From Lullabies to Literature – Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse

(en español)

From Lullabies to Literature - Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2007

It is lunchtime and there are two empty seats at the table.  Everybody knows that Trinity and Amanda are best friends, so the two seats have been left for them.  But neither Trinity nor Amanda wants to come to the table.  They had gotten in an argument and told each other that they never wanted to be friends again.  Now, with the only two seats remaining being next to each other, they refuse to come.

I approach them and bring them together away from the table and place myself between them.  I tell them a story from my childhood.  It is a story of when I was a child and I had an argument with my best friend, and we said we would never be friends again.  I tell them how I had gone home that day and cried, but the next day we were playing together again, and even today I still am friends with him on facebook.  I tell them I can sit between them at lunchtime to help them while they are arguing, but that I think they will be friends again.  They don’t believe me, but join me at the table.  Sure enough, that afternoon they were inseparable once again.

Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse say that “Stories can cross the borders of time and place better than many other experiences because they connect children and adults to each other through the sharing of universal feelings and experiences” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 7).  In this situation, Trinity and Amanda were having difficulties with conflicting feelings.  They had been close friends all year, but recently Amanda had gone away for an extended time, and ever since her return they were having more arguments and their friendship appeared to be suffering.  But my story helped bring them closer together by helping them to realize that they can come back together after an argument.

Many people equate the word “story” in a classroom with the word “book”.  When I talk about telling a story to a child in my class, people often assume I am referring to reading a book.   But stories are both much deeper and more diverse than that.  As this example reveals, told stories can also play a very powerful role in the classroom.  Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse tell us that “told stories can extend linguistic learning that happens through natural conversations and language play” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 74).

In my bilingual classroom, linguistic learning is very important.  While I read books in both languages, my told stories for a long time were only in English.  I recall the moment I realized that I needed to start creating told stories in Spanish.  In my classroom we had these Story Starters in a Jar, published by a company called Free Spirit Publishing.  They contain a short phrase with an ellipsis in a thought bubble to help trigger the imagination.  Several children enjoyed using the Story Starters to tell their own stories. When I noticed that they were all in English, I contacted Free Spirit Publishing to see if they had a Spanish version available.  They did not, and also informed me that they had no intention of publishing a Spanish version.  They gave me permission to translate them myself for my classroom.

A short time after adding the Spanish version to my classroom, Brandon told me he wanted to do one of the Story Starters in a Jar.  I decided to try out the Spanish ones with him.  As I read it to him, he stared at me blankly.  I read it to him again and he stared at me blankly again.  After repeating this several times, I asked him if he was going to finish the story and he told me, “You know what, I change my mind.  I don’t want to do this.” I then offered to make up a story myself based on the story starter, and he sat and listened to my story in Spanish.

However, I discovered I had difficulty creating a story in Spanish.  I realized that I needed to tell stories in Spanish more often.  Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse say that “Children with little or no knowledge of English will generally enjoy the same stories as children who are native English speakers, provided that you are expressive and use props when you share them” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 83).  I quickly discovered that the same is true for English speakers when telling stories in Spanish.

One day shortly thereafter I told a story in Spanish at lunchtime.  It was a story about a rabbit going for a walk in the grass and coming across a dog.  The rabbit ran home to its mother who kept it safe.  Later that day Amanda created the following story:


One day there was a little cat.  And then she saw a rat.  And then when the rat saw the cat it ran away into the forest, because that’s where its home was.  But it didn’t know the path home.  And then the little mouse found a tree.  It found its home.  And then the cat found another rat.

She replaced the rabbit with a rat/mouse, and the dog with a cat.  Otherwise, a great deal of this story follows the structure of the story I had told at lunchtime.

As I considered Amanda and Trinity’s relationship, I thought about this story of Amanda’s and what it revealed about the nature of dangers outside of the home.  Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse reveal that “Stories weave bright threads of communication and connection through all human relationships” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 116).  Amanda connected with my story and retold it in her own way because it was one that strengthened our relationship by speaking to her concerns of the time, namely her fears of not connecting with others away from home; her fears that her teachers and peers at school will be more like the cat than like another rat or mouse.

Trinity was exploring similar fears around this time, and she created the following story:

Me and My Amigos

Once upon a time there was a little girl.  And her name was [Amanda].  And there was another girl named [Trinity].  And there was a boy named [Seth].  And then there was a little girl named [Bridget].  And they were doing a story.  And they were doing outside.  And there was a big storm.  And then the storm made me so powerful that it made me mean.  And then there was the sun.

For Trinity, her story expressed a great desire for friends, and she added many peers as characters to be her friends in her story.  However, she realized that friendship can be like the weather.  It can go from sunny to stormy in an instant.  And when that storm approaches, she herself can become mean.  But she also realized that it can go the other direction and the sun can come back just as suddenly.

Not long after the lunchtime incident where Amanda and Trinity refused to come to the table, they got into another argument.  My personal story had served its purpose that day, but it was a temporary solution, and now once again they didn’t want to be near each other.  Birckmayer, Kennedy / Stonehouse tell us that “when we listen to their stories, we model attentiveness and reinforce children’s willingness to listen carefully when others share stories with them” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 15).  I decided this time to demonstrate such attentiveness to one of Trinity’s own stories and use it as an example rather than one of my own.  I pulled out my computer and read her story from long before, “Me and My Amigos.” I told her what I had noticed about friendships being like the weather.  She instantly showed that she recognized this analogy when she said, “Me and [Amanda] are having a storm right now.”

