Category Archives: Ethnic Studies

Tend the linguistic garden


Colin Baker (Baker, 2001, p.53) comments that language diversity requires planning and care. He uses an analogy of a garden to illustrate his point. Smaller flowers may be in need of more protection, and sometimes radical action needs to be taken to preserve particular plants. Baker comments earlier on that language shift is more common than language stability. This intuitively makes sense but it complicates the preservation of languages that are not viewed as high status and/or are spoken by a small group of people. The Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights (1996) is a beautiful document to read but it is difficult not to view it as a utopia for language communities. It is a critical document to have, imagining other worlds is a powerful liberatory tool, and it is comprehensive, bringing in invasion and colonization and other references to uses and abuses of power. Linguistic diversity is promoted throughout this document as a peace builder, as a key factor for harmonious social relations, and a political framework based upon respect and mutual benefit.

Baker points out that language rights can sometimes be more idealistic than realistic (p.370). He describes the distinction between tolerance-oriented rights and promotion-oriented rights. A tolerance orientation is often legalistic in form, and one of its aims is to protect against discrimination in different settings, schools being one of the most highly charged. A promotion orientation implies the active inclusion of all language communities in question, going beyond the letter of the law. This can be costly to implement and oftentimes impractical. Home language instruction ideally would be offered to all students in the US but it is impossible to provide for all communities. Speakers of Spanish are best served as they make up a large group of non-English speakers in many parts of the country. Speakers of Somali may be served in the Minneapolis area but less so outside of this region.

The territorial principle may also be in play when it comes to tolerance and/or promotion of linguistic rights. In Article One of the UNLR a language community is considered any human society that has developed a common language as a natural means of communication, whether or not there are historical ties to the territory they find themselves in. This accounts for immigrant and refugee communities, among others. Baker reminds us (p.43) that the politics and power situation in which minority languages are situated is important. Beyond hierarchies of language, the power differential between people who believe they belong in this country (and Australia and the UK)-based on being a native speaker of English is vast. Around two thirds of the world’s population is bilingual and multilingual and this number is growing. The UNLR was likely written by people who speak multiple languages, and a challenge to the primacy of English did not have a place in this document (it can be read in the lines however). English is a global and imperial language and monolingual English speakers often feel entitled to the territory that comes with it.

Power and ideology determines whose language is taught, which language practices are valued and which are minoritized (García, 2014, p.89). Hegemonic educational practices in many Anglophone countries draw on the cultural capital of the white, middle-class, English-speaking student. The acquisition of ‘foreign’ languages is seen to be beneficial morally, socially and globally for the white, middle-class student, while the language communities that speak these languages as home tongues are seen as deficient (Baker p.347). Ofelia Garcia (p. 91) states that the most important aspect of language education is having teachers who are educated to respect the multilingual ecology of their classroom and to develop the bilingualism of their students. This happens too seldom in teacher education programs and in ongoing professional development for classroom teachers. Language education pedagogies are products of their time, and often reflect retrograde notions. Until a year or so ago, I carried with me a visual of the purgatory of ‘semilingualism’: people who don’t have academic home language or English. Leaving aside the problematic of the definition of ‘academic’, it was only when reading a recent article (Flores, Kleyn, & Menken, 2015) that I saw how erroneous that visual is. Garcia challenges monoglossic ideologies, in particular the concept that there are fixed first and second languages. She proposes instead the concept of languaging that is complex and interrelated, and does not emerge in a linear fashion. Garcia writes that continuing to talk about L1 and L2 keeps power in the hands of monolinguals that speak the dominant language of the society in which they live at birth and who can acquire a “second” language independently. This “native” speaker is seen as White, monolingual and loyal to their nation, whereas Brown and Black bilingual speakers are marked as ‘foreign’.

Language diversity, language rights, the territorial principle and power and ideology lead us in a circle that is ever expanding. Without intentional and critical reflection on bilingualism and its relation to power and privilege we may subsume language diversity and language rights beneath a neoliberal mantle. We need to crack that mantle and creatively plan for the maintenance and promotion of the rights of all language communities, wherever they reside. It is a complex and messy business, as with so much work in education, but if we don’t ask the questions we remain in purgatory.



Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed). Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (2015). Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14(2), 113–132.

