How Working at Dual-Language School Has Changed My Life

So I’ve been a part of an amazing program at the University of Texas known as the Theatre Studies Program. I will be graduating in May, and this semester, I’m immersed in two different schools for my student teaching experience. My first placement is almost over, and that has given me the impending feeling of letting go. Letting go of students I’ve come to love, teachers I’ve learned from, and conversations that have lit a fire in my soul.

I am student teaching at KIPP Austin Comunidad right now. KIPP is a dual-language charter school. The majority of the students are native spanish-speakers, and as early as kindergarten, they are immersed into spanish and english education. Half of their day is in one language, and then the rest of the day is in the other language.

About a year ago, I visited KIPP to observe a lesson taught by my professor to a second grade class, and when I wrote a reflection paper, it started out,

Before I even stepped foot in the classroom, KIPP began changing my life.

Looking back, with the experiences I have now, I am moved. I am floored by the ability of a school to transform minds within seconds of walking in.

During the beginning of my placement, I attended two days of Professional Development with the KIPP teachers. We discussed progress in scores, efficiency in management, and above all, we discussed and heard about their mission: “To and Through”. Don’t quote me on what I’m about to say, because I only took notes at lightning speed, but I’m going to recap a few moments that have really cemented, “To and Through” with me.

So they want to promote their students “to and through” college. On the walls in each school, are university flags, signs, etc. Each class is named after the university or college that their teacher graduated from. Students often refer to their dream school, mentioning that they will go there because their favorite teacher did. [tears]

When I heard “to and through”, I was excited to see what that looked like in classrooms, throughout the day, and beyond their learning at their desk. I have been informed as I’ve watched, taught, and listened, to the students and teachers. At KIPP, they use a statement that I really appreciate. They say, “Think about your choice.” This statement not only implies that they do in fact have a choice–a legitimate say in their own learning–but it also allows them to evaluate their decisions based on their owned experiences rather than what their teacher wants them to say. They get to make a choice, and then they get to see how it pans out. Made a bad choice? Let’s see how we can learn from it. When they meet an experience that seems questionable, perhaps they will look back and remember their teacher’s words, “Think about your choice.” They might remember these words when they’re choosing from the colleges they are accepted to–because they will be accepted if they apply, I guarantee it–and they will once again remember that they get to make that choice. Just them. It is in their control to decide.

The second part of the “to and through” statement that really, truly, gets to me, is the language aspect. From the young age of four or five, they are immersed in an education that asks them to accept part of someone’s culture, part of their personal being and background, and to use the language they are learning as their brains remap and  begin thinking in a way that allows them to switch back and forth between languages. Imagine if every school began a child’s education this way…by asking them to think, listen, and speak, in two languages. I mean, really! I spent a solid thirty minutes almost in tears thinking about how powerful it is, that I know a bunch of tiny humans who–even if they don’t yet recognize it–are changing the dynamic of accepting someone else’s culture and gifts of language. On a totally subconscious level, they learn at age five, that learning another language (something I regard as a beautiful gift to share with others) is second nature and natural. They learn to accept. To listen. To respond.

When talking with my cooperating teacher, we discussed how some students whose native language is spanish, grew up thinking they had to learn english to fit in or to get through school. How unfortunate and backwards that is…to assume that english is the only answer in our education system. I would argue that a dual-language school produces students with strong, flexible, minds, capable of understanding something on multiple levels. I would also pose the possibilities that would appear if we started introducing dual-language programs into our education system across the country. If we started to accept other cultures and languages into our lives, not only for special occasions, classroom projects, or during specific units, but as a way of working together at school. Imagine a world where elementary students could speak two languages, three languages–you name it–and now imagine them when they turn eighteen and they can vote on policy, and for elections. Imagine how powerful that generation would be–the generation that didn’t grow up thinking the only important language was the one they spoke first.

Maybe I’m just geeking out, or over-emphasizing my passion on this topic, but let me put it into perspective for a moment.

On my first day, I acknowledged that the students could see that (for the first time in my life), I was of the minority in the room. I learned, on a very tiny level, what it felt like to not know what someone was talking about and to be stared at because I didn’t know the language. Perhaps I should mention I felt guilty–for not showing up ready for them, in a way that I wasn’t already trying. But I also felt excited, and nervous, to walk up to the first set of second graders I saw at lunch, and ask them to teach me something in spanish. The tiny ones giggle when I speak to them in spanish now, and I’ll admit, I giggle too. I am still so new to this, so fresh in this world, but boy am I in love. I am in love with hearing Ms. Schwartz’s Kinder class count to 100 for the first time in spanish. I am equally excited to see a native spanish speaker teaching me how to say something my white privilege does not yet know. I am excited to know that by being with these students, I am learning from them. I do not know the most in the room, and for that, I am so incredibly grateful.

At dismissal a week ago, I was exhausted after a particularly rough day, and I was staring into space when I heard one of the teachers behind me say, “Hey mija! What’s going on?” Maybe I was too tired, maybe I just didn’t expect it, or for whatever reason, I just didn’t think he was talking to me. The term, “Mija”, is a shortened version of, “my daughter”, in spanish. So after not responding, I hear him say again, “Hey Mija! Are you okay?” When I turned around and realized he was talking to me, I almost burst into tears. I can’t put into words what happened to my heart, when I realized that this endearing, special, familial, term–something that may not be out of the ordinary for some–was being used to talk to me.

I don’t know if I’ll get this right as I try to explain it, but I have to try. That moment hit me because it was the first time I really realized how much KIPP has become a home to me; how much I look forward to learning spanish from the second graders at lunch; how much this culture of not only “to and through” college, but “to and through” life, has manifested in my own dreams and aspirations. I felt loved, cared for, and accepted, all because of a word in a language other than my own. A word that says, “I care for you. I want to know you.” A word, four letters, and so much more.

So I’m writing to say that I couldn’t have asked for a better first placement. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor, a better program, or a better community. When I leave in two weeks, I will (cry a lot) be sentimental and sad, and thankful. Thankful for students who are willing to teach me. Thankful for being immersed in a school culture that honors diversity and child-centered learning.

So, as I’ve been taught by one of my second-graders…I am here to say, “Estoy feliz de estar aqui en KIPP Austin Comunidad.”


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