They came together to act out one of Amanda’s stories as well, and the next day, when they got into an argument once more, they immediately resolved it without my intervention.  Through stories, they were able to come together and find their friendship once again, demonstrating how “the gift of stories can greatly improve any early childhood program” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 113).


Next month I will most likely be discussing the book Including One, Including All by Leslie Roffman and Todd Wanerman.  If there is a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.



Birckmayer, J., A. Kennedy, & A. Stonehouse. (2008). From lullabies to literature: Stories in the lives of infants and toddlers. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Roffman, L. & T. Wanerman. (2011). Including one, including all: A guide to relationship-based early childhood education. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.


Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism – Colin Baker

(en español)

Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism - Baker 2011

As I entered a bilingual preschool classroom I found myself filled with excitement, but also a little bit nervous.  It was a new group of students, a new program I had never been in before, and a new teaching model I had never experienced before.  I was to be one of two English language models in the classroom that also had two other teachers that were Spanish language models.  This is the classroom version of what Baker calls “The ‘one-person – one language’ parental approach in a family,” which he describes as “a well-documented and often successful route to bilingualism” (Baker 2011, p. 113).

It wasn’t long before I found myself well-adjusted in the classroom and fitting in with the language model well.  However, as Baker describes, “there is often a difference between formal policy and the informal practice of codeswitching, with ‘center stage’ and ‘back stage’ choices” (Baker 2011, p. 287).  While I spoke primarily English in the classroom as per our official policy, I would occasionally code-switch into Spanish for a variety of reasons with both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students.  I noticed this trend among all four teachers in the classroom.

Baker reveals that “codeswitching is a frequent behavior among bilinguals, with a variety of valuable purposes and benefits” (Baker 2011, p. 112).  For myself, I relied on code-switching with Spanish-speaking students to help build a connection with them and help them feel more at ease around me, and also to insure understanding of difficult concepts or during times of stress.  I code-switched into Spanish with my English-speaking students to increase their exposure to Spanish, particularly during times of the day when we were doing a small group activity without one of the Spanish-language models.  After all, Baker tells us that “understanding (and speaking) a second or third language quickly grows once there is sufficient exposure and incentive” (Baker 2011, pp. 104-105), and by using more Spanish with my English-speaking students I provided that exposure.

However, the incentive seemed to be lacking.  The children knew that I was an English-language model and that, if they didn’t understand me at the time, they could rely on me for English a short time later when I switched back into my official role as English-language model.  As Baker states, “If language mixing by the teacher occurs, students may wait until there is a delivery in the stronger language, and become uninvolved at other times” (Baker 2011, p. 228)  Several months into school the year we noticed that the English-speaking students were not progressing in their Spanish as rapidly as we were expecting.  Most of the children were very reluctant to tell stories that included any Spanish, and even when they did they limited themselves to a handful of words.  For example, by late January Sally’s attempt at telling a story in Spanish included only three words:

My Little Pony Babies

Once upon a vez there was a princesa.  And her name was Aurora.  And another one was a mermaid.  And her name was Ariel.  Then another day there were 3 princesas.  They were ponies, but not people or princesses.  Then there was 10 My Little Ponies.  Baby ones.  Baby Applejack, baby Twilight Sparkle.  And then there was Rainbow Dash and Pinky Pie and Fluttershy.  And then so don’t forget Spike.  And then that’s The The End.

Baker reveals that “education cannot be separated from issues of power that affect the lives of bilinguals” (Baker 2011, p. 335).  In our society in general, it is the English language that is the language of power.  One of the reasons we conjectured for the difficulties of the English-speaking students related to the fact that, for a successful bilingual program using our language model, “The numerical balance of native speakers and learners of a minority language is important, possibly tilted to a predominance of minority language speakers” (Baker 2011, p. 305).  Our program, however, was tilted to a predominance of majority language (English) speakers.  While fifteen of the 32 students in the class listed Spanish as being spoken at some level in the home, only three students had Spanish listed as the primary home language.

We needed to do something to offset this balance toward English, and Baker gives us a clue as to the solution when he states, “the dominance of a majority language outside school can be complimented by a corresponding weighting towards the minority language in school” (Baker 2011, p. 223).  The teachers-as-language models approach in our classroom provided equal exposure to both languages in the classroom.  What we needed to do was change the model to favor exposure to the minority language (Spanish).  We did this with a time-based model, using Spanish three days a week and English two days a week.

An unforeseen, yet perfectly logical phenomenon resulted almost immediately from this change.  I began to notice the children engaging in more collaborative language exploration.  As Baker tells us, “Language learning is partly about becoming socialized through interaction with other language speakers in particular social contexts” (Baker 2011, p. 133).  Amanda, one of the quietest and most reserved children in the classroom, but one who also loved to tell stories, had never created a story that included any Spanish.  The day after the new language model officially went into effect, she created a story together with Ammon, a child who had recently begun exploring Spanish in his three most recent stories.  Though this was an English day, Ammon continued his exploration of Spanish by including it in this story as well, while all of the parts that Amanda told were entirely in English:

The Lion Ate the Bunnies

Once upon there was a little bunny.  And then there was a lion.  And then the bunny ran away.  And then there was a tiger.  And then the tiger ate the bunny.  The lion saw a other bunny and ate it.  And then uno conejo y pues una lion.  Then there was 100 bunnies.  And then there was another bunny.  And then there was a lion.  And then there was eleven bunnies.  And then the lion ate the bunnies.  The End.

