It's critical to avoid making any assumptions about your students' countries of origin, the languages they speak, their cultural background, their prior experiences, or their immigration status, especially on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, or any other aspect of their identity. This is another reason why it is so important to get to know your students and learn more about their backgrounds where possible.


Dr. Ayanna Cooper: Making assumptions about Black students’ background knowledge
Dr. Ayanna Cooper: Where Black students are “supposed” to be

More Resources

Preparing All Teachers to Teach ELLs

Preparing All Teachers to Teach ELLs

In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Ayanna discusses strategies for culturally responsive teaching, highlights issues around Black ELLs on which she'd like to see more research, and talks about empathy in the classroom.

Dr. Ayanna Cooper, Ed.D., is an independent consultant who specializes in professional development for ELL educators. She is currently serving a second term on TESOL's Professional Development Standing Committee and serves as TESOL's Black English Language Professional and Friends Forum leader.

In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Ayanna discusses strategies for culturally responsive teaching, highlights issues around Black ELLs on which she'd like to see more research, and talks about empathy in the classroom.

To read more from Ayanna, take a look at her articles and blog posts written for Colorín Colorado, as well as this article in Language Magazine. Ayanna has also been featured in Teachers of Color.


Tell us about your background.

I grew up in the city of Boston and have always been very comfortable with linguistically diverse people. I remember in middle school that some of my classmates would spend part of their day being instructed in French, their native language. They were from Haiti, and I now realize how beneficial that must have been for them. I also went to summer camps in the city where the majority of the students were Black and Latino. When I began teaching, I was naturally drawn to my students of color and linguistically diverse students and wanted them to be successful. I would speak to them in my very limited Spanish and try to communicate with their parents in Spanish. Embracing their culture and recognizing the similarities between their culture and mine came naturally to me.

How did you get interested in working with ELLs?

An ELL teacher unofficially recruited me to teach ELLs. She encouraged me for about a year to earn the endorsement to teach English to Speakers of Other Languages. My first experience with ELLs was in a PreK classroom where I had twenty students and the majority were Spanish speakers. I was very concerned with the expectations to have them meet and exceed standards that were written for monolingual English speakers. Thankfully I was able to do my best to provide a print-rich and language-based learning environment.

I also wrote and was awarded several grants to provide additional resources, such as bilingual books on tape, for my students to listen to at home. I relied on my high school Spanish like never before — "Lávese las manos con agua y jabón" ("Wash your hands with soap and water") was repeated daily in our class! Watching my students' language develop throughout the school year was very rewarding. It was quite a learning experience for me, and a turning point in my career. I knew I wanted to specialize in teaching ELLs and helping other teachers to do so.

What are some ways for teachers to build connections with ELLs from diverse backgrounds?

Even though it can be challenging, it's never too late to start trying, and you can begin right in your building — you don't need to travel abroad to learn about your ELLs! I suggest teachers try to learn as much as they can about the communities they serve. Talking with adults and community leaders can help teachers learn about their students and dispel myths or stereotypes. For example, when teaching a training course last summer, I arranged a visit for program participants to a local refugee center. The teachers were able to visit the community center and talk with the directors in order to learn more about their own student population. They found this an extremely helpful assignment since the school district was serving a large number of immigrant and refugee students.

Another example of the importance of getting to know students is when teachers have asked me, "Where are all of these students coming from?" The answer I sometimes give, depending on the situation, is "from the hospitals," because the ELLs we had in those changing communities were born in the United States. Yet the overall impression of the educators in that community was that the ELLs were just arriving in this country. Taking the time to find out about our ELLs is the most important step we can take to eliminate bias and become culturally responsive educators that can respond to our student needs.

In addition, I think it's important to make sure that we have all of the information we need about our students so that we can best meet their needs. I remember seeing a teacher who thought that the Black ELLs were in the wrong room since she didn't know the students and hadn't realized they were Haitian-Creole speakers. It's critical to make sure that all school personnel are well-informed about students' backgrounds so that colleagues can communicate effectively about student needs.

What are your suggestions for increasing diversity of classroom materials in all classrooms?

Teachers can take inventory of their classroom materials to assure they are as culturally responsive as possible. That means that regardless of the majority population in the classrooms, it's important to have materials that represent various cultures in order to increase and acknowledge diversity across the curriculum. Teachers can work together with administrators, media specialists, guidance counselors, family liaisons and community organizations to assure that as many diverse resources as possible become part of the school community.

In terms of Black History, for example, this could include submitting a grant for library books focused on the accomplishments of Black Americans, Black Immigrants' experience, and Civil Rights History. In addition, states that have adopted Common Core State Standards will be strongly encouraged to include diverse selections of text, including African American literature. Taking inventory to assure you have resources to adequately teach these standards throughout the academic year is imperative, not just during Black History Month in February.

What would you say to educators who think they can't teach ELLs since they don't speak another language?

I often hear that an ELL teacher must be fluent in the languages of his/her students. Being able to speak an additional language or two is extremely beneficial, and being fully literate in additional languages is even more beneficial. And there are things that teachers can do, like learn a few key phrases in their students' languages in order to build confidence with ELLs and their families.

Yet I want to make sure that potential ELL educators are not discouraged from the field if they have not studied a foreign language. They can make a valuable contribution to their students by developing an in-depth knowledge of language systems, linguistics and second language acquisition.

The other question, then, is how can these courses become part of all teacher education programs regardless of one's major? With the increase of linguistically diverse students in public schools, we need ELL professionals of all language and cultural backgrounds, and as a field we need to value all levels of language proficiency.

How can schools increase access to dual-language programs for communities that may not have much experience with bilingual education?

