What It Means to Speak Their Language

By Alyssa Lee (Wheelock ’21)

It’s 7:30am on a warm October Wednesday. 20 third graders sit at their desks, pens at the ready, fingers perfectly poised to flip their papers over in as little time as possible. After all, time is precious when you’ve only got ten minutes to complete 100 multiplication problems. Their teacher sets a timer at the front of the class, and 20 third graders from Brazil, Guatemala, Somalia, Israel, Mexico, and other countries begin to multiply their 2s through their 12s.

My first semester at Boston University, this is how every Wednesday morning began for me. This weekly observation was part of one of my first classes at BU: Introduction to Education. I had been at BU for all of two weeks, and already I was in the classroom, observing a Structured English Immersion (SEI) classroom in which every student spoke English as a second language. At this point in my career, I was eager to learn and secure in my passion to teach Spanish. For my very first field placement, however, good fortune or maybe even fate landed me here, in a classroom which did not teach Spanish to speakers of English, but rather taught English to speakers of other languages. I was lucky enough to watch students’ English skills improve tremendously over the course of the semester. Their instruction was entirely in English, but newer students with lower level English skills often did not have the skills necessary to keep up in class and, as a result, fell behind.

Explaining the concepts again in English was not enough for these students; they simply didn’t have the literacy skills to understand. They needed someone who spoke their language. As I began to speak Spanish with a few of the Mexican and Guatemalan students, I saw their faces light up. They were so excited not only to understand what was going on in class, but also to share their culture with someone that had previously seemed so different from them. From then on, we had a bond.

That was the moment I realized just how important it is to me not only to teach Spanish to English speakers so that more people can have moments just like those, but also to use my passion for Spanish to teach English to speakers of other languages as well. I decided to pick up a second licensure in TESOL. Now, a year and a half later, two classmates and I are pioneering a budding dual licensure program in Modern Foreign Language Education and TESOL. Although I resented waking up at 5:30am once a week my first semester of college, I’m so thankful for my field placement and what it taught me about myself. Every time I think about my future in teaching, I think of those first students and the way their faces lit up when I started to speak their language. I’m so excited to have more moments like those.