The scene: A small group of fifth grade ELL students are chatting as they work on writing in the ELL classroom. All of the students are from Mexico, except one boy, who is from Malawi in Africa.
Student 1 (from Mexico): You know “_______’s” little brother from Africa? He said you are lying. He said Malawi isn’t a real place and that you made it up. He said you can’t be from Malawi because it’s not real!
Student 2 (from Malawi): I’m not lying! I am from Malawi!
Student 1 (from Mexico): How do we know that?
Student 3 (from Mexico): Can we look on Google or on the globe to find Malawi?
Student 2 (from Malawi): Malawi is on Mrs. Tolson’s door! How could it not be real! Of course it’s real! We don’t have to look on Google if it’s on her door! It must be a real place!
Not the fact that this child lived in Malawi for years.Not that he speaks four languages that he learned while living there (Swahili, Lingala, French, Chichewa) or the fact that he hasn’t seen his grandparents and brother in over two years who still live there. Not the fact that he has photographs and memories from there. It’s not even that it exists on maps, globes, in books and on the internet. The fact that Malawi was on my door (or more accurately, the flag of Malawi was on my door – an activity we did the first day of school to represent all of the countries in our ELL classroom). THAT is the defining moment for this child that proves to the world that his homeland exists.
Teachers, PLEASE take the time to cherish and honor and nurture your students’ cultural backgrounds and languages, no matter how irrelevant or distant they may seem to you. They mean everything to these children and we need to make sure they never forget them.