This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.” These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.
Karen Beeman provides national professional development for teachers and administrators in bilaterally and bilingual education. Karen is co-author, along with Cheryl Urow, of Teaching for Biliteracy: Strengthening Bridges Between Languages.
“Voy a una party con mi broder.” When Karen Beeman gave this example of a typical statement from a bilingual student, the room of language immersion educators nodded and smiled in agreement. We had all heard our students mix languages before. But Beeman’s point was not about the typical interlanguage that occurs during language acquisition. Her example was of children whose first language is bilingual. Kids who inherit this natural mix from their bilingual homes and communities and learn later, usually in school, to separate the two languages.
In her practice at the Center for Teaching for Biliteracy, Beeman contends that we need to acknowledge that while bilingualism is a starting point for many of our students, it is not the anticipated outcome. She prides herself in making education research accessible for K-12 teachers and this workshop exemplified that belief. Just a few minutes into her talk, Karen had the audience building linguistic bridges between Portugese and English to understand how the practice would support student constructed learning. To the untrained eye, bridges look like translations and Beeman knew that, once teachers created their own bridges, they would see the value in leading their students through this construction.
Karen has dedicated her career to elevating and protecting the status of minority language in a majority language education system, specifically Spanish in the US. When I sat down with her to talk about her One Good Question, I assumed that her focus would be on investing in language minority education. What I learned, however, was far more about her vision for all youth in our country. Karen grew up the child of Americans in Mexico and when she moved to the States for university, she had the unique perspective of appearing American and having strong linguistic and cultural identity in Mexico and Mexican Spanish. Karen quickly became an education advocate for bilingualism and champion for elevating the status of Spanish in urban communities with significant Hispanic populations.
Karen’s inquiry starts from that place of language specific, culture-specific instructional practice and quickly progresses to questions of social justice and equity: How are we preparing minority students to see themselves in the culture of power ? For the 71% of ELL youth who speak Spanish, access to bilingual academic communities that support literacy in both languages, means that they get to comfortably exist in majority culture.
“When students feel visible and what is going on in school matches who they are, we reach their potential.” – Karen Beeman
For bilingual and heritage students, this visibility begins with equal access to and respect for their home languages. Karen is agnostic about the type of academic model schools choose. Traditional bilingual, dual language, and two-way immersion programs are all built around English language expectations. What makes the biggest difference? Looking beyond the monolingual perspective and the English dominant perspective. “We cannot use English as our paradigm for what we do in the other language,” Karen insists.
With respect to the pedagogy and materials in current Spanish-language programs, Beeman contends that we’re creating our own problem. Most texts in bilingual classrooms (fiction, non-fiction, and academic) are translations into the non-English language. This means that they are translating English grammar and syntax progressions into a language with completely different rules. Bilingual students may miss out on natural, age-appropriate expressions in Spanish and often misunderstand the cultural context of a translated story. Beeman traveled to Mexico for years and brought back authentic children’s literature in Spanish that also didn’t work for her bilingual American students. In written texts the academic grammar and syntax is at a higher register than oral language. Bilingual students whose Spanish-dominant parents may not be literate in Spanish, then have little understanding of the « authentic » text.
What Beeman experienced was that neither monolingual contexts work for bilingual students. If we are to capture bilingual students’ full potential, we need a third way. Enter language bridges : a constructivist approach that showcases the background knowledge and expertise of the students, and allows them to access the curriculum and complex ideas in the majority language. Beeman then takes this perspective outside of the classroom : we need to stop imposing monolingual perspectives on education policy, pedagogy and educator training. When we recognize that
- We have a language of power (academic register of English) and a culture of power (middle-class, European-influenced discourse) that influence all of our instruction ; and
- Our country is becoming increasingly diverse linguistically, ethnically, and socially ;
We quickly understand that the need for all types of language and culture bridges in our instructional practice encompasses the majority of the country. Whether we’re addressing socio-economic status, home language, or student identity, most of our students walk into their classrooms as the « other » in the curriculum. Looking at the trends for increasingly diverse population in the US, we have to ask ourselves what happens when our education system doesn’t embed respect for minority cultures.
 Ruiz Soto, Ariel G., Sarah Hooker; and Jeanne Bataloca. 2015 Top Languages Spoken by English Language Learners Nationally and by State. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institue.