García, O. (2014). Chapter Six: Multilingualism and Language Education. In C. Leung & B. V. Street (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to English Studies (pp. 84–99). London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

UNESCO. (1996). Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. UNESCO. Retrieved from



Toku reo toku ohōho*

*Māori for “My Language, my awakening”

It is increasingly apparent that in the US formal school settings do not adequately support the learning of students whose home languages are other than standard English. Discrimination on linguistic grounds is still permissible, and even promoted, while other forms of discrimination are legally curtailed. Policy matters relating to the education of children who do not speak English as a mother tongue enter the realm of public discourse, with educators often drowned out by bigoted monolingual English speakers, and others who do not value multilingualism. James Crawford (2000), an outspoken advocate of bilingual education, states,

“In a small way when government offers bilingual assistance, it elevates the status of language minorities. It suggests that immigrants and Native peoples need not abandon their heritage to be considered American-or at least to be given    access to democratic institutions. In short, it alters structures of power, class, and ethnicity. The demand for language restrictions, by contrast, is a demand to reinforce the existing social order.”

Echoing these thoughts, Jill Kerper Mora (2000), questions what society hopes to accomplish through language restriction as an official language policy. “At the heart of the matter”, Mora states, “are the core principles of democracy in a culturally and linguistically diverse society”. Mora goes on to ask, “Is the use of other languages really a threat to our national unity, or are not intolerance and coercion a far greater threat to our unity?” The Ethnic Studies Now! campaign has seen over six school districts in California pass legislation to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement. Diversity of experience can only make our lives richer, and questioning hegemony and dominant power structures is essential to combat intolerance and coercion. Language plays a key role in rehumanizing education.

With formal education failing too many language minority students, the more we know about nonformal bilingual education the better we can play to student strengths. There is no doubt that mastery of academic English is of benefit to students, however years of research now unequivocally points to fluency in the home language as key to acquisition and learning of social and academic language in subsequent tongues. Language use can never be taken out of context. The languages and discourses a child grows up with are an integral part of what makes them whole and their use surpasses mere communicative goals. We build bonds with those around us with language, and language colors family life, and ties us to our communities.

Bartlett and Bajaj (2015) outline the importance of understanding and supporting ‘nonformal bilingual education’. The distinction between ‘learning’ a language and ‘acquiring’ a language is not as clear-cut as some would have us believe. Acquisition can be seen as the lesser of the two actions, when it is viewed as a ‘subconscious’ activity, rather than an intentional act. Bartlett and Bajaj affirm that (language) acquisition can be planned (not unconscious) or unplanned. They state, “bilingual speakers pragmatically access and assess their multiple linguistic and cultural resources as they participate in plural social networks”. Drawing on qualitative interviews with US students classified as LTELLs (long term English language learner), Flores, Kleyn and Menken (2015) recognize that students classified as English Language Learners “utilize a vast and flexible linguistic repertoire that allows them to negotiate many different cultural spaces and create fluid identities”. But “because of the epistemic racism of idealized monolingualism, the fluid bilingual use of language reported by students in this study does not translate into academic success”.

I was having a hard time pulling this post together but today when I flew into South Africa I thought about the term bilingual, and how it should not necessarily imply proficiency in the second (third, and so on) tongue. On the plane I watched a documentary that discussed art in Ghana. A singer who was interviewed commented that she sang in a language that wasn’t as popular as another language (I can’t remember the specifics). I’m pretty sure she mixed about three languages into her songs, in any case. There are formal uses of the term bilingual, such as in a work situation, but I would not hesitate to call many of the children at Joe Slovo (the children I work with here in South Africa) bilingual. As I write this Ofelia Garcia’s introduction of the term ‘emergent bilingual’ makes more and more sense. The further away we can get from terms that reinforce a deficit view of children (such as English learner) the greater the chance of potentially changing mindsets in the classroom and altering policy that pushes students into a corner, with limited means to escape. It’s exciting to the see the work that is being done in this field, but change never happens overnight, especially when addressing such a politically charged issue that threatens English dominance and hegemonic posturing.


Crawford, J. (2000). At war with diversity: US language policy in an age of anxiety. Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (2015). Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14(2), 113–132.

