Rethinking Bilingual Education book cover

Rethinking Bilingual Education

Welcoming home languages in our classrooms

Edited by Elizabeth Barbian, Grace Gonzales, and Pilar Mejia

Available in:

Paperback: $24.95

Publication Date: April 12, 2017

ISBN: 9781937730734

Rethinking Bilingual Education is an exciting new collection of articles about bringing students’ home languages into our classrooms.

  • How do we bring social justice curriculum into our bilingual classrooms?
  • How can we honor our students’ native languages, even when we don’t teach in a bilingual setting?
  • How do we involve diverse groups of parents in our classrooms and schools?
  • What can we learn from Indigenous language immersion about the integral relationship between language and culture?
  • How do we elevate the status of non-dominant languages when there is so much pressure to prioritize English?

The articles in Rethinking Bilingual Education show the many ways that teachers bring students’ home languages into their classroom, from powerful examples of social justice curriculum taught by bilingual teachers to ideas and strategies for how to honor students’ languages in schools with no bilingual program. We see bilingual educators work to keep equity at the center and to build solidarity among diverse communities. Teachers and students speak to the tragedy of language loss but also about the inspiring work to revitalize languages on the brink of disappearance and to defend and expand bilingual education programs. 

Rethinking Bilingual Education is an approachable collection of ideas that serve to inspire educators with new insights for centering the development of critical consciousness in a variety of settings.”

Jody Slavick, Bilingual Research Journal

“In the tradition of Rethinking Schools, the publication Rethinking Bilingual Education does not shy away from exploring issues of privilege and power, race, language, and culture–even with the youngest of students–and sees public education as a transformative vehicle in society, and educators as political agents.”
Rosalyn Harvey & Desire Pallais, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism

“Breathtaking and bold in these times of racist sound bites and sanctions! Rethinking Bilingual Education promotes equality among language users from many ethnicities and contexts. It offers strategies and stories for bilingual education as part of the larger struggle for human liberation and social transformationand examples of teaching, learning, and community organizing at their very best.”
Enid Lee, professional development consultant in anti-racist education and educational equity, co-editor of Beyond Heroes and Holidays

“A remarkable book, not only for the depth and breadth of issues related to bilingual education it addresses, but for the clarity sustaining its central premises: language is a human right, an essential aspect of culture, a source of family and community strength, and plays a fundamental role in obtaining social justice.”
Alma Flor Ada, award-winning children’s author, professor emerita, University of San Francisco

“The narratives of teachers, students, and parents that form the core of this inspiring volume demonstrate that sustained bilingual instruction rooted in anti-racism is a prerequisite for ‘effectiveness’ in the education of emergent bilingual students.”
Jim Cummins, professor emeritus, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

“As a teacher and professor of multicultural and multilingual education, I am ecstatic for Rethinking Bilingual Education. Finally, a resource that has grassroots educators and advocates for bilingual education in mind, with clear and applicable next steps from lesson plans to policy.”
Curtis Acosta, former Mexican American Studies teacher, assistant professor of Language and Culture in Education, University of Arizona South

Chapter 1: Language Stories

What’s at stake when we talk about language and identity? What happens when languages are banned or students are made to feel ashamed for speaking their home languages in schools? Teachers share poignant stories from their own lives that demonstrate just how deeply language loss and suppression can affect our students.

Colonizing Wild Tongues Camila Arze Torres Goitia

Uchinaaguchi: The language of my heart Moé Yonamine

The Death of My Mexican Name  Edith Treviño

Some Languages Are More Equal than Others  Geetha Durairajan

Chicago Stole My Mother’s Yesterdays Patricia Smith

Chapter 2: Our Bilingual Classrooms

In this chapter, bilingual teachers from a variety of settingsfrom ASL to Mi’kmaq to a high school Spanish heritage classshare the powerful social justice curriculum they are teaching in these bilingual spaces, and how they scaffold language while tackling challenging themes such as racism or deportation.

