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The Power of Language


This is what is feared:

that flags do not nourish the blood,

that history is not glorious or truthful.

I sleep and dream in two languages.

I gain wisdom from more than one fountain.

I pass between borders

made to control what is owned.

The body cannot be owned.

The land cannot be owned,

only misunderstood or named by its knowing.

"The Borders are Fluid Within Us" by Dan Vera

There are over 160,000 students in New York City public schools who are English Language Learners. How would you feel if you were in a new classroom where you could not speak the dominant language? How would you get by?

At the “Teaching for English Language Learners through Dance, Movement & Music,” workshop at Carnegie Hall, part of the TAP Cohort's Elective Seminar series, we got to explore this question with a firsthand experience. The day began as the facilitator, Yolanda (Jolie) Medina, launched into her lesson speaking solely in Spanish. There were more than a few pairs of quizzical eyes around the room as she continued on, with no intention, it seemed, of stopping to translate or switch to English. Some attendees even seemed a little upset and understandably frustrated. As I listened on, grateful that in this case I have a decent amount of Spanish under my belt, I was nevertheless reminded of when I was an only English speaking kindergartener placed in an entirely French speaking school, left to essentially sink or swim. Looking back today, as a Teaching Artist, and after this workshop, I am seeing this experience, as well the bilingual students in my classrooms, in a whole new light.

When the facilitator finally switched to English, even some of those attendees who didn’t speak a word of Spanish realized they had picked up more of her message than they initially realized. By Ms. Jolie’s tactical use of inflection, pacing, eye contact, repetition, keywords, body language, and storytelling, she conveyed so much more than the words on their own. So what did she say? Most notably, that we can start by referring to these students as “Bilingual Learners” instead of “English Language Learners”. With this slight but important change of wording, we frame their native language as a strength rather than as a fault. We empower students when we show them they have something unique to contribute that should be honored, not punished. Language is powerful.

We continued our exploration by using movement to silently identify objects in the classroom. As it’s easy to limit ourselves by verbal boundaries, and subsequently feel overwhelmed, it was a fantastic reminder that much of human interaction and communication is non-verbal. In pairs and then as a large group, we examined visual art works such as Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, which prompted conversations about identity, nationality, and perspective, among others. Finally, with facilitator Sebastian Cruz, we engaged sound, rhythm, beats, and clapping to learn and play without spoken language; my favorite being the DJ game where a person in the center of a circle conducted everyone’s unique sounds to create collective music. All of these visual, musical, and movement activities were at once a reflection on the complexities of our students and ourselves as teachers - who we are, how we learn, etc. - as well as practical and inclusive tools to connect with bilingual learners.

I attended French-speaking schools until my first year of college. And even with this intense diet à la Française, it took a long time for me to reach the same level of language fluency as my fellow classmates. It reminds me to be patient with students today, that it’s a constant work in progress, and an extra obstacle on top of the countless others they must face. I see them. I’ve been them. I remember the friends who corrected me when I made mistakes (all the time), those who picked on me, and becoming instant besties with the only other student who spoke English. How glorious to have our own secret language! But perhaps most importantly, I remember the awesome teachers I had who supported me and gave me opportunities to shine in both of my languages. It made all the difference. I used to think that my learning French just kind of “happened” and I simply “absorbed” it. Now that I’ve taken on the role of teacher, I can appreciate that it was so much more than that.

Our flexibility, creativity, and empathy as Teaching Artists give us unique superpowers to address the needs of these students and empower them. As I write this, I am reminded of a line in a poem by Dan Vera that I read recently at another TAP Cohort workshop:

"I sleep and dream in two languages.

I gain wisdom from more than one fountain."

“I gain wisdom from more than one fountain.” Our classrooms are so much richer for having these brave students. We as artists can create a space where our shared and diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and languages can all be celebrated. A community in which these students feel safe and proud to express themselves with every beautiful word they know, as well as with those they continue to add to the color palettes with which they paint their world.

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