Filling the Gaps as Teachers to Teach More Completely

By Teri Davis, Jessica Baipho, Lori Deese, Kristel Gooding and Hope Robinson, Kershaw County School District, and Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina

A teacher must work to fill the gaps in their own knowledge in order to more effectively teach their students. These gaps extend to language similarities and differences between the student’s first language and English; cultural nuances that may be missing for a lesson; and religious considerations that may come up as part of teaching the whole child.

Reading The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano helped identify the gaps we have as teachers in knowledge pertaining to the social activism of Puerto Ricans living in New York during the Civil Rights and spurred more research. ‘Filling’ that gap by doing research will help teach the Civil Rights era more completely. Benefiting all the students, not just the Latino students. We tend to think that teaching about different languages and cultures is only for the children with those backgrounds. That way of thinking is so wrong. Opening the discussion of Civil Rights to include the Puerto Ricans in New York will provide another view of those who brought about change in this period.

Reading and discussing The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, was eye opening to see how culture can affect children. In the book, Evelyn is almost ashamed that she is Puerto Rican. That has us thinking about how the Spanish speaking children in our class might feel. As white women who have rarely been in situations where we felt like our culture was not accepted, it is absolutely necessary to read about and try to understand the insecurities the students may feel. Knowing your students and using the student’s first language to support their learning of a new language is so important for their language and academic development.

Thinking back to working with our first ELLs we thought a lot about the mistakes we definitely made. It was a lack of information and training on our part but it makes our hearts hurt for those who have passed through our doors. However, rather than focus on the unintended harm we may have caused then, we have learned about several ideas to implement that will help us in establishing relationships with our ELL students and families; the most interesting being home visits.

When reading about visiting an ELL’s home and through the discussions and books from our class, we learned how other cultures perceive visits from teachers in their homes. These visits are one of honor and pride on the part of the families. We filled our gap in this area too as we just thought that families would find the visits intrusive. Honestly, we were not aware of the esteem and respect our families have for us as their children’s teachers!

Another new area of thinking has been the role of the first language for our ELLs. While always maintaining respect, we were not aware of cultural differences and needs or how to meet them. Teri connected to one of her young ELLs who has been in the United States since birth. His family speaks only Spanish and Teri wondered how she would communicate with the family since she only speaks English. Teri made up a reading strategy as she explains:

As we read books, we write words on an index card. One side is written in English and the other side in Spanish. This strategy allows his family to help him learn unfamiliar words. In turn, it has increased his ability to communicate in Spanish. By allowing responses in English and Spanish I have been able to ignite a fire and motivation for his learning. He excitedly chooses bilingual books for us to read in our one-on-one or small group time. His excitement to learn to read in Spanish has caused him to read more in English as well because he is becoming more comfortable with the language and literacy aspects.

Without a teacher who motivates, propels, scaffolds and protects the learning process, students cannot exceed expectations. A child can learn on their own out of a natural curiosity, but they cannot work to the depths and required levels without the help of a teacher. Teachers can make or break a learning experience for a child. If you have a teacher who is willing to embrace all aspects of the learners cultural and linguistic background, the child becomes a valued part of the classroom. Relationship building is key to education. Students must know you love and advocate for them, especially when difficult situations arise. Teachers must know this aspect of their roles in the classroom. They must embrace it to the full extent to create successful learners and build bonds with the community. That is something that all educators need to work on.

[Editor’s Note: We encourage you to read last week’s post on this topic. Also, check out our previous discussion on how The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, which encourages readers to think about how familial capital helps challenge inequitable situations. Additionally, we talk about how this book can inspire students to start internal revolutions, revolutions of the heart.]

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6 thoughts on “Filling the Gaps as Teachers to Teach More Completely

  1. April M. says:

    It is extremely important to learn all you can as a teacher of an ELL student. As you mentioned, the teacher should not only learn about how to teach the student English, but also learn about the family’s background, values, beliefs, etc. It is much easier for the teacher to teach the student in a meaningful way if he or she can connect what they are teaching to the student’s culture. It also makes it easier to involve the family. I recently read about “BAGS”, which stands for Books and Really Good Stuff. This is used as a way to bridge the gap between learning at home and school. It is meant to have the family members involved in their child’s learning. When reading about BAGS, it mentioned how to use it to help ELL students and their families. Essentially, the BAGS are sent home with a few books, activities, games, projects, etc., anything that can help the student apply and connect what they are reading. The article on BAGS suggested using bilingual books, as you suggested, to help teach the students English. The article also mentioned that this can also help family members as they are reading with the student, if they are also ELL. When using BAGS, a teacher can have the family write down a recipe or take a picture of a family tradition, for the student to share when they return the BAG. This also helps the teacher use the student’s culture for teaching. I enjoyed reading this article and the points you made about ELL students.

  2. Kelsey Hester says:

    I enjoyed reading your perspective on culture as a teaching tool in literacy and throughout the content areas. In my opinion, the idea that culture should be considered in everyday teaching cannot be stressed enough. This is especially true when considering literacy. For example, it is critical that students are able to relate to texts that are presented to them in order for them to activate prior knowledge and comprehend the events of the story. Just as we look at text levels to determine if a child is ready to read a book, we should also be assessing our knowledge of the child’s culture to determine if he or she has had experience with the topics discussed in the book. If not, we should be “filling in the gaps”, as you suggest, in order to prepare our students to effectively understand these texts. Unfortunately, many of our purchased literacy curricula do not come with books that are chosen with this mindset. This means that we should be constantly evaluating these provided texts to see if they actually do fit with our students, instead of simply choosing them because they are written in a curriculum framework. This type of teaching will not only prepare our students for state mandated tests, but will also prepare them for life as culturally-aware adults.

    • Julia Lopez-Robertson says:

      You are so right-we strive, as should all educators, to prepare culturally aware responsible global citizens! Thank you for your reply!

  3. AH says:

    I absolutely loved this read! Through the entire post, I felt nothing but encouragement. As a teacher, I really enjoyed the ideas you shared. I do not work as much with English language learners as some, but these ideas are great for all teachers – those who do and do not work a lot with English language learners. I think my favorite takeaway from this read was the index card idea. I think it is a splendid idea to use both English and Spanish on index cards. This not only helps them learn the English version of the word, but it also acts as a way to get the family involved. Because the word is provided in Spanish, the family is able to work with the student to help him/her better understand what was discussed in school. Like you mention, this helps build communication skills in both languages – Spanish and English. Because the student is gaining confidence in his/her native language, he/she is also able to become more confident speaking and understanding English. I also really like that you make available bilingual books. This is yet another way the student can continue exposure and build confidence in speaking and understanding both languages.

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