Cultivando sus voces: 1st graders develop their voices learning about farmworkers Marijke Conklin

“Qué es deportar?”: Teaching from students’ lives  Sandra L. Osorio

Questioning Assumptions in Dual Immersion Nessa Mahmoudi

“Kill the Indian, Kill the Deaf”: Teaching about the residential schools Wendy Harris

Carrying Our Sacred Language: Teaching in a Mi’kmaq immersion program Starr Paul and Sherise Paul-Gould, with Anne Murray-Orr and Joanne Tompkins

Aquí y Allá: Exploring our lives through poetry–here and there Elizabeth Barbian

“Wonders of the City”/”Las maravillas de la ciudad” Jorge Argueta

Not Too Young: Teaching 6-year-olds about skin color, race, culture, and respect Rita Tenorio

Rethinking Identity: Exploring Afro-Mexican history with heritage language speakers Michelle Nicola

Chapter 3: Welcoming Home Languages

How can we bring students’ home languages into the classroom when there isn’t a bilingual program in place? In this chapter, authors share how they have taught about language rights, welcomed home languages into their classrooms, and created bilingual or multilingual spaces at non-bilingual schools.


Welcoming Kalenna: Making our students feel at home Laura Linda Negri-Pool

Uncovering the Legacy of Language and Power Linda Christensen

Language Is a Human Right: An interview with Debbie Wei, veteran activist in the Asian American community Grace Cornell Gonzales

Putting Out the Linguistic Welcome Mat Linda Christensen

Ebonics and Culturally Responsive Instruction: What should teachers do?  Lisa Delpit

Mi Love di Way Mi Chat: Patwa and bilingual education in Jamaica Jacqui Stanford

“Colonization in Reverse” Louise Bennett-Coverley

Building Bridges: A dual-language experience for high school students April S. Salerno and Amanda K. Kibler

Ganas Means Desire: An after-school program links Latina/o university students with middle schoolers Roscoe Caron

Chapter 4: Equity at the Center

How do we design bilingual programs that work for social justice and equity? How do we elevate the status of non-dominant languages when there is so much social pressure to value and prioritize English? How do work with special needs students who are also language learners? How about students who speak a third or fourth language at home? In this chapter, educators share challenges and successes they encounter when trying to keep equity at the center of bilingual programs.

La Escuela Fratney: Creating a bilingual school as a greenhouse of democracy Bob Peterson

Building Bilingual Communities at César Chávez Elementary: An interview with Pilar Mejía Elizabeth Barbian and Grace Cornell Gonzales

Why Are We Speaking So Much English?: Promoting equity in dual-language classrooms Deborah Palmer

The Intersection of Language Needs and Disability Roberto Figueroa

Beyond Bilingual: Including multilingual students in dual-language classrooms Leah Dur‡án, Michiko Hikida, and Ram—ón Antonio Mart’ínez

Making Space for Spanish Alexandra Babino and Carol Wickstrom

El corazón de la escuela/The Heart of the School: The importance of bilingual school libraries Rachel Cloues

Chapter 5: Families and Communities

Involving students’ families and communities should be at the core of our teaching practices. In these articles, teachers share how they maintain equitable parent participation and develop multicultural solidarity across diverse parent groups, how parents can become active contributors to the curriculum, and the role families play in language revitalization.


Cuentos del corazón/Stories from the Heart: An after-school writing project for bilingual students and their families Tracey Flores and Jessica Singer Early

“Famous”/”Famoso” Naomi Shihab Nye

Strawberries in Watsonville: Putting family and student knowledge at the center of the curriculum Peggy Morrison

“When Are You Coming to Visit?”: Home visits and seeing our students Elizabeth Barbian

“Aren’t You on the Parent Listserv?”: Working for equitable family involvement in a dual-immersion elementary school Grace Cornell Gonzales

Tellin’ Stories, Changing Lives: How bilingual parent power can complement bilingual education David Levine

Rethinking Family Literacy in Head Start Michael Ames Connor

Our Language Lives by What We Do: An interview with Hawaiian educator Kekoa Harman Grace Cornell Gonzales

Chapter 6: Policy and Advocacy

Bilingual education has come under attack, both through legislation attempting to ban teaching in other languages and through an overwhelming emphasis on standards and high stakes testing. These articles describe some of these attacks and also show us some examples of how students, communities, and teachers have advocated for bilingual programs.