Sally quickly latched onto the idea of creating stories together with other children, and the following day, Sally and Amanda created a story together:

Cat [Sally] [Amanda]

Hoy a gata.  And then it went all the way to [Sally].  But [Amanda] was the owner.  But [Sally] was the mom.  And dos gatos came.  And una vez una flower bought there was a big grande monstruo named Teacher Jeff.  But uno vez and dos gatos came again.  And then there was a kitten, a baby one.  And it went to its mommy [Sally] mamá cat.  And they love each other.  And the baby kitten was named [Amanda].  But dos más grande Teacher Jeff.  Love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you.

A word count reveals this story to be a whopping 16.67% in Spanish, a huge leap from Sally’s high of 6.78% from before the shift in language model, and Amanda’s 0.00%, and this time both children were using Spanish during the parts of the story they told.  In fact, by the time a month had passed from when we announced to the children that we would change the language model, Sally was creating collaborative stories that were as much as a quarter in Spanish, with herself contributing a great deal of the Spanish (as with the following story she created with Brandon, a child with less experience creating collaborative stories, in which the only Spanish word Brandon contributed was “plantos”):

Plants Versus Zombies

Once upon a time there were zombies.  And then there was plantos.  Then a cherry bomb came and explode the zombie.  Then there were sunflower with sun.  And una vez una grande monstruo como [Brandon].  Then there were still more bombs and explode the bad guys.  Then one hundred zombis como se llama [Brandon], [Brandon], [Brandon], [Brandon], [Brandon].  Then [Brandon] came and eated all of the zombies.  Then [Brandon] comió todos monstruos.  And they save everyone from the zombies and monsters.  To be continued…

The striking thing about this story is not just the quantity of Spanish used, but the sentence structure.  She’s using descriptive language (i.e. “grande monstruo como [Brandon]” – big monster like Brandon) and verbs conjugated appropriately for past tense (i.e. “[Brandon] comió todos monstruos” – Brandon ate all monsters), while at the same time continuing with the flow of a story that is engaging, with a clear beginning setting the stage, heightened tension in the middle, and an ending that resolves the conflict and sets the stage for the possibility of more in the future.

As for Amanda, the collaborative language exploration she was doing with other children helped her Spanish growth so much that she too, like Ammon, began including Spanish in her stories, even on English days.

Elsa and Anna

Uno vez Elsa.  And then there was Anna.  And then Elsa froze Anna.  And then there was Hans.  And then Hans got killed by Anna.  And then Anna and Elsa married with the prince.  Then Elsa said it was Anna’s birthday party.  And then there was Kristof.  And then Anna and Kristof married.  And then Olaf ate the cake.

By changing the classroom language model, we implemented an effective tool toward helping children on their road to bilingualism.  Baker tells us that “To allow students to make progress in both languages, there needs to be strategic classroom language planning” (Baker 2011, p. 288), and our conscious adoption of a new method served as that planning.


Next month I will most likely be looking at the book From Lullabies to Literature (Birckmayer, Kennedy, & Stonehouse 2008).  If there is a book you would like me to discuss in my blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.



Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism, 5th edition. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Birckmayer, J., A. Kennedy, & A. Stonehouse. (2008). From lullabies to literature: Stories in the lives of infants and toddlers. Washington, DC: NAEYC.


Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela – Rosa Sensat

Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela - Sensat 2011(in English)

He pensado mucho en cuál libro a leer para el regreso de este blog. Creo que es importante que discuto la observación de los niños en la clase, porque este blog es sobre mis observaciones con relación a los libros que leo. Pues, leí el libro Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela (Sensat 2011), mostramos nuestras observaciones de los niños por medio de la documentation.

He enseñado en muchas clases a través de los años, y los niños han aprendido mucho. Pero yo también he aprendido mucho por mis observaciones. Y también los niños, si lo saben o no, me han enseñado mucho. Como dice David Altimir, “los niños y los adultos tienen que estar, para aprender, en relación con los demás” (Altimir 2011, p. 38). Los niños y yo tenemos que estar en relación mutua. Cuando yo pienso en lo que los niños dicen, cuando yo reflexiono en lo que pasa en la clase, cuando yo hablo con mis estudiantes sobre mis reflexiones, nosotros ambos aprendemos. Una forma de observar los niños es escuchar. Altimir dice, “La escucha pone al adulto en la condición de observador, pero no de observador neutro y objetivo, sino en la condición de un elemento subjetivo que forma parte de la realidad que está observando y que no solo la describe, sino que construye” (Altimir 2011, p. 39).

En una de mis clases, Irene iba a clases de ballet. En el invierno yo observé a ella bailando el ballet de “Cascanueces.” A ella le gustaba contar historias de balet de no ficción. Ella me contaba frecuenemente sobre una “prima balerina” que necesitaba cirugía en su pierna y no podía hacer ballet por mucho tiempo.

A Irene también le gustaba contar historias de ficción sobre princesas. Una vez ella empezó una historia que yo pensaba fue una historia de ficción. Empezó así, “Una vez estaba una balerina. Y ella era una princesa. Y ella tenía una hermano. Que quaría la hermana. Y después estaba otra hermana. Y ella no era una balerina. Ella era una reina. Y ella se llamaba Isabella.” Pero ahora ella se detuvo la historia. Ella me dijo que no pudo recordar. Le dije, “No tienes que recordar. Tienes que imaginar.” Pero ella me dijo, “No quiero.”

