Language Lessons

Using student assistants to bridge culture and language

By Denise M. Hanson

Illustrator: Joseph Blough

Students learn, and teach, Spanish 3 at West High School in Madison, Wis.

“I know another language and can teach it to others who are learning the language that I know. Being a Teaching Assistant has been a beautiful experience. I have met people in this class who are very nice also… I met new friends. I see that they are happy with the things that I taught them.”
a 15-year-old student from Peru

For the past three years, I have used native Spanish-speaking students as teaching assistants in my Spanish classes. I’ve found it challenges the white norm prevalent at my high school, and could also be one piece of a strategy to help close our district’s achievement gap. By working as teaching assistants, native Spanish speakers gain skills, status, and all students are deeply exposed to cultures and languages.

West High School in Madison, Wis., a school of more than 2,100 students, is about 65 percent white. Latinos, many of them immigrants, are the fastest growing group in the school, as they are throughout the district; they now make up 10 percent of West’s students. Latino student achievement has been low relative to their white peers.

Just two years ago, only 60 percent of West’s Latino students graduated, as compared to 96 percent for white students.

Uncomfortable Fit

West High School has more than 200 students from about 40 countries enrolled in its English as a second language program. Although these students speak a total of 20 languages, more than half speak Spanish as their first language. And while many of these students speak Spanish fluently, few have the same confidence or skill when it comes to reading and writing.

As a longtime Spanish teacher, it has always concerned me that most ESL students seem marginalized in the school. Over time, I realized that ESL students connect fairly easily with each other, especially with other speakers of their native language. They often form close relationships with ESL teachers and staff. Yet, they tend to remain sheltered in a small community within the school, and English speakers rarely form friendships with them.

Over the years, I have worked to bridge this gap by opening up my Spanish classrooms to native Spanish speakers. I’ve encouraged and even recruited them to take my classes. I felt their presence would enhance our classroom both culturally and linguistically. I also hoped that this would facilitate students making friends outside of their own ethnic groups. Unfortunately, my push to move native Spanish speakers into my classroom often backfired when other students made comments to native Spanish speakers along these lines: “What are you doing in this class? You already know Spanish” or worse: “You should know Spanish.” At an age when peer approval is particularly important, comments like these can be hurtful.

Many Spanish-speaking students have told me they not only failed in the traditional Spanish classes, they felt stupid for doing so. I began to understand how these experiences with Spanish classes designed for nonnative speakers could actually harm the native speakers’ desire to improve their own Spanish language skills. Partly due to my experience working with native speakers ill-served by the standard Spanish curriculum, West now offers a Spanish for Spanish Speakers class, which I currently teach.

Having native Spanish speakers in my classroom underscored for the native English speakers that English speakers have multiple opportunities to improve their native language throughout their school experience—an advantage most of their Latino peers do not have. This often comes up when a native English speaker asks me why a Spanish speaker would be taking Spanish—and that question comes up frequently, usually in a one-on-one situation. I tell them that, as native English speakers, they have taken English classes since they were in elementary school. It is clear to me, and borne out by research, that native Spanish speakers need to know their language not just socially, but academically. While the opportunity to be a TA gives Spanish speakers a new social standing in the school, it is also important for them to have the chance to study their language with their peers—again, one of the motivating factors for me to advocate the Spanish for Spanish speakers course.

All of my TA students come from areas of the Americas that have been economically and politically ravaged, both by U.S. policy as well as by internal political upheavals. Many of them come from poor families, and even those of middle-class backgrounds have seen education in their countries take a backseat to the more immediate needs of food, shelter, and safety. Many of these students quickly learn basic English, but they never acquire the fundamentals they will need to pursue education beyond high school. At the same time, they lack a strong background in Spanish language literacy. Because they’ve yet to master either language, everyday academic performance is an ongoing struggle.

Students as Teachers

At West High, teaching assistantships were traditionally offered to high-achieving students, particularly in the sciences and math. Being able to list a TAship on a transcript was a sign of academic status. I sought to confer that same status on native Spanish speakers, too long regarded only in the context of what they do not know. I believed native English speakers would benefit from authentic oral practice and the native Spanish speakers would become more literate in Spanish. This turned out to be the case as the native Spanish speakers had to know enough about Spanish to be able to explain different grammatical and linguistic points to the students in the class. An added benefit was that native English speakers would become more familiar with the geography, history, and culture of the teaching assistant’s country of origin. Teaching assistants at Madison West receive credit (without a grade) for the class, increasing the likelihood they will graduate.

Teaching assistants participate in Spanish classes in multiple ways. On the first day, I tell my students that they can ask the assistants anything they want as long as they ask in Spanish. My classes range from Spanish 1 to 3, so the students are all over the map in terms of ability. Students have the opportunity
to hear the distinct accents of the assistants, as well as learn some background information about each TA.