Are You a Subject or an Object?  Carlos Lenkersdorf

Reflecting on My Mother’s Spanish Salvador Gabald—ón

The Struggle for Bilingual Education: An interview with bilingual education advocate Tony B‡ez Bob Peterson

English-Only to the Core: What the Common Core means for emergent bilingual youth Jeff Bale

What Happened to Spanish?: How high-stakes tests doomed biliteracy at my school Grace Cornell Gonzales

Advocating for Arabic, Facing Resistance: An interview with Lara Kiswani Jody Sokolower

Language Wars: The struggle for bilingual education in New Britain, Connecticut Jacob Werblow, Aram Ayalon, and Marina Perez

Bilingual Against the Odds: Examining Proposition 227 with bilingual teacher candidates Ana M. Hernández

Recommended Resources


Rethinking Bilingual Education


What does it mean to rethink bilingual education? When we started to work on this book, we envisioned a collection of articles that would empower bilingual teachers to reflect upon their practice, position social justice pedagogy at the center, and tackle the tough issues of racial and linguistic equity.

Yet, as we gathered articles and did interviews, we were reminded just how much is at stake when it comes to language. Rethinking Schools editor Moé Yonamine shared her story of being hit and knocked to the ground by her teacher in Okinawa for the offense of speaking their shared native language. Educator and activist Debbie Wei described how her parents chose not to speak their Chinese language at home because of the climate of fear and discrimination when they immigrated to the United States from China during the McCarthy era. Debbie explained that, years later,

I was the only person with my mom when she passed on. She passed at home and everyone but me was in another part of the house at that moment. I was just sitting, watching her, because we knew she was passing soon. Her final words were in her village dialect. I was the only person there to hear them, and I didn’t understand what she said. No kid should have to go through that. I never want another child to not understand their mother’s final words. Language should be seen as a gift, an asset, not a deficit.

As Debbie reminds us, education in one’s native language is a human right. That is the central premise of this book. Many of the authors in this book show us how, over and over, people’s fundamental rights to their languages have been suppressedfrom boarding schools for Indigenous peoples in the United States, Australia, and Canada; to Deaf students forbidden to express themselves in sign languages; to elementary school students being physically beaten by teachers for speaking in their native tongues even today.

The classroom stories in this book provide a strong counter-narrative to the suppression of non-dominant languages and the repression of bilingual education. In them, teachers share the powerful work that they are already doing to welcome their students’ languages into their classrooms and keep equity at the center of their teaching. As we compiled these articles, we identified some common principles that we believe should form the foundation of any bilingual program.

Social Justice Principles for Bilingual Education

Home Language Is a Human Right. Students have the right to learn in their native languages; this belief should be at the core of any model for bilingual education. When we view language as a right, it becomes clear that bilingual programs should not simply use students’ languages as a bridge to English. Biliteracy should be valued along with bilingualism; students should have the right to develop academic literacy in all subject matters throughout their school careers.

Even if there is no official bilingual program, schools must ensure that home languages are welcomed and supported. This isn’t just an individual right. As we learn from Indigenous educators and activists, it is often a matter of cultural survival. Moé Yonamine reminds us:

If our mirukuyuu (youth) lose their language, they will lose their culture and their identity. Schools must be places where our youth are empowered to learn and nourish heritage languages, to use them and spread them to the next generation.

Culture and Language Are Inseparable.  Teaching a language means teaching the cultures that are integrated and embedded in it. Language encodes a way of conceiving of and being in the world. In her article about helping found a Mi’kmaq immersion program in Nova Scotia, educator Starr Paul describes how “The language itself changed the way we taught:”

Mukk pepsite’tekew,” or respect your Elders, became part of the day-to-day classroom environment. Respect and other Mi’kmaq values were embedded in everything we did. When I was growing up and studying in English-only classrooms, if I tripped or fell off my chair, everybody would laugh at me. But in my Mi’kmaw classroom, kids showed concern. They asked, “Mu kesito’kewn?” (You’re not hurt?) You didn’t hear anyone laughing.

Just as Paul does in her classroom, good bilingual programs weave culture into every aspect of teaching. They honor students’ family stories and their heritages, and integrate them into the curriculum. They teach a language through the cultural traditions associated with that language. And they are multiculturalthey seek out connections to other languages and other cultures.