La actividad de contar historias usualmente es una actividad de una dirección. Los niños cuentan, y yo escribo. Es una forma de observar por escuchar. Pero Mara Davoli revela que “’observar’ es un verbo activo, un acto creativo que requiere nuestra interpretación” (Davoli 2011, p. 16).

Cuando Irene me dijo que no quería imaginar lo que seguía en su historia, tuve que actuar en la observación. Pues, tuvimos una conversación.

Irene: El hermano no estaba una prima balerina. ‘Cause I forgot [Porque me olvidé].

Jeff: ¿Sí?

Irene: Don’t write that down [No escriba eso].

Jeff: ¿Qué, qué era el hermano?

Irene: Él, then, so, do you know Cristoran Col- Columbust [pues, conoces a Cristoran Col-Columbust]?

Jeff: ¿Quién?

Irene: Cristonal Canaldis.

Jeff: No ¿Quién es?

Irene: There was two sisters. Isabella was younger. And her mom was again named Isabella. And, um, and, um, she had two older brothers. Yeah. And, um, she had so many, like, goldens. And Cristobal Canaldis came. And he s- wanted to buy two boats. Three boats. First, there wasn’t anything here. They didn’t know about Sfran Ticisco. Yeah. [Hubo dos hermanas. Isabella era menor. Y su madre también se llamaba Isabella. Y tenía dos hermanos mayores. Y tenía mucho oro. Y “Cristobal Canaldis” vino, y él quería comprar dos barcos, tres barcos. Al principio, no había nada aquí. No sabían sobre “Sfran Ticisco”. Sí]

Jeff: ¿Dónde, de dónde estaba?

Irene: There wasn’t anything and they didn’t know about Fran Francisco. And Cristobal Columbus wanted, and he was going to get all the way there. And going to see, see, para ver. [No hubo nada y no sabían sobre “Fran Francisco”. Y Cristobal Colón quería, y él iba a ir todo el camino allí. Y iba para ver]

Jeff: ¿Y él vino a San Francisco?

Irene: Sí. And there was just water. And he putted all the gold into it. In there. And then people took some. And then they died. [Y sólo había agua. Y él puso todo el oro adentro. Adentro allí. Y pues la gente llevó algunos. Y pues murieron.]

Jeff: Awww…

Irene: I don’t think so [No lo creo].

Jeff: Porque, porque estaba hace mucho mucho tiempo, ¿sí?

Irene: Sí. Antes que personas, antes de esto estaba aquí. Antes una vez estaba aquí.

Ella contaba la historia de Cristobal Colón, pero yo cambié la historia por mis preguntas. ¿Qué era el hermano? ¿Quién es “Cristonal Canaldis”? ¿De dónde estaba? ¿Él vino a San Francisco? ¿Estaba hace mucho tiempo? Pero toda esta conversación no estaba parte de la historia escrita, porque ella me dijo que yo no escriba. Ayudó a ella pensar en su historia, y cuando ella regresó a la cuenta después de esa conversación, ella supo lo que quería decir.

Esta fue la historia completa, con el título A Long Long Time Ago [Hace mucho mucho tiempo]: “Una vez estaba una balerina. Y ella era una princesa. Y ella tenía una hermano. Que quaría la hermana. Y después estaba otra hermana. Y ella no era una balerina. Ella era una reina. Y ella se llamaba Isabella. Y lo dió responeras a Cristobal Colón. Y él fue a los barcos. Y quiere estuvió en San Francisco. The End.”

La documentación de la historia escrita fue una buena documentación, pero no era completa. Para entender toda que la niña decía, necesitamos la grabación también, porque la grabación de la conversación revela cómo ella hizo la historia. Irene escuchó a la grabación, y podía reflexionar no sólo sobre lo que había hecho, sino también sobre cómo lo había hecho, que es muy importante para aprender. Como dice Davoli, “Hacer es importante, pero no es suficiente. Hay que permitir a los niños y niñas, y a nosotros mismos, tiempo para reflexionar sobre lo que se ha hecho y sobre cómo se ha hecho” (Davoli 2011, pp. 18-19).

Escuchar la documentación no sólo ayuda a Irene reflexionar en sus pensamientos, sino yo también. Pienso en mis preguntas para Irene. Hay cinco preguntas importantes en aprendizaje: Quién, Qué, Dónde, Cuándo, Por qué. Yo pregunté Quién (¿Quién es ‘Cristonal Canaldis’?), Qué (¿Qué era el hermano?), Dónde, (¿De dónde estaba?), y Cuándo ( ¿Estaba hace mucho, mucho tiempo?), pero no pregunté “Por qué”, pregunta muy importante. Mientras reflexioné en la documentación, miré que yo pudiera preguntado “¿Por qué vino a San Francisco?”, o “¿Por qué necesitó tres barcos?” Quizás con esta pregunta ella pensara más.

Es importante que observamos los estudiantes, pero también es importante que reflexionamos en lo que observamos. Rosa Sensat dice “no es posible documentar solo, porque sobre lo documentado es necesario un diálogo, es necesario que el otro o la otra pueda comprender, hay que estar dispuesto a desnudarse y a aceptar la crítica” (Sensat 2011, p. 11), entonces yo quiero un diálogo aquí si es posible. Por favor hacen comentarios sobre lo que piensan de esta discusión.

El mes que viene más probable estaré discutiendo el libro “Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism” por Colin Baker (2011). Si haya un libro sobre que le gustaría que yo escriba en esta blog, por favor haga comentario en la página de Lectura Recomendada.


Altimir, D. (2011). Escuchar para documentar. En R. Sensat (Ed.) Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela (págs. 37-51). Barcelona, España: Octaedro.

Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism, 5th edition. Bristol, RU: Multilingual Matters.

Davoli, M. (2011). Documentar procesos, recoger señales. En R. Sensat (Ed.) Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela (págs. 15-26). Barcelona, España: Octaedro.

Sensat, R. (2011). Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela. Barcelona, España: Octaedro.


White Teacher – Vivian Paley

(en español)

White Teacher - Paley 2000

The local library had recently added some toys to the children’s section. There was a large number of blocks in a variety of colors, but there were only two dolls: one White and one Black. Most of my students, however, were neither White nor Black. I recall seeing Jonathan, a Vietnamese student, playing with the Black doll one day. He was holding it very gently and carrying it around as any parent would their own baby. I smiled inwardly at the sight as I went to go help another child locate a book on a shelf. A moment later I noticed a commotion between Jonathan and Samuel, a Pakistani student. I went to see what was wrong, and now I saw Jonathan holding the White doll, while Samuel was holding the Black one. Jonathan said that he didn’t like the other doll because it was “brown.”

At first I wasn’t sure how to respond. Vivian Paley discusses how her training and her colleagues had brought her to the point where “I was unable to mention color in the classroom” (2000, p. 9). It was a taboo subject, so when the topic came up among children (as it typically does in a diverse classroom), she did not know how to approach it. In Jonathan’s case, I needed to get to the heart of his concern. As Paley states, “doll corner play at its best contains some of the freest expressions and most thoughtful observations in the kindergarten” (2000, p. 84). I needed myself to remain thoughtful and not react spuriously to Jonathan’s statement, so I asked him to clarify his desires. He told me that he wanted the doll that looked more like him.

Unfortunately, the reality was that neither doll looked like him. The White doll may have been closer in skin tone, but the facial features were far from being representative of Jonathan’s own face. Paley tells us that “The challenge in teaching is to find a way of communicating to each child the idea that his or her special quality is understood, is valued and can be talked about. It is not easy, because we are influenced by the fears and prejudices, apprehensions and expectations, which have become a carefully hidden part of every one of us” (2000, p. xx). How could I value Jonathan’s desire to find a doll he could identify with while not encouraging prejudice against those dolls that did not share his features.

I feel it would have been easier in some ways if Jonathan were White. I think about the term “White privilege,” and the idea that racism is an institutionalized oppression of a minority group by a dominant group. That is familiar territory. Ever since I was a child I have felt that oppression of minorities by a majority group is wrong, and I would speak out against racism when I saw it. For situations of expressions of identity by members of a minority group I instead applied the term “nationalism,” recognizing this as a means to confront the oppression that they face.

My years of teaching in diverse classrooms have helped me to realize, however, that nationalism is not necessarily a positive quality to promote. In this instance the nationalism I was observing was a member of one minority group seeking to express his identity by devaluing another minority group. As with Vivian Paley, I felt that “teaching children with different cultural and language experiences kept pushing me toward the growing edge” (2000, p. 112). I needed to rethink my approach to interracial and intercultural conflict in the classroom. The diversity of my classroom provided an opportunity for me to help the children address some deep-seated biases toward other minority groups.

It is important to help children see that, despite superficial similarities, underneath everyone is unique. As Paley states, “Friendship and love grow out of recognizing and respecting differences” (2000, p. 131). However, perhaps more important is helping children see that, despite superficial differences, underneath everyone is alike. As Paley suggests, “it’s a source of comfort to be able to identify with someone else’s feelings” (2000, p. 124). If I can help Jonathan see that beneath the differences are common interests perhaps he can grow to welcome the diversity in his life. I spoke to him about how some of the children he plays with are brown and that everybody has different skin tones. I pointed out two children he often enjoys playing with, both of whom had darker skin that Jonathan. I drew attention to Michael, an Ethiopian student, and to Samuel, the child with whom he had been in conflict that day. One day in the middle of the following week Jonathan spontaneously came up to me and said, “My Daddy is brown.” His father is also Vietnamese, but has a darker skin tone than Jonathan. This unprovoked statement of fact revealed to me that he was seriously taking to heart the conversation we had in the library that day.

Paley states that “children know they are each different in style and story; they listen eagerly and identify with one another’s separate visions of pleasure and pain, of strength and weakness, of love and loss. In their play, they reveal the intuitive and universal language that binds us all together” (2000, p. 135). As teachers it is our role to become a part of that story, to become a part of that binding. The more we can help children see that, though differences exist, there is something greater that makes us all human, the more we can help them to create a better world in which they can become agents for social justice and change.


Next month I will most likely be discussing The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home by Jonathan Kozol (1990). If there is a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading Page.



Kozol, J. (1990 [1975]). The night is dark and I am far from home: A bold inquiry into the values and goals of America’s schools, revised edition. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

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

Reading Magic – Mem Fox

en español

Reading Magic - Fox 2008

I recall attending a workshop on multicultural children’s literature. The presenters had a table displaying a large number of books. I instantly recognized a couple of them from a distance, but it wasn’t until I got closer that I realized that every single book was depicting African Americans in the illustrations. I recall wondering at the outset of the workshop why they were depicting only one culture in a workshop about multiculturalism.

Mem Fox indicates that “The more we read aloud to our kids and the more they read by themselves, the more experience they’ll have of the world through the things they encounter in books. And the more experience they have of the world, the easier it will be to read” (2008, p. 104). If we are only exposing children to books of their own culture, how are we going to help children to get that greater experience of the world?

