Magazine Feature

What's In a Word?

Elementary students learn a lesson in the language of respect.

When I asked my 3rd graders if they had seen a ball that was now missing from my desk, one student replied, "A bilingual took it," and the class agreed.

A bilingual took it! I was aghast. How had our 3rd graders learned to use the term "bilingual" like a group name, even a slur? More importantly, was there a positive step I could take to turn things around?

A bilingual took it. I wanted simply to correct them, but what good would that do? They might not use the term as a derisive noun anymore, but their thinking probably wouldn't change.

"Put your things aside for a few minutes," I told the class. "Tell me about this word 'bilingual.'"

The blank look on most of their faces showed they didn't know what the word meant, even though we use it at our school all the time. A few made guesses.

"They're not smart," said one student.

Another softened it with "They're not very good at school."

"People from another country."

Most students finally concluded that "bilinguals" were students who speak Spanish. An understandable guess, given the fact that our bilingual program is made up entirely of our 40 percent Hispanic population.

I gave them some clues. "Our librarian is bilingual." Mrs. C, in fact, was the daughter of Polish immigrants. This example really threw them off.

"We have a handful of students right in this room who are bilingual," I continued. My class was made up of several children from India, Korea and Poland, all of whom spoke their parents' native language and English.

The classmates eyed each other suspiciously.

The "light went on" for one student, and I smiled at her but continued. The rest of the class needed to solve the mystery on their own.

"You're all good at prefixes -- 'pre' means 'before,'" I reminded them, "like 'pre' in 'prefix,' 'preschool,' 'preview,' 'pretest.'"

I wrote the word "bicycle" on the board. "How many wheels are on a bicycle?"

"Two!" they called out.

"How many things does an athlete have to do in a biathlon?"

"Two!" They were catching on quickly.

"How many languages do you think bilingual people speak?"

Now they were at the edge of their seats with the pride of discovery. "Two!" they shouted.

One student, who speaks Polish and English at home, laughed, "I'm bilingual!"

"Yes, you are," I smiled.

"I wish I were bilingual, too," I told the class. "How wonderful to be able to communicate in more than one language." Then I asked them if they thought the rest of the school should learn about the word "bilingual." They were eager to share their new understanding, and we began to develop a plan.

I had the fortune to work in a school community that uses monthly theme assemblies to emphasize respect. One month the 1st graders dressed in dinosaur hats and sang us a friendly song called "Respectasaurus." Another time, 5th graders performed skits on the do's and don'ts of how to treat a substitute teacher, and 2nd graders presented a slide show of respectful acts like helping a fellow student pick up spilled crayons. I signed up for the next assembly and told the staff my class would be teaching a lesson on the term "bilingual."

When the day came, the whole school marched into the gym to the beat of Aretha Franklin's "Respect," a song some students had come to think was written especially for our school. One of my 3rd graders addressed the audience when the presentation began.

"Do we have any bilingual students in here?"

A few students raised their hands, but none too eagerly. My class went through the exercise we had done in class, holding up a sign with the prefix "bi" next to each word to create its new meaning. Carrie pulled up on a "bicycle" when it was her turn. And Mario pretended to jog by and swim to show "biathlon." My students shouted the phrase "'Bi' means 'two'" after each word.

When my class asked, "How many languages does a bilingual person speak?" the audience shouted "Two!" with vigor.

"So bilingual means knowing two languages," I restated and then invited a 4th grade student named José to join us on stage. I chose José because he is well-liked, witty, proud of his cultural background, and speaks both Spanish and English. I wanted him to serve as a bridge between the monolingual and bilingual students. If the monolingual students respected him, maybe they would open up their minds to their bilingual peers. I asked him to tell the audience about his family. He described his home in a few sentences in English.

"Are you bilingual?" I asked him, and he nodded his head. "Will you say the same thing again now in Spanish?''

He rattled off the Spanish words, wowing the audience. His big grin showed his pride as the audience applauded. He was making bilingualism a cool thing. He ended with a gracias and took his seat.

Last, I wanted to show the audience that bilingual students are like their classmates -- unique young people who possess certain talents. I have found over the years that there's no better way for young people to make friends than to have a skill or talent that is valued by their peers; being good at sports or the arts is highly respected among elementary students.

A 5th grade ESL class came to the front of the gym to present a skit titled "This Is What I Want You to Know About Me." Each of the 20 students performed some talent -- two danced, one dribbled a basketball, three skillfully passed a soccer ball, and one sang a Spanish song. The audience seemed riveted watching their peers -- bilingual students some had never bothered to get to know and whose worth they had underestimated.

Tania closed the program by asking, "Now that you know what it means, who here is bilingual?" Half of the hands proudly went up.

After the assembly, I asked students in my neighboring classrooms what they thought about the program. Some children had discovered that they, too, were bilingual, speaking both English and Korean, Hindi or Polish at home.

"I'm bilingual," one student bragged and stumbled through counting to 10 in Spanish. Not to be left behind, other students told their peers eagerly, "I'm going to take Spanish lessons," "I want to talk like José" or "My aunt is bilingual." It seemed now that everyone wanted to be bilingual!

After school, the teachers confirmed the success of the assembly. Everyone acknowledged the need to be more sensitive in the ways we classify and categorize students, even for administrative purposes. It made me realize the power schools have to "market" positive values -- like respect for all people. It's all in how you say it.