As Oakland Unified School District and other districts across the country experience an unprecedented influx of newcomer English Learners, even veteran teachers are left with a myriad of questions about the best way to support their students’ social-emotional and academic development. Marla Kamiya of Bridges Academy at Melrose participated in our Teachers of Newcomers inquiry group. Her inquiry began with an exploration of the best classroom placement for Mam speaking students from Guatemala and El Salvador, but led her to some important realizations about the relationship between newcomer families and schools.
My school, Bridges Academy at Melrose, is experiencing a huge increase in Mam-speaking students over the last two years--an increase mirrored in many other Oakland schools as well. Mam is one of the Mayan languages spoken in the highlands of Guatemala and El Salvador. It is one of the 21 Mayan languages officially recognized by the government of Guatemala. In this last school year, 15 Mam speaking students enrolled in our kindergarten classes, bringing our schoolwide total of Mam-speaking students to approximately 50 students over 10% of our student population. These new students were all placed in our Spanish bilingual program.
Our school’s bilingual program is an early exit program designed for native Spanish speakers, a program designed to build upon students’ primary language to transition them in English. Since these students were clearly not Spanish-speakers, my fellow kindergarten teacher, Bernadette Zermeno, and I decided to study this question:
Does it best serve Mam-speaking newcomer students to be placed into our school’s bilingual program or would they be better served in our Sheltered English program?
I envisioned a relatively straightforward path that would include learning more about the linguistic features of Mam, consideration of common underlying proficiencies among Mam, Spanish, and English that may affect second language acquisition, and interviewing Mam speaking parents regarding their desires for their children’s education. We hoped, in our words, “to establish a clear school policy and procedure regarding the placement of Mam-speaking students into the Spanish bilingual or Sheltered English program.”
Instead, we learned much more about the importance of relationship building, of drawing these parents into an ongoing dialogue about school and their child’s education, and we received a quick education about how deeply these parents want their children to learn Spanish, based on their own experience of bilingualism/biculturalism in their home country.
The Complexity of Language, Identity, and Experience
In order to learn more about the Mam language, we reached out to, Dr. Lyle Campbell, an expert in Mayan languages.