The workshop presenters teach in a classroom with all African American children. They discussed the metaphor of books as both a mirror and a window, allowing children to see themselves as well as to open their eyes to new experiences. They presented these two images as side-by-side, with one graphic showing a full-length mirror and the other graphic showing an open window. As I considered this, I wondered if it might be more appropriate to consider books as a closed window, where one can see one’s own reflection in the glass imposed on a new landscape.

The challenge of finding appropriate multicultural books, then, is one of finding books which both speak to the experiences of a child while at the same time introducing them to new worlds they have not yet seen. A closer examination of the books in the workshop revealed that they all accomplished this. Fox states, “Entertainment is the teacher. Subtlety is the key” (2008, p. 53). Though the themes represented a wide variety of subtle concepts, they were all entertaining to the presenters’ students partly because they all depicted characters that the students could connect with.

This is where I have a dilemma. While books depicting African American characters are not as common as those depicting white characters, it has become possible to find a significant number of them. But in my classroom, the majority of my students are Vietnamese. Very few books depict the experiences of a Vietnamese child growing up in the United States in a way that allows children to connect with them. On top of the cultural disconnect, there is also the issue of language.

Having books in the languages that children speak are immensely valuable as well, not only for the ability of children to connect to the text, but also for children to build a foundation of understanding of the written word. As Fox reveals, “The more we know about a language… and the more of that language we know, the easier it is to read it” (2008, p. 87). Books that are not only bilingual but also bicultural are very valuable, but also very rare. I have in my classroom books that were written in English, and later translated into another language due to the popularity of the book. Much fewer are the books originally written in both languages by authors who represent the cultures. Most of the books that I have in my personal children’s library that meet these conditions tend to be very text-heavy and written for older children.

Fox tells us that “if every parent—and every adult caring for a child—read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to the children in their lives, we could probably wipe out illiteracy within one generation” (2008, p. 12). But this entails there being books available to read to the children. Not just three token books, but three genuinely engaging books because “It will do more for a child’s literacy to own one much-loved, beautifully written, trouble-filled book than to own lots of tacky, unappealing books in which the child shows no interest” (2008, p. 135).

My challenge, then, as a teacher, is locating such books. Given the scarcity of these books, I decided that I needed to remedy this. I approached a Vietnamese friend of mine with a proposal to create a children’s book together. With his expertise in Vietnamese culture and my understanding of what is appealing to children, we have drafted a book together that my students could connect with. But then we were faced with the problem of illustrations. Neither of us is very skilled at drawing.

This presented a major dilemma, as Fox reveals that “The pictures tell a thousand words and help unlock the action of the story” (2008, p. 58). I know that many publishers provide beginning authors with established illustrators to help increase the visibility of the book, but I worried about the lack of Vietnamese illustrators. How would someone unfamiliar with the culture depict a Vietnamese household? And what would we do if we are not able to find a publisher?

With the help of another one of my Vietnamese friends, I located a couple of artists in Vietnam who seemed interested in the project, but they quickly removed themselves from the project when they realized the intensity of work involved in illustrating an entire picture book. I decided to take my cue from one of my favorite children’s authors, Nina Crews, and utilize photographs to depict the backgrounds. At the time of this post I have currently completed illustrations on about 15% of the book using computer-generated character illustrations imposed on photographic backgrounds.

The text has already been translated into Vietnamese by my co-author, and I once asked the mother of one of my Vietnamese students, Danny, to read it to him. As she began to look at the text, she started to tell me that it would be too difficult for him. I found that interesting because the very same text had raised concerns from my co-author about possibly being too simple. As Danny’s mother began reading, I saw the excitement of recognition in his eyes as she read words to him that were unintelligible to me, but occasionally elicited excited exclamations from him in English that demonstrated understanding of the story. Fox tells us, “there’s no doubt that little kids—and big ones—love being read aloud to” (2008, p. 26). If this story, unillustrated, can provoke such enjoyment in Danny, I can only imagine what his response will be when the illustrations are added.

I have mentioned in a previous post my attempts at reading to the children in Vietnamese. Without my understanding of the language, my attempts met with humorous excitement from the students, but I am now fairly certain that they were just humoring me when they told me my pronunciation was right. Even if I was pronouncing it accurately, Fox makes it clear that “Reading isn’t merely being able to pronounce the words correctly, a fact that surprises most people. Reading is being able to make sense from the marks on the page” (2008, p. 79).

I have taken multiple steps to help remedy this. On one account, I recently began learning Vietnamese after assisting my co-author in developing a free online course for Vietnamese speakers to learn English. My fieldwork getting translations in various dialects helped build my awareness of resources available in my neighborhood to learn Vietnamese. But not all of my students speak Vietnamese, and after Micah, an Amharic-speaking student, raised his objections to my offering to read a book in either Spanish, English, or Vietnamese, I invited his mother to come read the book to the class in Amharic. Ever since then, our weekly trip to the library has usually been accompanied by a different parent come to read to the children. At times other children in the library have sat down to listen to the reading as well.

It’s wonderful to see such engagement from the children in the reading process. As Fox makes clear, “if we’re able to raise happier, brighter children by reading aloud to them, the well-being of the entire country will ramp up a notch” (2008, p. xii).

Next month I will most likely be discussing the book Learning and Not Learning English by Guadalupe Valdés (2001). If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.



Fox, M. (2008). Reading magic: Why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever, updated and revised edition. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Publishing.

