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Escamilla Calls for Activism in ESL
Report from KATESOL/BE 2006

At some professional conferences, especially in a field like ESL and second language learning, everything feels as if it is being experienced from within a puffy cloud floating along far above the ground, removed from reality, existing in a festival of peace and love in a place without war, terror, or racism.

But things were decidedly different from the norm at KATESOL/BE 2006, the 24th annual conference of the Kansas TESOL and NABE affiliate, hosted by Conference Chair Dr. Socorro Herrera and the Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy (CIMA Center) at Kansas State University's College of Education.

There wasn't snow on the ground, but the early February air was brisk and the information being shared with a record-setting 500 KATESOL conference-goers inside the K-State Student Union was bracing in its clarity. "I've been to too many feel-good ESL events," said Dr. Kathy Escamilla, in her keynote at Friday's opening ceremony. "I want to talk about the important personal advocacy that must be part of the job for every ESL teacher."

Current ESL programs at too many schools, Escamilla said, feature "quick fixes, short term solutions, magic methods, and finding someone to blame for our lack of success."

What is needed, she continued, is "a comprehensive plan, resistance to the 'quick fix' mentality, making a long-term commitment," and teachers insisting on "a chance to demonstrate our heart and passion."

"Learning a second language," explained Escamilla, "is more than labels like NEP, LEP, FEP, and's more than just 30 SIOP categories...not only a score on LAS, Woodcock-Munoz or the next new assessment...beyond BICS and CALP and pragmatics...and doesn't equal a high stakes test score."

Teachers of culturally and linguistically diverse students, according to Escamilla, need sheltered ESL techniques, training in the teaching of literacy to second language learners, help closing the gap between ESL students and all others, and, especially, "an awareness of the emotional and psychological needs of ELLs."

She touched nerves in an audience of caring, devoted ESL teachers from across the state of Kansas when she used data from a 2003 University of Chicago Survey that showed most Americans consider Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, and Puerto Ricans as the most dangerous ethnic group. As some of the reasons given by respondents in that survey, she listed the notions that Latinos are "unpatriotic, lazy, not family oriented, and not religious."

Quoting Yzaguirre, Dr. Escamilla said, "The gap between perception of Latino cultures and the reality of the Latinos is wider than the perceived gap in academic achievement."

According to Kathy Escamilla, Hispanic/Latino children in American schools today receive subtle--and not so subtle--messages that are reinforced in the media and U.S. culture at large, as well as from both inside and outside the cultural group itself. The first message is feeling devalued. The second message is feeling you don't belong. She quoted a song by Juan Gabriel, from an album, "El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue." In his "Cancion a 187," Juan Gabriel sings "Cuando fui para el norte, fui para estar mejor, siempre en busca de trabajo pero una disilusion....Adios gringos peleoneros....ellos creen que dios es blanco, pero es mas moreno que yo."

She quoted another group, Los Tigres del Norte, from their album "Gracias America." In a song titled "El Mojado Acaudalado," the group sings, "Adios estados unidos...aunque tengo dinero, no soy feliz donde estoy....Adios les dice el mojado que se empapo de sudor...en los campos de Arizona, fabricas de Nueva York....En mi tierra quiero morir."

A third message that school-age children of Latino families experience, according to Escamilla, is "feeling ashamed of your language and heritage." She explained, "Forcing children to learn English at the expense of their L1 places them at an emotional cross-roads between their friends and family and school, even if this is done unintentionally."

She quoted Jim Cummins: "80 percent of the second language learners who begin U.S. schools in kindergarten or first grade will have lost their productive ability in their first language by the time they are in high school."

The psychological effects of these three messages that permeate the experiences of Latino children, explained Dr. Escamilla, "are long lasting, cannot be fixed with new methods, and cause children to tolerate language learning but NOT embrace it."

"Shouldn't we make sure our students learn to love and value BOTH of their languages?," asked Escamilla. "Shouldn't we make learning English a positive psychological and emotional experience? Shouldn't we make all children feel like they belong?"

Even beyond the emotional trauma caused by those three messages, continued Escamilla in her keynote, is "the most insidious psychological damage to second language learners that is caused by the current high-stakes testing environment in the U.S."

She quoted Valdes and Figueroa (1994): "When a bilingual individual confronts a monolingual test...both the test taker and the test are asked to do something that they cannot. The bilingual test taker cannot perform like a monolingual and the monolingual test cannot measure the other other language."

Dr. Escamilla asked the 500 educators and invited guests in the audience at Friday's opening ceremony to consider her suggestion that "children will likely NOT remember the methods used to teach them English, even if they were effective, BUT they WILL remember the children who made fun of them, the principal who told them not to speak Spanish on the playground, and the teacher who told them not to hang around other kids who speak Spanish."

"Which voice do we want them to hear?," asked Escamilla. "The one that puts them down, or the one that stimulates them and lifts them up?"

She ended her keynote with a quote from Paolo Freire: "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerless and the powerful does NOT mean you are neutral, it means you are taking the side of the powerful."

Article by Robb Scott

2006 ESL MiniConference Online