Aug. 18, 2023
Sahira Larios is a public school kindergarten teacher in a bilingual Spanish-English classroom in Oak Grove School District in San Jose, California. Several years ago, she participated in an intensive two-year professional development program focused on how to teach multilingual learners, delivered by SEAL, the organization where I work as the Research & Evaluation Manager. In 2021 Sahira partnered with SEAL on an action research project focused on increasing engagement and oral language production among multilingual learners during distance learning. We were impressed with how she partnered with students’ families to foster high levels of engagement and oral language production among her students. I spoke with Sahira during the 2022-23 school year to learn more about how she builds strong partnerships with multilingual families. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Camille: Tell me a little about your background, how you decided to become a bilingual teacher, and how you support multilingual students.
Sahira: I became a bilingual teacher because of my own positive experiences as a student in a bilingual program from kindergarten to third grade. My parents, who immigrated from Mexico, always encouraged me and my three sisters to speak Spanish at home because they wanted us to keep our connection to our roots in Mexico while also learning new things in the U.S. When I became a teacher I really wanted to reinforce in my students that they come with a lot of assets from their hometowns and countries, and help them integrate that part of themselves in the classroom.
Certain multilingual students can be nervous about practicing their English at the start of the year because they don’t feel that confident or because they’re shy. Because of this, I try to create a safe environment in my classroom where speaking their home language is welcomed and making mistakes is okay. I also have a lot of supportive materials in my classroom like bilingual books to try to send this message to students—that I appreciate them for their home language, I see them, and that they can be part of the classroom. This approach makes my students feel safer and more willing to participate and practice, which allows them to build a better foundation in their home language and then from there practice their English.
Camille: Do you talk with multilingual families about how to support their students’ language development?
Sahira: It’s really important that parents reinforce the home language with their students. Some parents are curious about how they can help their children in school if they are not fully proficient in English themselves. When this comes up, I try to help them understand that using their home language with their children can be mutually helpful for both student and parent. For example, a student can transfer what they know in Spanish to English for cognates and letters that are the same sounds in both Spanish and English. Supporting them in their home language helps them apply those skills in English faster.
Camille: What are some examples of how you partner with families to support student learning?
Sahira: I think having open communication with parents is really important, so in addition to family-teacher conferences I tell parents that they can always come and talk with me, that my doors are always open.
I host Gallery walks [similar to open house events] at the end of each thematic unit to invite parents into the classroom and see what their children are learning. During these gatherings, each student is assigned to give a presentation of student work in one area of the classroom, and parents walk around the different areas and hear directly from various students. After these presentations students are free to wander around the classroom with their mom or dad or whoever came.
During distance learning a SEAL coach shared that another school was using a program called Flip where students can get their families to help them film and upload videos related to what they were learning in class. The application is easily accessible to parents because they sign up directly on their phone. I applied this tool in my classroom by having families film their students singing a song we learned in class, or showing us something from home they really enjoy, like a pet. I also had them do “letter hunts” where they would find something from around the house that started with a letter we were learning and they would come show what they found and share out loud using sentence strips.
At the end of a weather unit, I also had students use Flip to make a video showing and telling what to wear for their chosen type of weather. In one video, a student was in her kiddie pool teaching us what she uses when the weather is hot. The student wore a bathing suit and put on sunblock, glasses, and a hat, and was able to integrate all the vocabulary for what she was wearing and using. This activity fostered collaboration between student and parent as some students needed help getting their winter clothes out to show off the snow gear needed for winter even though it was the end of the school year and it was pretty hot outside.
Even more important to me than the students learning the vocabulary is that parents are participating and learning alongside the students, that the adult is behind the camera and having that interaction with the kid. A lot of parents really enjoy being able to help the kids. And the interaction with the families helps them to know what we’re doing in the classroom. Sometimes as a teacher if you send home something like a math worksheet, it’s harder for parents to help them in those areas. Parents are more willing and able to help when it’s more of an open-ended activity.
Camille: Is there anything else you think educators and policy-makers should know in order to better support multilingual learners and their families?
Sahira: Just because a student or parent is not proficient in English doesn’t mean they have a deficit in anything. They come with a lot of knowledge of their home language. So focusing on affirming the home language and their heritage really helps students to really feel confident in school and in learning English.