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Empowering bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural students

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The messages we send to our multilingual students about their abilities and potential can significantly impact their future. As educators, we can use our valuable time with students to instill a belief that their multilingualism is an asset which will open doors in their college and career journeys. 

Unfortunately, some educators may inadvertently project their unconscious biases onto their ELs and foster limiting beliefs or negative self-esteem. One educator and former EL shares how she took a negative experience like this and ultimately became an advocate for second language learners.

Sonia Águila was born in Santa Barbara, California but grew up in a small town near Guadalajara, Mexico. She returned to California at age 11 only knowing how to count to ten in English. During her senior year of high school, she was told by a counselor that her English wasn’t strong enough for college and encouraged her to look into other jobs rather than applying for higher education.

“I went home, and I cried. I cried for three days. I knew since I was five that I wanted to be a teacher. And so to hear this counselor tell me that I can’t because I’m not fluent and I have an accent was devastating,” she reflects.

Águila, thankfully, did not listen to that “advice.” Three days later, she applied to college. 

She went on to be selected as high school Salutatorian, attend Santa Barbara City College where she was Latino Student of the Year and transferred to the University of Santa Barbara on a full scholarship to obtain an elementary teaching credential with an emphasis in Spanish before continuing on to receive her Masters in Education. She is the Dual Language Immersion Chairperson for her current school district and was chosen as teacher of the year by CABE in 2022 and NABE most recently in 2023. 

We are joined by Águila to learn more about her story and discover her approach to teaching that has inspired countless students and educators across the country.

The importance of relationship building with students

Águila is all too familiar with the self-doubt many language learners face in their education journeys, and the mental blocks many students have towards being successful students. But she also learned early in her teaching career the importance of relationships and addressing the needs of the whole student before focusing on learning.

“I’m thinking of a student I had early in my career who was very defiant,  he would flip tables, break pencils, and throw classroom supplies on the floor. He clearly did not want to be my student,” she recalls. 

She invited the student to have lunch with her in the classroom. She learned that he liked dinosaurs, so she brought in dinosaur books and toys. Little by little, they became friends and he started to learn.

“I wanted him to sit down and learn. But I learned the hard way that relationships come first. And I read a quote somewhere that students don't learn from teachers they don't like. So we became friends first.”

Some educators disagree with this notion, believing that it is necessary to keep a boundary between teachers and students to avoid losing their respect or having them become too familiar or comfortable. But Águila truly believes that forming these long-term relationships and prioritizing students’ SEL needs being met are one of the most important parts of her successful learning outcomes.

“I do look at the whole child, and by that, I mean their social-emotional. I need to know what is happening at home. Every morning when I take attendance, I take a look, see how they're feeling. Are they sleepy? Are they tired? Are they hungry? If they didn't eat, then I send them to the cafeteria for breakfast. So all that is important. Yes, I want them to learn, and I do have pretty high standards, but you need to address all those things.”

Starting a Dual Language Immersion program

Six years ago, Águila helped start a dual language program in her elementary school. Her team initially faced challenges in convincing their school board to approve the program, which was fairly novel at the time. They ultimately succeeded after collecting a number of parent signatures in support and conducting and presenting research on similar programs at other schools. 

Now, they work with UC Santa Barbara to assess their students in the program, and find on average that they are a full year ahead of their monolingual peers. Águila is beginning to work with the high school to implement a DLI program as well so their students can graduate with the Seal of Biliteracy. 

“We're really, really proud of this program. It works. By sixth grade, they're fully bilingual and fluent in two languages,” Águila shares. 

She explains the importance of integrating multicultural books and resources in order to build not only an understanding of other languages, but of other cultures as well. 

“The goal of our DLI program is for students to be bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. So not just, ‘I can speak in two languages.’ We also teach them about cultures, we learn about Chinese New Year, we celebrate Las Posadas from Mexico. We make tamales in class. We learn about Frida Kahlo, Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month. They learn the best by doing, so we use a lot of projects to accompany our reading.”

Águila uses her own experience as a language learner to impact her teaching strategies as well. She has empathy for the students who only speak English in the program as she understands the struggles they face learning a new language. She also brings in a number of strategies that helped her as an EL.

“When I was learning English in high school, I remember the teacher singing. She assigned another student to help me. So I make sure I continue with those strategies. I use lots of songs and visuals and charts. I assigned students a support person so we help each other.”

Celebrating bilingualism & looking ahead to the future

Águila believes that she is not a teacher for the year that her students are in her classroom, but for life. She writes letters to her former second graders for their high school graduation, and her work starts early to ensure that the doors are opened for college and beyond.

“As a second grade teacher, I really try to keep the parents informed. A lot of the parents think, ‘College is so expensive, I cannot afford it’ And so I inform families so hopefully they can also encourage their children. I do that by writing education articles for a local newspaper. I also am a radio host for a children's program, and those are great ways to educate parents early about college opportunities for their children,” she shares.

In addition to proactive outreach and education of families, Águila takes great care to create a classroom environment where students learn to embrace their bilingualism as an asset to their personal and academic lives.

“Students walk in the classroom, and they feel very proud. I have posters, charts about being bilingual everywhere.They know that being bilingual is a superpower. We have a daily mantra. We say ‘We're strong, we're smart, we're bilingual,’ and they keep repeating it every day and they believe it.”