Lesley Bartlett, & Bajaj, M. (2015). Chapter 25: Nonformal Bilingual Education. In W. E. Wright, S. Boun, & O. García (Eds.), The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education (pp. 428–446). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Mora, J. K. (2000). Proposition 227: Two Years Later. Retrieved from

“Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners”

Nelson Flores, Tatyana Kleyn & Kate Menken (2015) Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14:2, 113-132, DOI: 10.1080/15348458.2015.1019787

I’ve been interested in language and language learning for almost as long as I remember. One of my earliest career goals was to go around the world cleaning houses. I’m not sure where the cleaning houses part came in, it was maybe related to my gran’s field of work. I wanted to travel the world so I could learn many different languages. My mother tongue is English and I’ve never needed to clean houses to make a living so I’m privileged in more ways than a few. I’m close to bilingual in French, competent in Spanish and I know smatterings of Portuguese and Xhosa. I haven’t taken on languages far removed from English and I can talk about bilingualism and the need for effective bilingual/multilingual education without it being a life or death matter (for me).

I don’t feel I’m exaggerating when I couch the linguistic debate in such extreme terms as ‘life or death’. When I started formally studying bilingual education we discussed BICS and CALP and the problem with students being ‘semi-literate’ in both home language and English. It’s important that educators are aware of the differences between conversational language acquisition and academic language acquisition but there is much more to the story. I read an article recently that addresses this issue, and one of the elements that  made it a compelling read is that over the course of the study the authors found their assumptions challenged and they addressed this in an open and honest manner. The article addressed the need of students classified as LTELLs (Long term English language learners-generally defined as not testing out of their English language learner status after seven years in a US school). Leaving aside the problematic of testing, what resonated with me was that with all the best will in the world, the authors themselves had held onto this notion of being semi-literate and the damage this can bring (I’m not paraphrasing and I hope I haven’t misrepresented their words).

From the article: “In his critique of the term semilingual, MacSwan (2000) argues that it not only sees students through a deficit lens but also privileges certain ways of using language as superior—namely, academic English. This construction does not explore the important question of what defines a proficient speaker of English, nor does it deconstruct the assumption of the mastery of academic discourse as a prerequisite for being considered a proficient user of English for certain populations, nor does it explore who or what defines what academic discourse is and who has mastered it.”

The authors continue: “For example, in the United States a monolingual English speaker who never mastered academic discourse would not be considered an ELL, and yet somebody who is bilingual must master academic discourse to be considered fully proficient in the language.”

This article is based on interviews done with students who have been classified as LTELLs by the system. “Unsurprisingly there was unanimous rejection of this label by the students who not only found it offensive but as simply inaccurate in describing their fluid language use and transnational identities.” There is much of interest in this article and it opened my eyes to my own deficit view of emergent bilinguals. I’m reminded of my privilege and background and the option I have of stepping back, an option too many children in our schools don’t have. Articles like this one, and the spread of Ethnic Studies in California gives me hope that more voices will be raised, and that all students will be treated with dignity and respect. The authors point out the harmful cycle happening in schools: “Furthermore, there is an assumption that hard work will suffice, yet the inability of schools to build on Lorenzo’s linguistic repertoire suggests that far more is needed than simply an increased effort on the student’s part.” So not only does systemic racism and prejudice endure, the students battling this are made to feel as if they are to blame.

And this: “In this article, we hope to push the discourse of partiality even further and argue that it, in fact, can be understood as a racial project that serves to perpetuate White supremacy through the marginalization of the language practices of communities of color through a form of epistemic racism that situates the epistemology of privileged monolingual subjectivities as the unmarked societal norm.” Too many educators shy away from embracing languages they don’t understand. Furthermore, a hegemonic monolingual stance reduces empathy and increases the likelihood of making an ‘other’ of students whose lives matter every bit as much as those who fit the hegemonic mould.

I used to use a quote attributed to Wittgenstein: “the limits of my language are the limits of my life”. I took this to mean that we needed to support students’ learning so these limits will be surpassed. This quote now sticks in my craw, as limit used once is too much. I’m now more drawn to a Czech proverb that states, “learn a new language and get a new soul”. This does not imply fluency in another language, but it implies putting yourself in another linguistic frame that may lead to greater empathy and compassion. As educators we are privileged to work with students from diverse backgrounds, and we have a moral duty to show empathy and compassion. We must always “teach with joy and justice”, as Linda Christensen artfully states. The article I’ve discussed in this post is essential reading for all educators in the country, no matter what the age or stage.