One problem for teaching assistants is they are initially uncertain about their role. They have to adjust to the enhanced status as knowledge providers, as well as to define their new relationship with the students. It’s a struggle for some, but I’ve found my native Spanish students rise to the challenge and show empathy for their English-speaking peers. Omar, a TA from Mexico, remembers how hard it was at first:

At the beginning, I was kind of unsure of what level they were at, and I didn’t want to start just talking in Spanish to them because I think, like, I can speak really fast and that was kind of a problem…. I would use these words that they don’t really know yet. And that was a big thing, having to use the words that they learned in class and not only the words that I know… once I’d been in the class for a while, it just got easier.

As the students begin to think of themselves as teachers, they begin to understand themselves as leaders. Raúl, another TA, saw it this way:
I learned to take more responsibilities because you are a TA, you’re a teacher assistant, it’s like a job. If there is one student who is not really getting the class or something like that, then Ms Hanson is like, “OK, you’re going to give him special attention so he can understand.” You feel like, OK, if he fails, I fail.

Sharing Home Cultures

Each TA does a formal presentation about his or her home country that also includes a lot of personal information about the TA. I ask them to talk about their own experiences growing up, and also about what it was like to come to the United States. For example, Claudio, a freshman TA from Nicaragua, told his peers about the long Contra war in his country. It is something all Nicaraguans learn about, even though the war was coming to an end just as Claudio was born. After Claudio’s presentation, I invited his father, Roberto, who fought with the Sandinistas, to speak with the class. I asked students ahead of time to take notes and ask questions of the guest speaker — a fairly significant task for my students to carry out in Spanish. Roberto now comes to my Spanish classes once a year to talk about Nicaragua, usually after I have prepared my class with readings and/or a movie.

Each year, my Mexican TAs teach about a core celebration of their culture, the annual Day of the Dead. They bring in pictures of ofrendas, an offering that incorporates food, drink, flowers, candles, and pictures to celebrate the souls of deceased relatives. Several students talked about the difference between the traditional approach to death in the United States and the way that it is understood in Mexico. Zaira, a Mexican TA who has been here for less than two years, took a major role in this class period. “It was fun for me to share with the other students,” she said. “They all were surprised that we actually put out food for our ancestors — they’re still a big part of our lives, and that’s not so true here. I like the way that we remember, and celebrate, our ancestors, and I’m proud of it, and I think the other students really got that.”

The teaching assistants are able to teach in a nonthreatening way that does not involve formal assessment or grades. In addition, there is a lot of informal exchange of experiences. Claudio helped organize a student walkout in support of the April 10, 2006, demonstration for immigrant rights. We talked about the walkout in each of my Spanish classes, and the organizers—Claudio and Rafael, also a former TA — came to speak to the classes about the walkout. They explained to the Spanish classes that they themselves didn’t have to worry about legal documents, but many Latino kids at school do not have documents and so constantly live with uncertainty. They also talked about how the conditions in many countries, including Mexico and Central America, are so difficult that many people feel that going to the United States is their only option.

Having Rafael and Claudio talk about the immigration issue made it possible for my other students to relate to the Latino students in a way that wouldn’t have happened if I had been the only one broaching the subject. In subsequent classes, we talked about the importance of supporting the march, and why it was crucial that all students — not just Latino students — be present in the march. Having the teaching assistants in the class made the march much more personal and important to many of my students. I believe their presence in class resulted in the majority of my native English students joining the walkout.

Bi-cultural Friendships

Almost all the assistants report that the U.S.-born students now greet them regularly in the hallway, and they no longer feel so isolated. One assistant, a 17-year-old male from Peru, told me how near the beginning of the year he felt that two African-American girls in the class didn’t like him, wouldn’t greet him, and even said “bad things” to him in the halls. As the year went on, he said they started to ask him questions in class. By spring, he told me: “They say, ‘Hey.’ They’re affectionate; they give you their hand or a hug or they joke with you. They pass you in the hall and are with their friends and they say, ‘Look, it’s my friend Joaquín, my Spanish teacher.’ I like it.”

Another TA, Pablo, said he may now have more “North American friends than Latino friends.”

Throughout this experiment, my teaching assistants have taken on additional leadership roles. They seek out future assistants and give me suggestions for expanding the program. They often talk about how this program should continue and extend to all Spanish classes. I am convinced that placing Latino students in leadership roles has had a powerful impact on both the lives of my students and TAs, as well as on the greater school community.

Denise Hanson-Rautiainen ( teaches at West High School in Madison, Wis.