Learning and Not Learning English: Latino Students in American Schools – G. Valdés

Learning and Not Learning English - Valdés 2001(en español)

As I sat on the bus reading Learning and Not Learning English by Guadalupe Valdés (2001), I found myself breaking down in tears about halfway through the book. The story that hit me the hardest was that of the child referred to as Lilian. The struggles she faced pushed her farther and farther away from the classroom. As Valdés puts it, “She entered a new world, and she found a way to survive. Her survival, however, had little to do with doing well in school or with learning English” (2001, p. 75).


Power and Agency

Lilian existed in a society that marginalized her language experience. At her school, “mainstream teachers largely viewed the ESL teachers’ role as making certain that English language learners would be kept both out of the way and very busy” (2001, p. 40). The more her reality was pushed to the side, the more detached she became. It wasn’t just her own school experience that pushed her aside, however. The social pressures existed universally in her town, leading to a jailed father, an out-of-work mother, and a roommate who abandoned them when they most needed help with the rent.

We live in a society which not only maintains this power differential, but actually actively promotes it. As Valdés renumerates, “language is always situated within larger discursive frameworks” (2001, p. 156). The reality is that English is the dominant language in this country, and this country’s imperialist approach to international relations has made English a dominant language in the globe. It is made dominant by virtue of the power associated with those who speak it. While not consciously aware of the power dynamics associated with use of the language, many people in the United States reinforce its power and that of the forces that bring it to the world by refusing to acknowledge that other languages have value as well. Valdés points out that “power is exercised both through coercion and through consent and that, in many cases, people ‘consent’ to preserving the status quo and to maintaining existing power relationships simply by accepting established practices without question” (2001, p. 155).

Power can be exerted in many forms, and the role of schools is to reinforce the power of the state. As Valdés describes, we live “in a political climate that has become increasingly hostile to immigrants” (2001, p. 18). Individual teachers may make efforts to move students toward a more liberating view, but the system of schooling in this country is designed in such a way as to validate the power and dominance of a certain class of people while devaluing others.

This is done at times through a power differential between teachers and students. This differential exists in any classroom, whether the teacher wishes to acknowledge it or not. I have myself felt the influence that my power has had on students, and I recall a very painful interaction with one very shy third grade student in a multilingual classroom. Casey’s native language is Spanish, but he also spoke English fairly fluently, although not as much so as most of his peers. Occasionally they would use Spanish when speaking with each other, but generally they conversed in English with both teacher and peers. Unlike his peers, however, Casey was enrolled in special education services specifically for language arts. He missed the majority of the language arts portion of the day due to being pulled out for these services. By the time I asked Casey to share a story he had written in English, all other students had already shared their stories over the course of a couple of weeks.

While examining the videotape of the lesson after the children had gone home, I wrote in my journal that day:

Casey (9.75) is sitting at his desk, aware that his turn has arrived, but still unwilling to share his story with his peers. As I prepare to introduce Casey’s story he calls out desperately, “Nononono, don’t start! Mr. Daitsman, please. I’m begging you, please.”

I ignore his pleading voice and speak to the class. “Alright, we have one last story.” I turn to Casey and attempt to reassure him with my words even as my physical presence invades his privacy by reaching out for his notebook. “You can stay here if you want, just give it to me.”


But Casey is powerless in this classroom. In elementary school, it is the teacher who wields all the power, and the children must succumb to it. I rely on this power dynamic even as I delude myself into believing that I’m trying to make things easier for him. I change tactics. I have convinced myself that if I can just keep reiterating that Casey has control over the situation that perhaps both he and I would come to believe this. I explain to the class that Casey doesn’t want to act in his story and that he is therefore going to stay in his seat. This seemingly innocuous pronouncement of Casey’s exercising his own power in the classroom glosses over the fact that what I am about to do next completely overrides his autonomy when it comes to his intellectual property.

Casey takes his plea to his classmates, telling them, “It’s too short.”

As he says this, I begin the casting process and tell the class, “There are two characters in the story. The characters are Casey and his friend.” My stating this right on the heels of Casey’s pronouncement of how short his story is turns out to be catastrophic to my goals of trying to build Casey’s confidence, as his classmates begin to make fun of Casey’s story before it has even begun.

I feel myself losing control of the situation. Suddenly everything I know about dramatizing children’s stories, everything I’ve been trying to do with this activity is being undermined with the very last story we share in the first round of dramatizations. Instead of building community, I’m now driving it further apart. Instead of being a champion of inclusiveness, I have opened the door for the ridicule and ostracization of a child with special needs.