“The deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard”

May 2015

“We know of course that there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”

-Arundhati Roy, Sydney Peace Prize 2004[1]

Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of the Baltimore police was caused by gross acts of violence, while more pernicious forms of violence led to his illegal arrest. Johann Galtung (1969), a peace education scholar, describes violence as that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual. It is clear that in too many urban areas in the United States violence disrupts the lives of even the most peaceful of people, in untold ways. Giroux (2004) notes that the dominant public pedagogy of neoliberalism negates basic conditions for critical agency. “Public pedagogy in this sense refers to a powerful ensemble of ideological and institutional forces whose aim is to produce competitive, self- interested individuals vying for their own material and ideological gain.” Neoliberal policies are by nature violent, as profit is made off the hands of those less fortunate, and less likely to have their voices heard. Giroux also notes that the relationship between culture and power constitutes a new site of both politics and pedagogy, leading to resistance movements and opposition to the dehumanization of the 99%. This needs to begin in the early childhood arena. Early childhood experiences play a major role in a child’s life and early childhood educators need be intentional about lessons being taught, both explicitly and implicitly, in order to generate a more peaceful and productive world.

In “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. excoriates the white moderate who is “’more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” The Baltimore Uprising stems from issues regarding disinvestment in urban areas, leaving people with very few options in regards to education, nutrition and physical and mental health. Violence is meted out to this community, and too many others, in gross acts of abuse, and in more insidious forms. Robbing inner cities of essential resources, such as recreation centers, libraries, health clinics, access to healthy and inexpensive food, is a violent act, yet those responsible can still sit back and gloat when these communities explode. These faceless destroyers will never be held accountable for their crimes, and it is unclear whether they genuinely feel a loss of humanity, thoughts of profit most likely fill those holes. Violence is carried out every day against children in schools robbed of resources, not simply in obvious acts of deprivation, such as excessive punishment, but in terms of not providing a school environment that would really see these children thrive. Their promise and potential may rest untapped, to the detriment of society as a whole.

In the place of the ‘achievement gap’, Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) contends there is an ‘educational debt’ we owe our students, and it’s not a debt that will be paid off anytime soon. It could be argued that this debt is only growing, along with the number of children living in poverty. Ladson-Billings mentions four components that make up this educational debt: historical, economic, sociopolitical and moral. The moral debt equates to the disparity between what we know is right and what we actually do. Pauline Lipman (2011) affirms that we need to harness the collective wisdom and political will toward fashioning a sustainable, democratic, socially just alternative. Kumashiro (2012) notes that movement building requires forming coalitions with various constituents in ways that build on their strengths (emphasis added). Involving all stakeholders in discussions relating to the educational futures of a community is vital in affirming that education and policy making should be done with those affected, rather than to those affected. Rick Ayers ( 2009) reminds us that a socially just curriculum should not take on a dogmatic approach. All students must be respected as thinking beings. Each person is ‘an entire universe’. The centrality of the curriculum should be the point of view of the marginalized. Socially just classrooms always teem with possibilities; always seek out relevance, deeper meaning and connections.

Ethnic Studies has emerged as a major theme in my work along with home/school/community connections in the early childhood setting. I am particularly interested in critical literacy, and I am a strong proponent of the maintenance and promotion of home languages, in a broad sense: language and discourse not needing to be defined by an official title. Much has been written about Ethnic Studies in high school and into middle school but there is less research concerning socially just practices in elementary school and younger. This is not to say the work isn’t happening but it doesn’t take up the place it should in academic journals and elsewhere. To be clear, it’s possible not all Ethnic Studies classes promote social justice and equity, just as a ‘multicultural curriculum’ does not always equate with anti-bias teaching, but it’s a start. In Rethinking Early Childhood Education, Ann Pelo (2008) sets out the argument for socially just practices in early childhood settings. She states that ECE is a political act that necessarily involves values and visions. She goes on to point out that early childhood is the time in our lives when we develop core dispositions. We must attempt to nurture these dispositions towards empathy, ecological consciousness, engaged inquiry and collaboration. Pelo also points out that social justice teaching grows from children’s urgent concerns. Observing and listening in to conversations happening at school, and paying attention to what other avenues of self-expression are in play, helps us target curricula to suit individual and group needs.

“Children are fundamentally concerned with making sense of their social and            cultural world; teachers and caregivers can join them in this pursuit, guiding         them towards understandings rooted in accurate and empathetic         understandings-or we can leave them to figure out their questions on their own,    coming to conclusions based on misinformation and cultural bias.” (Pelo, p.xii)

It’s easy to forget how disorienting those first years can be and how dizzying it is to grow from a tiny baby to a little person who can do a lot on their own, but not everything. In this process, as has been discussed in the previous paper, it is essential families and the community are brought to the table. The more children see home and school intertwining the more successful they are likely to be at school, not just academically but socially and emotionally as well. It is also essential that teachers view education through a wide lens, and not as that confined to four walls.

