As an educator who does not speak another language fluently and grew up in the United States, I try to put myself in my high school newcomer student's shoes pretty frequently. How would I feel if my teacher celebrated Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month? Would I feel special? Would I be irritated because it should be celebrated and integrated all year long? I think I might have a mixture of both.
The United States is a place with rich culture from many corners of the world, and I like it that way. Teaching multilingual learners is my own personal way of learning about new cultures and people and learning about all of the delicious food without having to travel! I always wanted to move abroad, which I hope may still happen one day, but I was always too anxious to do it myself. It's just one of many reasons why I love teaching multilingual learners.
So when it comes to my student's cultures, I try to celebrate them in every lesson I do. However, if there's a time I can make them feel special like during Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month, I will do it. And I will also encourage them to think critically, like in this holiday's lesson plan.
In this lesson plan, I encourage them to reflect on our nation's official title of Hispanic Heritage Month and to ask themselves, does the word Hispanic reflect all Spanish speakers? Should we celebrate it all year long? How do we do this? We explore those questions through all of the language domains- speaking, reading, writing, and listening. They SWiRL in every lesson!
Here are some teacher tips for other ways we can include our student's cultures in our lessons:
Books should be like mirrors and windows and sliding glass doors! Mirrors let us see ourselves and also see what is possible. Windows through reading let us see into the world through a different lens; we can learn about experiences from a different point of view and thus learn about different cultures through texts. Sliding glass doors are representative of stepping into someone else's world.
And according to Building a Diverse Book Collection: Providing Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Doors, and Beyond, they can also be escape hatches when the world is too much to take; they are springboards to new ideas and understandings. Books are warm blankets and can save readers from the feelings of loneliness and heartache when they see themselves in literature. As students are discovering their place in the world, the books we provide them act as a guide in this discovery.
How can you relate your class discussions about your content to your student's culture? For example, if you are reading Romeo and Juliet, maybe you want to include in the lesson or discussion some information on dating or marriage in other cultures. Ask your students, "What are the appropriate ages to start dating where you are from? Are you allowed to date someone who may be from a different family/part of the city or country/or religious group from you?"
There may also be supplementary materials that you can include to make connections to your student's cultures, such as this story and lesson plan about a modern-day Romeo and Juliet from Afghanistan.
Bell work/Bell ringers/Do Now
When I first started teaching, we did sentence structure and grammar practice a lot for our bell work. I thought it was cute and funny to add in famous people that my students might like, like famous soccer players and Kim Kardashian. There's nothing wrong with that, but as I grew as a teacher, I discovered ways to connect with my students more and one was to include things about their culture and lives into my bell work in a more intentional way.
If Ramadan was coming up, I liked to include topics about fasting. If there was something in the news that my newcomers might identify with, I'd add that in. As soon as you start getting to know your students, options start popping up when you keep your students in mind throughout the day and the weekends.
When you see content that your students can relate to, grammar and sentence structure practice is great, but adding in a quick turn and talk can really boost engagement and get them speaking with authentic material. And we know that the more authentic the language is used, the more students learn and make language gains.
Stephen Krashen states that "acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding." The more interest and relevancy in the message, the better outcomes for language acquisition.
When thinking about bringing student's cultures into the classroom, we cannot ignore the language piece! Language and culture go hand in hand, so it makes sense that multilingual classrooms, especially in newcomer ones, should embrace translanguaging strategies. According to What is Translanguaging?, it is when a multilingual person’s full linguistic repertoire is used and honored, instead of trying to keep narrowly focused on a single language. It is a pedagogy as well as a strategy. It is a form of social justice.
And the best part? You do not have to be bilingual or multilingual to encourage other languages in your classrooms. You can have bilingual dictionaries as well as translation tools like Google Translate, pair students together who speak the same native language, and use bilingual resources and texts if and when available. CUNY-NYSIEB has some fantastic resources to get teachers started and to see some concrete examples of how to use translanguaging in your classroom.
Interviews with family
Encourage interviews with family to get real and authentic information and conversations surrounding their culture and heritage. Interviews can be connected to any lesson or unit of study. For example, if we're reading Romeo and Juliet, I can ask students to interview parents or guardians about dating when they were young or about norms for dating in their country. Have students gather information at home to be shared in class the next day, or they can even record their conversation to be shared with partners or whole group.
Bring in guest speakers
There may be no other better way to get a glimpse into someone's culture and heritage than inviting their family members into the classroom to listen firsthand. Just make sure to secure a translator if needed and encourage the use of the first language as well!
If you have any other tips for teachers on how to include student's culture in their classrooms, drop a comment below to share! And if you checked out the Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month lesson plan and liked it, join our high school teacher membership, My MLL Mentor, to get monthly lesson plans, access to guest speakers, and other resources to make your teaching practice easy and help your students grow!
I support middle and high school teachers through monthly lesson plans, coaching, and guest speaker offerings in our Secondary ESL Teacher Membership.