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Language and literature create sanctuaries in Berkeley schools

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FEBRUARY 26, 2017

ocated on the on the corner of Russell and Ellsworth streets on the west side of Telegraph Avenue lies LeConte Elementary School, a bilingual elementary school dedicated to far more than just the academic enrichment of its recognizably diverse student body. Within its walls lies an oasis of progressivism and tolerance that can only be described as reassuring.

At first glance, the school seems just like any other elementary school — charming classrooms, enthusiastic teachers and energetic students. But, upon closer observation, the school’s broader objective becomes clear. “LeConte is … very visual about inclusivity at their school,” said Gresia Calderon in an email, a UC Berkeley junior and a co-director of the Berkeley United in Literacy Development (BUILD) program at the school. BUILD mentors work one-on-one with youth in Berkeley and Oakland to advance their reading skills and provide literacy support.

In the school’s hallways, artistic representations of influential leaders and civil rights activists line the walls. A timeline recognizing the accomplishments of Black individuals was created in honor of Black History Month. Upon entering the front doors, visitors are welcomed by a sign that reads, Todos pertenecemos en Berkeley – “We all belong in Berkeley.”

LeConte Elementary is one of many schools in the Berkeley Unified School District committed to fostering equity and diversity in its classrooms. BUSD has been placing more emphasis on the development of programs and plans intended to close the achievement gap and create more inclusive learning environments. The 2020 Vision plan for schools in Berkeley strives to ensure that students of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds are “equally ready to learn and succeed in Berkeley Public Schools.” This includes responding to students’ specific cultural and linguistic affiliations through adaptations to the curriculum. BUSD’s Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Systems department also provides resources for families to address issues relating to culture and academic progress. Ultimately, the goal of BUSD is to minimize disparities in academic achievement between races and improve the district’s overall student performance.

These are not the only fervent efforts being made to facilitate this process. Recently, schools such as LeConte Elementary advance learning for students of all racial backgrounds via language and literacy programs.

As a Two-Way Immersion School, LeConte Elementary School promotes student biliteracy through the integration of the Spanish language at early grade levels. Both English and Spanish-speaking students are exposed to dual language immersion, which means that both groups acquire fluency in a second language in addition to developing their own respective native languages.

“One of my first grade students is trilingual,” said campus junior and BUILD Co-Director Jacqueline Sanchez in an email. “He can speak English, Spanish and Japanese. His parents speak to him in English and Japanese at home and it was easier for him to learn Spanish when he started school at LeConte.”

Through this program, students not only acquire extended language capabilities, but they also receive a more diverse linguistic and cultural learning experience. “I think it creates an understanding between cultures because they are engaging with one another through the language and enriching activities,” Calderon explained in her email. “Native speakers feel like their primary language is being validated in academia which is not something you see very often in some settings.”

BUSD’s literacy coach and former UC Berkeley graduate student Liliana Aguas focused her research on the incorporation of diverse language resources in education as a means to create more inclusive and effective learning. She instructs BUILD mentors, giving them specific strategies to assist students based on their individual reading levels and native languages. In 2012, she received the Outstanding Young Educator Award from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and was named BUSD Teacher of the Year for her innovative teaching techniques.

“Spanish was my first language but because the elementary school I attended was not bilingual, I struggled a lot to communicate with my peers and teachers and had a difficult time catching up,” Sanchez said in her email, reflecting on how she could have benefitted from a two-way immersion program like LeConte Elementary’s.

Looking at demographical statistics, the need for inclusive and adaptive teaching becomes remarkably apparent. In the BUSD District Profile for 2013, the student demographic profile reflected no majority ethnicity of students. Additionally, nearly half of all students in the district were categorized as socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Outside of innovative teaching strategies like bilingual immersion programs, BUSD strives to accommodate for the diversity of its students by advancing not only how they learn to read, but what they are reading.

Equal Read is an organization committed to providing diverse book collections to schools and libraries in the Berkeley area. Its goal is to promote inclusivity and cultural competency through exposure to more diverse and representative literature. Students have access to books that reflect diverse social identities rather than those with characters with limited heterogeneity in terms of ethnic background and socioeconomic status.

“From my experience, my students were more willing to read when they were reading a book that they felt they could relate to. Exposing children to diverse books is also important because it make(s) them aware and appreciative of the many differences between people.”

— Jacqueline Sanchez

BUSD has greatly benefitted from the introduction of diverse books to its schools, and it is using this resource to help create identity-safe classrooms that increase student engagement and ultimately school performance.

Taun Miller Wright, CEO of Equal Read, led a presentation on diverse books for BUILD mentors, discussing the importance of introducing diverse literature to promote student empathy and inclusivity. She underlined the concept of books as both “windows and mirrors,” an idea introduced by Ohio State University Professor Emerita Rudine Sims Bishop and explored by children’s author Grace Lin in her TEDx Talk. According to Lin, children should both be able to identify with the books they read and gain a larger understanding of those around them.

“From my experience, my students were more willing to read when they were reading a book that they felt they could relate to,” Sanchez explained in her email. “Exposing children to diverse books is also important because it make(s) them aware and appreciative of the many differences between people.”

Furthermore, Miller Wright argues that more diverse books help eliminate stereotype threat, or the feeling of being at risk of confronting stereotypes affiliated with a social group. “Social change is more likely to happen when everyone understands how they will benefit directly from increased diversity,” she wrote in a blog post, underlining the importance of diverse literature.

“Diverse books allow (students) to engage with (different) experiences and open up a conversation about them,” Calderon said in her email. “It might also introduce them to experiences that they don’t necessarily experience but exist and they should learn about.”

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the concept of "windows and mirrors" to Grace Lin. In fact, the concept is the idea of Rudine Sims Bishop.
Contact Molly Nolan at [email protected].

MARCH 02, 2017