“In an Indigenous worldview, education is based upon the requirements of everyday life. In this way, education is “an experience in context, a subjective experience that, for the knower, becomes knowledge in itself. The experience is knowledge.”[…] The idea that learning should take place only within the four walls of a school, through the prescription of a fixed written curriculum, is diametrically opposed to the idea that learning is dynamic, experiential, and grounded in a sense of place.” (Madjidi & Restoule, 2008)

Mariana Souto-Manning (2013) highlights the work of multicultural and anti-bias educators in early childhood classrooms. She emphasizes that to teach multiculturally is create spaces of possibility and to position power at the center of our teaching. “It is not possible to engage with race and gender or to question structures of privilege unless we consider power relations.” One of the teachers Souto-Manning writes about is particularly successful with linking home and school literacies. Ms. Baines is a first grade teacher in South Carolina. She works from what the children are already familiar with, what the children are already good at and who, what and where is important in their life. Environmental print from places in their neighborhood shows them they can already read certain items; making up new words to favorite pop songs builds on their musical interests and literacy skills, and learning about their communities through student generated interviews, class books, and community artifact shares (among many other amazing activities) shows them home and school can be one. Ms. Baines also makes home visits, thus strengthening the already powerful ties between home and school. Related to these visits, Souto-Manning reminds us that school may not always have been a welcoming place to parents and family members of traditionally minoritized communities. It is our place to show that we are different and to articulate how, and why. It is essential to show we value their practice and that we are committed to making the learning experience better for them and for their child. Honor and respect should be the brook babbling underneath us.

Henri Giroux (2004) states that proliferating sites of pedagogy bring into being new forms of resistance, raise new questions, and necessitate alternative visions regarding autonomy and the possibility of democracy itself. Bickmore (2008) asserts that just as people learn about conflict by witnessing and participating in it, people can learn about constructive peacemaking and peacebuilding by practicing peace in informal community activities. Peace, along with honor and respect, should tie a classroom together. It is also important to remember that Paolo Freire refused to accept fatalism, until the end. “At every turn, he emphatically rejected the idea that nothing could be done about the educational consequences of economic inequalities and social justice.”(Darder, 2009) I am reminded of Freire’s words as I despair over the fact that Giroux’s words regarding neoliberalism are no less true today than they were ten years ago, in fact the neoliberal attack on public education brought about by the Obama administration under the stewardship of Arne Duncan, is an attack like no other seen before or since. We need all the grassroots organizing and creative vision available to carve a kinder world out for the children yet to join the system, and for those who are already there.


Ayers, R. (2009). Classrooms, Pedagogy and Practicing Justice. In W. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stovall (Eds.), Handbook of Social Justice in Education. New York, N.Y: Routledge.

Bickmore, K. (2008). Chapter Ten: Education for Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Plural Societies: Approaches from Around the World. In K. E. Mundy, K. Bickmore, R. Hayhoe, M. Madden, & K. Madjidi (Eds.), Comparative and International Education: Issues for Teachers. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press.

Darder, A. (2009). Teaching as an Act of Love: Reflections on Paulo Freire and His Contributions to Our Lives and Our Work. In A. Darder, M. Baltodano, & R. D. Torres (Eds.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2nd ed.). New York, N.Y.: Routledge,Taylor & Francis ; National Council of Teachers of English.

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167–191.

Giroux, H. (2004). Public Pedagogy and the Politics of Neo-liberalism: making the political more pedagogical. Policy Futures in Education, 2(3&4).

Kumashiro, K. K. (2012). Bad teacher!: how blaming teachers distorts the bigger picture. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12.

Lipman, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city. New York: Routledge.

Madjidi, K., & Restoule, J.-P. (2008). Chapter Four: Comparative Indigenous Ways of Knowing. In K. E. Mundy, K. Bickmore, R. Hayhoe, M. Madden, & K. Madjidi (Eds.), Comparative and International Education: Issues for Teachers. New York, N.Y: Teachers College Press.

Pelo, A. (2008). Introduction: Embracing Social Justice in Early Childhood Education. In A. Pelo (Ed.), Rethinking Early Childhood Education. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Rethinking Schools Publication.

Souto-Manning, M. (2013). Multicultural teaching in the early childhood classroom: approaches, strategies, and tools, preschool-2nd grade. New York: Teachers College Press.