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

Pensamiento y Lenguaje – L.S. Vygotsky

(in English)

Pensamiento y Lenguaje - Vygotsky 2012Llegué en un templo para celebrar el Año Nuevo Lunar.  Había estado allí por unos pocos momentos antes de una de mis estudiantes corrió hacia mí y me dio un gran abrazo.  Todas las personas en el templo hablaban vietnamita, pero, sin mi estudiante, no los podía entender.  Vygotsky dice que, “La función primaria del lenguaje es la comunicación, el intercambio social” (2012, p. 21).  En este ambiente no puedo participar en tal intercambio social.  ¿Cómo debería sentir mis estudiantes en mi aula cuándo no hablan inglés?

Es por esta razón que también utilizo los idiomas de mis estudiantes en mi aula.  Los estudiantes que hablan vietnamita me enseñan palabras del idioma, el cuál es hablado por la mayoría de mis estudiantes.  Cantamos algunas canciones en vietnamita, y utilizo las pocas palabras que sé cuándo puedo.  Como Vygotsky expone, “El éxito en el aprendizaje de una lengua extranjera es contingente de un cierto grado de madurez en la nativa” (2012, p. 131).  En esta situación, por mis estudiantes, la “lengua extranjera,” no es extranjera, pero tampoco es la nativa, aunque tiene similitudes con ambas.

Lo importante es que está siendo utilizado como medio de comunicación.  Vygotsky declara, “la función prmaria de las palabras, tanto en los niños como en los adultos, es la comunicación, el contact social” (2012, p. 35).  Y en mi aula la comunicación es muy importante.  Una actividad más importante es la dramatización de los cuentos que habían sido dictadas por mis estudiantes.  Aunque todos de mis estudiantes hablan otras idiomas en sus casas, en mi aula prefieren contar sus cuentos en inglés, porque inglés es la idioma común en mi aula.  Y entonces, a veces pueden contar cuentos juntos.  El siguiente cuento se dictó por dos estudiantes, Nhung, quién es vietnamita, y Maxine, quién es china:

Once upon a time there was a monkey go in the princess house. Because the princess fall down, the baby cry and Mommy helpeded the baby. And then ’cause the window fall on the people. Danny eat food with his Mommy. And then the baby cried.

[Érase una vez había un mono ir en la casa princesa.  Porque la princesa se caer, el bebé llorar y Mamá ayudodado al bebé.  Y entonces porque la ventana caer en la gente.  Danny comer comida con su Mamá.  Y entonces el bebé lloró.]

El cuento contiene errores, pero es comunicativo.  En esta historia las estudiantes están explorando los conceptos de peligro y de ayudar.  ¿Qué es el significado de caer?  ¿Cómo afecta a la gente?  El bebé lloró cuando la princesa se cayó, entonces la madre ayudó al bebé, pero no a la princesa.  Y cuando la ventana se cayó sobre la gente, el bebé lloró otra vez, pero Danny y su madre comieron, inconscientes de la ventana.  El bebé fue la personaje más importante del cuento, y las palabras las ayudan describir esto.

Y también las niñas descubrieron que las palabras escritas son diferentes de las palabras orales.  Vygotsky manifesta que, “En el lenguaje escrito, como el tono de la voz y el conocimiento del tema están excluidos, nos vemos obligados a usar muchas más palabras y de modo más exacto” (2012, p. 166).  ¿Por qué el bebé lloró?  Porque la princesa se cayó y entonces la ventana cayó sobre la gente.

Y estas dos estudiantes de culturas diferentes encontraron algo común en esta tema.  En ambas culturas, los bebés lloran y las madres los ayudan.  Para Nhung, también pudo traducir la palabra “baby” (bebé) en vietnamita.  Maxine no pudo traducir la palabra en el momento, pero después vendría a disfrutar de traducir palabras al chino.  Y hacía.

Y las palabras son muy importantes.  Vygotsky nos dice, “el uso de la palabra es una parte integral del proceso de desarrollo, que mantiene su función directriz en la formación de los conceptos genuinos, a los que conducen estos procesos” (2012, p. 101).  Porque palabras son tan importante para el desarrollo, es importante que los niños las encuentran frequentamente en su idioma nativo.  Tengo libros en todos los idiomas de mis estudiantes.

Éste será la tema del próximo mes, donde hablaré del libro Reading Magic por Mem Fox.  Si hay un libro que le gustaría que yo discutirse en este blog, por favor comente en la página de Recommended Reading.


Fox, M. (2008). Reading magic: Why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever, updated and revised edition. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Publishing.

Vygotsky, L.S. (2012 [1934]). Pensamiento y lenguaje (J. Itzigsohn, Tran. & Ed.). Mexico City, Mexico: Ediciones Quinto Sol.

Teaching in 2 Languages: A Guide for K-12 Bilingual Educators – Reyes & Kleyn

(en español)


Teaching in 2 Languages - Reyes, Kleyn 2010Since I first began teaching more than seven years ago, I have had students who have spoken more than a dozen languages.  My students over the years have spoken Amharic, Arabic, Cantonese, English, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu, and Vietnamese.   According to Sharon Adelman Reyes and Tatyana Kleyn, “All teachers can and must find ways to show students that their languages and cultures are not just valuable tools for learners, but valuable parts of who they are” (2010, p. 39).  I have always valued the diversity of my students and sought to learn bits of their languages while they were in my care, and in more recent years have encouraged my students to do the same.  By demonstrating an interest in their language, I am also demonstrating that it has value and helping to curb the attitudes such as those found by Josie Freeman and Rebeca Madrigal in which “Not all of the families believe that learning their native language is an asset to their academic and personal growth” (2010, p. 124).