I interrupt the growing pandemonium, “Hey, hey, hey, hey!” I catch myself. I’m not sure if Casey realizes that the other children are making fun of him. I feel the need to find a way to make it clear to the class that it’s not okay to make fun of Casey while at the same time still trying to coax Casey into actually wanting to share his story with the class. If I draw attention to the fact that they’re ridiculing him, Casey is going to draw back even further. I solve my dilemma by once again invoking the element of power. Rather than making it about Casey, I make it about myself, “Did I say you all could start talking about the story right now?”

The class quiets down, but Casey remains reluctant and says, “No, I don’t know.” He groans as I take his notebook from him and ask him if he’s come up with a title yet. He tells me that he hasn’t and explains, “I only just came here.” He is referring to the fact that he had spent the past two hours in his special-education class. As I ask the class which table was next in line to be in a story, Casey asks to go to the bathroom. This is the third time he’s asked me since he got back as we were beginning to act out stories today. I know that he hasn’t had a chance to go all morning, but for some reason I still feel like he should be in the room while his story is being acted out.

I tell him, “After we talk about your story, alright?” I pose it as a question, but really it’s a statement. We both know that what I really mean is that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter. I address the class, “Alright, table six, who wants to be in the story?”

Casey mutters, “Nobody.”

I assign roles to the two volunteers and remind them, “It is a short story.”

Casey confirms this, saying, “Very short. Very short.” There is some snickering and Casey says, “Shorter than half.”

I remind the class, “You know what, the first stories we were doing were pretty short too. Because people didn’t have a lot of time to write, so it’s okay to have a short story.”

This explanation isn’t acceptable to Casey and he takes advantage of this opportunity to self-depricate even further, “No it’s not okay. I’m in third grade.”

I wonder if he’s feeling the pressure of being pulled out of the classroom for special education services, but I put that question in the back of my mind and instead ask, “Alright, are we ready?”

Casey puts in one last plea, “No, we’re not.” I ignore him and begin reading the story.

Valdés reveals that “motivation is a crucial factor in language acquisition. Isolation creates a climate in which youngsters have few incentives for learning English” (2001, p. 151). In the example of Casey, he had been driven to despair as he compared his skill to that of his peers. The pressure that I exerted in my position of power as his teacher served to demotivate him further by denying the reality of his own perception of his work. As a student who did not have the same level of English language competency as the majority of his classmates, he had been made to feel that his perception of his language capabilities was not worthy of recognition.

Valdés makes it clear that teachers “must help students to find and create insurgent voices—voices that question the reality that surrounds them” (2001, p. 159). After my eye-opening experience with Casey I modified my approach, and by the end of the quarter he voluntarily published one of his stories in the class’s anthology. If I hadn’t reflected carefully on the moment that day, I could very well have missed the role my own exercise of power was having on Casey’s sense of agency, and his experience could have turned out much like Lilian’s, in which “The village child who first wrote about being happy and about wanting to learn English had turned into an angry and rebellious young adolescent” (2001, p. 83).


Racism and Oppression

As I was writing this blog entry I glanced over at a newspaper and saw two words in the headline that made me stop what I was doing and read the article. Those two words were: Racism over. It seems that the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a law overturning Affirmative Action in Michigan schools. The idea that racism could end simply because a small group of (admittedly very powerful) people declares it so is so outlandish that I find it difficult to comprehend how the justices that voted in the majority opinion could have the gall to make such a declaration. Immediately my thoughts turned to Elisa, another of the case studies Valdés discussed in this book.

Elisa “saw herself as an English speaker who had some limitations but who was learning more every day” (2001, p. 98), however her ESL teacher “felt strongly that allowing students to move forward with weak skills would result in many complaints from the mainstream teachers who had agreed to take on more non-English-background students” (2001, p. 99). Though Elisa performed well on a language competency exam, her teacher held her back. This was the reality Elisa was up against at every stage of her academic path. Arbitrary policies overruled demonstrated competence, and she found herself entering high school in courses that would not allow her to attend college afterward because “no ESL classes or sheltered classes met college entrance requirements” (2001, p. 107).

Is this racism? Is there an oppressive state toward non-English speakers in this country? A few months ago a friend of mine told me “Not having something offered in one’s language is incredibly oppressing. It limits one’s life chances.” But Elisa’s case seems to indicate that the oppression goes deeper than that. The oppression is not just a result of lack of language ability, but rather systemic constraints on those who come from a certain background, regardless of their language growth and competence. As Valdés concludes, “The teaching of English to immigrant students, rather than being a straightforward and unproblematic practice, is a contested site in which there is a struggle about the role and the future of immigrants in our society” (2001, p. 159).

I plan on examining some of these issues further next month when I will most likely discuss Vivian Paley’s White Teacher (2000 [1979]). If there are any books you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.



Paley, V.G. (2000 [1979]). White teacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.