marshallese-English resources. In fact, my word processor doesn’t think Marshallese is a word. This is how little Americans, at the very least, are familiar with Marshallese language and culture.
Thus, my first thought was to work with students to create Marshallese-English resources, like posters and books. There are two purposes behind this. Aside from creating resources to help future students, I would have the opportunity to show the Marshallese students that I value their language and culture. But after some preliminary research, I discovered Marshallese is primarily a spoken language, with the written tradition only having come around within the last century. Thus, I have to further modify that plan to search for oral resources we can create.
But wait! There’s more! Sometimes, students’ parents, wanting them to learn English, do not give them sufficient input in the native language (and knowing little English, also do not give them sufficient input in English, meaning the students arrive at school with almost no language, are really learning English as a late L1, not an L2.) I’m saying this in general. This happens in some families who do not have English, but want their children to have it. The rationale is good, but many non-linguists don’t realize the damage that can be done by not teaching a child a language. (Similarly, many non-linguists don’t realize that children are perfectly capable of learning two, three, four languages from birth, as long as they are given sufficient input. i.e. if one parent speaks English to the child and the other speaks Spanish to the child, the child will learn both languages, just as well as he would learn only one of them–this is one cause of people not teaching their native languages to children–though there are also sociopolitical reasons, of course.) Anyway, to return to my point, I can’t say for certain that all of these students (Marshallese or Spanish speaking) do, in fact, speak their parents’ language, until I hear it. That means that native language resources of any sort may be out of the question until I can determine students’ linguistic abilities. And seeing as students progress each year, it would have to be a new research project conducted every year.
But language aside, there is also a cultural question. We know little enough about the culture of our Spanish speakers. (Since starting work, I have heard stories about teachers researching different countries to try to pick out what student behaviors may be culturally based, as well as comments which show the obvious lack of research.) Our knowledge of Marshallese culture is even smaller, and it’s more difficult to research. Furthermore, I sometimes hear teachers make comments which I believe imply that English and American culture are superior, as well as students telling the teacher “he’s speaking Spanish,” the way they would say “he’s looking at my paper.” All of this worries me. I am aware of English-only laws in my state, as well as the need to use English to practice it. But I want these students to know that their cultures and languages are valued. But to do that, we must educate teachers about these cultures. And we must use this knowledge in our classes. And I think it would be great if we could use cultural materials too. But where do we begin? Like I already said, we don’t have a lot of resources regarding Marshallese culture. And we don’t always have a lot of resources regarding South American cultures either… except, of course, the resource I’ve been talking about all this time, the students. Is there a way that teachers could collaborate with students (and perhaps their families also?) to create multicultural units, activities, and resources? This may be my new mission. Now I have to determine the first step.