Because of my investment in connecting with my students and learning the languages spoken in my classroom, I am generally able to find parents willing to mentor me in their language.  But one year is not enough time for me to become fluent in a language from these few bits and pieces picked up from students and their families before they move on to another classroom.  Greater depth is needed and, while my community may predominantly use one culture or another, it is always but a pocket within an English-speaking world and my encounters with my mentor parents are too sporadic to be effective.  The act still held value in that “When we consider carefully what families bring, by conducting home visits or even just by asking questions, we find that parents can contribute to a wide range of content areas by sharing their real-world experiences” (2010, p. 146), but for my personal path as a language learner it was not enough.  I used to speak Spanish fairly well in early childhood, but even that language has eluded me through these basic interactions.  As Reyes and Kleyn reveal, “when there are aspects that differ from one language to the next, explicit instruction becomes necessary” (2010, p. 98).

However, language instruction programs usually require either attending classes (which can be complicated to work into a schedule that already includes both college and teaching), or paying a great deal of money for programs like Rosetta Stone.  However, just over four months ago I discovered a free program called Duolingo.  It was created only about a year before I found it, and its educational model uses translation of sentences to teach the language.  As you become more advanced you are encouraged to help translate articles from the internet (regular readers may have noticed over the past several months that I have been adding comments to my older posts which read “Thanks to the assistance of the Duolingo language community, this post is now available in Spanish / Gracias a la comunidad lingüística Duolingo, este publicación está ahora disponible en español”).

I was skeptical of the instructional model in the beginning.  After all, based on my knowledge of language instruction I feared that translation-only instruction was not an effective pedagogical method.  Elizabeth Silva indicates that it is also important to “incorporate links to prior knowledge, preview unfamiliar vocabulary, and provide visuals” (2010, p. 129).  However, as I was making a dedicated effort to learn the language, and I didn’t limit myself to Duolingo’s pedagogical strategies, I found it to be quite an effective primary learning tool.  I continued to follow my usual course of trying to learn all the languages of my students, including Spanish, by talking to them and their families.  I would also occasionally call up my Chilean relatives, play games like Scrabble in Spanish, and engage in online conversations in Spanish with other Duolingo users.  I found that as time went on I was able to communicate more and more effectively with my Spanish speaking students and their families.

I vividly remember the moment one of my students came up to me out of the blue and asked me, “¿Qué estás haciendo?” to which I replied, without even realizing the student had spoken in Spanish, “I’m putting away the food.”  We both laughed when we realized what had just happened.  Not only does this moment reflect a defining point of progress in my own development, it also represents one in that student’s as well.  When I first met this student they had attempted to deny that they spoke anything other than English.  Since that time the student has not only acknowledged that they speak Spanish, but even gotten to the point of code switching in the classroom.  Reyes and Kleyn reveal that “The extent to which a person actively alternates between cultures determines the ease with which competency in both cultures will be maintained” (2010, p. 33).

In addition to the language learning strategies I have already mentioned using to help me learn Spanish, I have also taken to reading to myself in Spanish.  At first it was a few books from my collection of children’s books, but the vocabulary in those books was rather limited.  While I realize that, as Reyes and Kleyn reveal, “learning vocabulary, unlike learning the phonological or morphological system of a language, is a never-ending process” (2010, p. 76), I wanted to do as much as I could to facilitate my vocabulary growth as I reached the more advanced stages of the structural knowledge I gained from Duolingo, so at a certain point I made a decision that I would find something with more advanced language that would also captivate my interest.  After asking a few bilingual teachers and getting suggestions that only partially appealed to my interest, I discovered that a book written in Russian and translated twice into English, and one that was the topic of the post that launched this blog, was available in Spanish as well.

As I read Vygotsky’s Pensamiento y Lenguaje (2012) in the classroom during our independent reading time, many children have taken to looking at it as well.  The idea that “children need to read to learn and not only learn to read” (2010, p. 69) is reinforced when the children see me reading an informational text and they decide to pick it up themselves, not because it has exciting pictures as the other books in the classroom do (which it does not), but because reading is an inherently noteworthy act.

It is my hope that, after taking a trip to Mexico to solidify my conversational skills this summer, I will obtain my bilingual endorsement and begin truly learning yet another language spoken by my students.  Duolingo has helped me to see that it is possible to learn a complete language rather than just a few simple words and phrases that are useful in the classroom.  Seeing how much I have learned from Duolingo in Spanish, I am constantly in search of bilingual people to help Duolingo develop courses for some of the other languages spoken by my students.  Currently it only offers courses in four of the fifteen languages mentioned at the beginning of this post, with bilinguals currently contributing to two others.  That leaves another nine languages with no foreseeable means to learn them in the same manner as I have now learned Spanish, but perhaps by the time I have learned those six languages the other nine will either be available or I will have discovered another free pedagogical source as effective as Duolingo.

In the meantime, I will continue reading and learning in Spanish.  I hope to have finished reading Pensamiento y Lenguaje in time to make it the topic of my one year anniversary blog post next month, which I hope to write in Spanish as well.  If you have other books you would like to see me discuss in the future, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Reyes, S.A. & T. Kleyn. (2010). Teaching in 2 languages: A guide for K-12 bilingual educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Vygotsky, L.S. (2012 [1934]). Pensamiento y lenguaje (J. Itzigsohn, Ed. & Tran.). Tlaxpana, México: Ediciones Quinto Sol.