This month, I've been working with my 8th graders on a journalism study of the neighborhood surrounding our school, which I wrote about last year in Edweek. This is an adaptation of a study I have done with students before in East Harlem and Crown Heights before this. In each school community, the methods are more of less the same, but the dynamics of the experience and the findings are unique to the students and the neighborhood.
This year, it was a chilly morning, when students conducted their original surveys out on the border of Park Slope and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It was 9am and potential survey participants were busily hurrying to work. Students approached adults, asking them to please take their surveys, but many shook their heads and kept walking.
As the day got later and the sun got stronger, more people were willing to take the survey, and students got excited every time they were successful. But still many adults turned the students down--something I had not encountered so much in the other neighborhoods. (Here are links to Part I and Part II of the process in Crown Heights in 2009.)
In some cases, students realized that the adult they were asking did not necessarily speak English, which was a real barrier to participation. A few shook their heads and said simply, "No English." One eighth grader noticed, "Hey, our data is not going to be accurate, because we can only ask the people who speak English."
At that point, some of our Spanish-speaking students realized there was a simple solution to this problem, and began approaching pedestrians in Spanish with more success. It got even better when Spanish-speaking students started translating for non-Spanish speaking students to help them get more participants in their surveys, which is what is happening in the picture on the left.
I was especially happy to see this because I've noticed that many of my Latino students--who make up 35% of the 8th grade student population--seem to avoid speaking Spanish in school. Unlike the bilingual middle school I worked in in East Harlem, where Latinos were a majority and regularly spoke Spanish, English and Spanglish to one another, my Spanish-speaking students are shy and even embarrassed to speak the language. I assume they do this in response to English clearly being the language of the majority and the language of their academics, aside from Spanish-language class.
The day we conducted the surveys around Sunset Park, knowledge of Spanish became a powerful tool for success on the project. It became a way of connecting with and learning from more people, allowing us all to gain a more complete picture of the realities and perspectives of the community. Finally, among students in our diverse school, the experience sent a strong message of the value of bilingualism.