Equity Between Students and Between Languages.  Students need opportunities to think critically about the racism and bias they see in the world around them. Bilingual teachers should work hard to foster equity in their classrooms and schools by teaching anti-racist curricula, modeling respect for differences, and assuring that all students have the opportunity to see their language skills as an asset–and themselves as valuable members of the classroom and broader community.

Strong bilingual programs also promote equity between languages by working to honor the non-dominant language. It is important to analyze all the subtle ways like language choice at assemblies or during P.A. announcements that students might be getting the message that English is more important. As Deborah Palmer reminds us in “Why Are We Speaking So Much English?” we can also teach our students how to recognize language imbalances and become their own language advocates, challenging the hegemony of English in their classrooms, schools, and society.

Social Justice Curriculum.  In the introduction to Rethinking Our Classrooms, Rethinking Schools editors wrote that social justice curriculum and practice must be grounded in the lives of our students; critical; multicultural, anti-bias, pro-justice; participatory, experiential; hopeful, joyful, kind, visionary; activist; academically rigorous; and culturally sensitive. The educators who contributed to Rethinking Bilingual Education show us many examples of social justice curriculum being taught in bilingual classrooms — from Deaf students learning about the genocidal roots of Native American boarding schools to 1st graders inquiring into the lives of farmworkers, from high school students investigating the legacy of Afro-Mexicans to young elementary school students having challenging discussions about race and skin color.

The critical sensibility present in the development of social justice curriculum also applies to how we teach language. Bilingual programs encourage students to take risks, play, and experiment with language. Students should improve their first and second languages through active learning, meaningful content instruction, and critical pedagogy not worksheets or grammar drills.

Deep Family and Community Involvement. Effective bilingual teachers create curriculum that brings families into the classroom. Teachers include family knowledge and stories into the academic instruction, as Peggy Morrison does when her 1st graders in Watsonville interview their parents about the life cycle of the strawberry, incorporating knowledge from their majority immigrant, farmworker community into the science curriculum. Families are also physically welcomed into the learning space. They participate in writing workshops, are featured as guest speakers, teach traditions and values, and work together to advocate for the schools they want for their children.

School leaders also have the responsibility to incorporate families as partners and allies to assure equity and overturn traditional exclusionary practices. This includes making sure that opportunities for parent involvement and leadership are accessible to all families, and that parent leaders represent the diversity of families at the school. It also includes bringing in community artists and other community members that reflect the varied school cultures and languages.

Critical Reflection.  When founding and developing the social justice-based, two-way bilingual program at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, Bob Peterson explains that he and his colleagues knew they didn’t have all the answers. “But,” he adds, “we try to ask the right questions.”

This is a valuable reminder to seek out important questions and to ask them again and again. Bilingual programs must be responsive to the changing needs of students, families, and communities, while maintaining a focus on equity and language as a human right. Ongoing critical reflection is key to meeting the needs of all students. Schools must provide space for adults and children to ask questions, both within and beyond the curriculum, and be open to change.

Toward Models that Promote Sustained Bilingualism and Biliteracy 

With so much variation across classrooms and schools, it is essential for educators, families, students, and community members to educate themselves about different types of bilingual programs and to carefully consider how best to fulfill the needs of their community. In this book, we have tried to highlight the stories of educators who teach in programs that promote long-term bilingualism and biliteracy, as these programs most support students’ rights to maintain and develop their home languages.

Not all bilingual programs have sustained bilingualism as a goal. In transitional bilingual classrooms, students’ home language is used as a bridge to English in the younger elementary grades, with the goal of transitioning students to all-English instruction by 2nd or 3rd grade. Such programs have been strongly criticized by proponents of bilingual education for not fostering sustained bilingualism and biliteracy.

Maintenance (sometimes called “developmental”) bilingual programs aim to develop students’ home languages with the goal of bilingualism and biliteracy. Some districts operate maintenance programs through only elementary school, while other districts have such programs through middle and high school. Often maintenance programs start with a high percentage of instruction in the home language and then, by upper elementary, have a balance of English and home language instruction.

