By Superintendent Tommy Chang
I would like to paint a picture for why we should focus on culturally and linguistically sustaining practices in Boston Public Schools, and why this has to be the centerpiece of our instructional plan. We want to make sure that our young people become the leaders, scholars, entrepreneurs, advocates, and innovators of tomorrow. That means they need to be prepared for the workforce. Many careers will require professionals to speak a multitude of languages and interact with people who may have opposing viewpoints. They will need to think critically and communicate effectively. Those are the sort of skills that need to be nurtured in our education system.
Part of that means that we need to make sure that we are sustaining and affirming the cultural, racial, and linguistic identity of our young people. I believe so strongly in this, because of my own personal experience with being an immigrant student in America. I immigrated to this country from Taiwan when I was 6 years old. I spoke two languages: Taiwanese and Mandarin.
Unfortunately, when I arrived to America, some experiences led my parents to believe that I needed to abandon my native language and assimilate quickly. I had to improve my English. They wanted me to become more American.
I recall my first day of school in America, when my physical education teacher did not know that I did not speak English. He screamed at me, and would not cease. I could not understand what he wanted me to do. He pulled me, lifted me in the air, and threw me in front of my 1st grade teacher and said, “This child is never to come back to my class!”
My teacher, at the time, had to explain to my physical education teacher that I just came to America and did not know any English.
I have a deep belief that we have to commit ourselves, as a school system, if we want to prepare our children for the real world, that we have to commit to making sure that we are affirming and sustaining our young people’s identities. We cannot squeeze that out of them. We should and must embrace it.
I believe the first step to this work is, as adults, we have to commit ourselves to equity. We have to acknowledge, engage in, and reflect on systemic biases, as well as our own individual biases and how that impacts our practices in and outside of the classroom.
There are very small subtle things that I know many of our teachers do to embrace and sustain our students’ identity. A teacher shared with me an idea recently that if we allow a child to write in a journal, not only in English, but also in a secondary language. Even if the secondary language cannot be edited, we are still allowing that child to practice their writing skills in two languages, and encouraging them to express themselves.
We will, as a district, continue to find projects and opportunities where students will be able to share their language and culture with their classmates. When we have debates in class, we must find opportunities for students to interact with each other - not just to find the right answer - but to hear different perspectives and become problem solvers, together.
Sitting children all in chairs, doing the same thing at the same time, isn’t going to be the type of learning we want for our children. I know many teachers embrace this. I encourage them to do this kind of work.
The physical education teacher that I mentioned earlier created an opportunity for me to build an incredible bond with my first grade teacher. She defended me on my first day of school. I vividly remember that moment. I also remember her embracing my love for the sciences and arts. She taught me English. She encouraged me to be a leader in the classroom. She gave me the responsibility of helping another student. I was an English Learner helping another English Learner. I have a copy of my first grade report card
. I still remember her. I’ve tried tracking her down, but have not yet found her.
In the report card, she talks about how she saw strengths in me. She was my hero.
Despite the fact I had a challenging experience on day one, I also had a very positive experience with a teacher who had become a big part of my life.
And given the experience I’ve had as a student and the power teachers have, I’m more confident than ever about the Boston Public Schools system after being here for a year now. So here’s what I see for BPS over the next 5 years:
- A BPS where enrollment is growing, not declining.
- A BPS where graduation and college enrollment rates continue to increase for all students.
- A BPS where all students are exceeding early literacy benchmarks.
- A BPS where all students are reading at proficient levels.
- A BPS where are students are career ready.
- A BPS where all resources are equitably and strategically invested in schools.
- A BPS where all school sites offer high quality learning opportunities for all.
I want to speak directly to our students:
Immigrant or not, we are very lucky to live in a country where we have the freedom to be ourselves. We have laws that confront issues around bias and inequality. Yet, we are still nowhere near where we need to be. Know that this country needs you. We need to be part of this country as we continue to evolve as a society. Your voice is important. Never be afraid to express your voice and your opinions. It is so important.
I’ve learned in my first year that the voice of students is so powerful. I look forward to finding more opportunities to listen and hear from young people. They truly have the courage that is needed to drive positive change in the City of Boston.