Contributed by Ivannia Soto
Sixteen years ago, I began my teaching career in the Los Angeles Unified School District, at the second largest middle school in the country, teaching English to ELLs and students who had been ELLs, to a 99.9% Latino population. As a former ELL myself, and the child of immigrants, I used culturally responsive teaching to both validate my students’ language and cultural experiences, as well as connect their backgrounds to the cultural and linguistic needs of other students of color who had similar stories of struggle. One of the first memoirs that I had my students read was Always Running by Luis J. Rodriguez (Los Angeles’ Poet Laureate in 2014). The book is partially set in the community where my students lived (South Gate and Huntington Park), and many of my students faced the same struggles that Rodriguez did, including gang influences. Some of the themes of memoir that were highlighted when reading were choices and consequences, as well as how everyday decisions brought Rodriguez into, and eventually out of, the gang life.
After having my students read about their own experience and community with Always Running, I then had them read Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, so that they could trace and connect their own civil rights and struggles, with that of the African American experience. Since most of my students had not often encountered African Americans in their community (which was predominantly Latino), it became an eye-opening and empathic experience for them to link the struggles of their community with that of African Americans.
As a Latina English major in college, who minored in Southern Literature, I always knew that I wanted to link the experiences of people of color, so that we could be advocates for each other and build bridges. What began in my first year of teaching, now continues in my teaching at the college level, and is central to my writing and research, including The Literacy Gaps (Corwin, 2009), and the Institute for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching (ICLRT) that I have just launched at Whittier College. ICLRT’s mission it is to do just that, “Promote relevant research and develop academic resources for ELLs and Standard English Learners (SELs—students who speak non-standard forms of English, like Chicano English or the African American Vernacular English) via linguistically and culturally responsive teaching practices.” Included below are ICLRT’s Design Principles, based on the literature for meeting the needs of ELLs and SELs.
Institute for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching (ICLRT) Design Principles
Best practices for culturally responsive pedagogy and academic language development proposed both in the ICLRT Design Principles and the classroom example above, embody how teachers can simultaneously meet the needs of ELLs and SELs in today’s classrooms. When ELLs and SELs see themselves in the curriculum, and their academic language needs are strategically addressed, we can ensure that our most needy students succeed in school. Additionally, when we have and hold high expectations for our students, while also providing sustained and effective professional development over time, we can reverse the effects of underperformance by ELLs and SELs.
Dr. Ivannia Soto is Associate Professor of Education at Whittier College, where she specializes in second language acquisition. She began her career in LAUSD, where she taught students who either were or had been ELLs. Soto has written three book for Corwin Press—The Literacy Gaps: Building Bridges for ELLs and SELs, ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change, and From Spoken to Written Language with ELLs—which together tell the story of systemic reform for ELLs.