Dual-language models generally aim to serve 50 percent native English speakers and 50 percent native speakers of the program’s other target language, such as Spanish or Mandarin, although many dual-language programs also serve students with other home languages. In these programs, instruction is in both the target language and English, although the ratios vary with the program. For example, one popular model starts in kindergarten with 90 percent of the instruction in the target language and 10 percent in English, moving toward a 50/50 ratio by upper elementary. Another model maintains a 50/50 balance from kindergarten on.

Immersion programs, in which most or all instruction is in the target language, can involve native speakers of that language, heritage language learners, and/or other students who have a goal of learning the program’s language. Other schools teach a heritage language as an academic subject; this is a language class geared toward students with a family connection to the language. Sometimes these students have familiarity with or are already fluent speakers of that language.

Maintenance programs, dual-language programs, immersion programs, and heritage language classes all aim to develop biliteracy and bilingualism, although they go about it in different ways. We believe a community’s needs should determine the bilingual program model in a given setting but we strongly favor programs that help students maintain their languages and have sustained biliteracy as a goal. We also believe that bilingual education should not be a means to track students who speak another language at home, separating them from their peers. And, regardless of the model chosen, the community’s and staff’s commitment to implementing language inclusion and equity is what ultimately determines a good program.

Welcoming Students’ Languages When There Is No Bilingual Program

Of course, bilingual programs are not possible for all students and in all contexts. There might be too few speakers of a specific language, too few teachers of a particular language, or a large number of home languages at a particular school. When our schools cannot provide bilingual programs, we believe that we need to maintain students’ right to their native languages as an ideal.

Even if we don’t speak our students’ home languages, we can find books, music, recordings, and other resources that highlight students’ languages and cultures. We can ask our children to teach us words and phrases, incorporating these into classroom routines. And, as Linda Christensen does in “Uncovering the Legacy of Language and Power,” we can help students understand the “invisible legacy that privileges some languagesand peopleand excludes or decimates others,” through teaching the histories of language suppression, loss, advocacy, and revival around the world.

It is essential that we explicitly celebrate students’ language knowledge. Too often in our classrooms, conversationsand labelsfocus on the learning of English rather than the recognition or development of students’ home languages. If we focus our conversations exclusively on English acquisition, we lose sight of the importance of simultaneous home language development and miss out on rich opportunities to bring students’ home languages into the daily curriculum.

Overview of Chapters

Our hope is that this book illuminates the nuances and complexities of educating students in their native languages and poses some important questions: How do we bring social justice curriculum into our bilingual classrooms? How can we develop equity-centered bilingual programs at the school level? How can we honor our students’ native languages, even when we don’t teach in a bilingual setting? What can we learn from Indigenous language immersion about the integral relationship between language and culture? How do we involve diverse groups of parents in our classrooms and schools? How do we elevate the status of non-dominant languages when there is so much pressure to prioritize English?

We’ve organized the book so that it gradually expands outward from individuals’ stories to classroom teaching to policy issues. In the first chapter, a small collection of poignant personal narratives by educators sets the frame for the book: What is at stake when language is lost? Why is bilingual education so important? In Chapter 2, educators share social justice curriculum they’ve taught in bilingual contexts ranging from Spanish/English and ASL/English settings to a Mi’kmaq immersion program in Nova Scotia. Chapter 3 tackles the question of how to make space for students’ home languages, as well as support their critical understandings of language issues, in schools where there is no bilingual program.

Chapter 4 is centered around equityfrom promoting non-dominant languages, to teaching anti-racist curriculum to young children, to advocating for the resources our programs deserve. Chapter 5 focuses on family and communityeducators share how they involve diverse groups of parents and create family-centered curriculum. Finally, articles in Chapter 6 address policy and history, looking at issues such as the Common Core State Standards and standardized testing, as well as struggles faced by some individual schools and programs.

We hope this book contributes to an important, ongoing conversation. As we continue to rethink bilingual education, we are thankful for all of the great educators, activists, and thinkers who have been engaged in this work for many years. We hope this book will ignite and deepen our commitment to honoring all students’ languages.

Rethinking Bilingual Education contains a shortened version of “Uncovering the Legacy of Language and Power,” originally published as a chapter in Teaching for Joy and Justice , by Linda Christensen. Materials from this unit are available for download as .pdf files here, or on pp. 218-247 in Teaching for Joy and Justice.