Reaching out to parents about new school programming can be challenging if you don't know where to start. I would suggest reaching out to community organizations that support the community in which you teach. Faith-based organizations and community organizations that assist immigrant and refugee families are one avenue. Once you know what is offered (or not), you can begin to partner with these organizations or at least increase access to the parents of the students you serve.

Knowing about the parents' level of education, their schooling experiences, if they are literate in more than one language and what they would like for their children will help you to make decisions about school programs and experiences offered. For example, you may have a number of parents interested in a dual-language summer enrichment program for their children. Knowing what the parents may want for their children will help educators shape programs to meet and exceed everyone's expectations.

What are some areas that have interested you in your work around Black ELLs and immigrants?

I'm interested in issues that affect Black ELLs and immigrants, including students of Afro-Caribbean and African descent, in the long-term. I'd like to know more about their experiences in the public school systems, their involvement in extra curricular activities, opportunities afforded to them and what kinds of things they are involved in beyond high school, employment or higher education. I'd especially like to know more about creating more leadership opportunities for them, such as assuring that our students are not only aware of leadership opportunities but also having the support to follow through with applications. Are all ELLs actively involved with their school communities? If not, how can we help them have access to those areas of their school experience? Extra curricular clubs, athletics, performing arts and summer programs are areas in need of representatives from linguistically diverse backgrounds.

What kinds of research would you like to see that focuses on Black ELLs in the future?

I would like to see more research focused on teacher attitudes and perceptions of Black ELLs. How can we focus more on the construct of race, privilege and socio-economic status? I often refer to it as "the skin we are in." How people perceive us is strongly tied to how we look and their experiences with people who look like us. We have to address this as part of teacher education and across various research forums. How can we transform limited experiences with or deep-rooted misconceptions of Black people and people of Afro-Caribbean and African descent into the ability to embrace those students, communicate with their parents, and ultimately support them to be successful?

How has your identity played a part in your career as an ELL educator?

As an African American female, there are challenges that ELLs often face that resonate with me — but they are also part of my strengths as an ELL educator. I know what it's like to realize that less is expected of me or to feel excluded and misunderstood. Yet I have used those experiences to inform my work with students and make me a better educator and teacher trainer. I have also overcome many of those challenges through my connections with supportive colleagues.

No matter what challenges you face, I think that finding or building a network of professionals, whether they have similar backgrounds or interests, is imperative. For me it has been my colleagues both in and outside of the ELL field who have provided me with strong support. Through the BELPaF (Black English Language Professionals and Friends) Forum, for example, I have found a network of other professionals who have an interest in the welfare of English language learners who happen to be of African descent.

Mentorship is also very important and has been beneficial to me, and recently I have been lucky to work closely with Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner through our connection at TESOL. In addition, I think that recruiting and supporting other professionals of color is essential to maintaining and expanding the presence of diverse candidates for future leadership roles, which I wrote about in the Fall 2012 magazine of Teachers of Color.

Where would you start in order to attract more African American educators to the ELL field?

I am always interested in ways to increase the presence of Black Americans and continue to support those of us who have been called to this area of teaching and learning. As part of teacher recruitment, I believe a focus on diverse candidates is imperative in all areas of the curriculum so that students develop relationships with educators representing a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

Given the increasing need for teachers with ELL training, there are a number of places that would be ideal for recruitment, the first being Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Although teacher education programs exist in HBCUs, very few offer a major or a minor in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. We need to increase these programs capacity to prepare their teacher candidates for linguistically diverse learners.

Another area of possible candidates could come from alternative teacher education programs. Introducing teacher candidates early on to the needs and benefits of teaching linguistically diverse learners is key, rather than waiting until they are placed in front of students and expected to know how to effectively teach both language and content. Lastly, assuring that diversity is respected and welcomed across various leadership organizations is essential. For example, local, state and regional affiliates and International TESOL, Inc. are great places to learn more about the TESOL profession and how one can become more involved, such as through community volunteerism!

In what ways do you see ELL education as a Civil Rights issue?

The rights of English language learners today grew out of the Civil Rights movement. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, and that legislation applies to ELLs as well. I see myself as an advocate for all students and I feel it is my responsibility to continue ensuring that our students have access to the opportunities that our Civil Rights leaders (including those working for equality for Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Women's Rights) marched, protested, negotiated, and were incarcerated to obtain.

For our ELLs, I think that means focusing on advocating for appropriate resources, well-prepared teachers, a high functioning learning environment, and welcoming school communities. I'm thankful for the sacrifices and tenacity of earlier generations to ensure that the rights of all Americans would be protected and respected, and I look forward to continuing that work on behalf of all students today.

Do you have a particular success story you'd like to share, either from a student or in your professional development work?

I readily look for opportunities to support English language learners in my professional development work. For example, while serving on the board of Georgia TESOL I proposed we have Student Board Member position specifically for an English learner who is a student in high school or college. The goal of that position is to attract future leaders by inviting to have a seat at the table and to mentor them. Fortunately, the board approved my proposal and we now have a college student serving in that capacity.

In addition, I serve on the Lesley University Alumni Council as the 1st Vice President. Lesley University has organized book drives in the past to support a local public school in need. This year, with my assistance, we will be sponsoring the James A. Caradonio New Citizen's Center, a school for English language learners with limited or interrupted formal education in Worcester, Massachusetts. I toured the school the year before and was very impressed with the high expectations the teachers had for their students and how dedicated the students were. My tenure on the alumni council has allowed me to bring attention to a population of students and their school community that may not have been recognized before. I feel fortunate to be able to assist communities of English learners and their teachers across state lines.

Finally, I recently completed co-teaching an online course for a group of Peace Corp teacher educators. The participants were from all over Africa. This was my first "international" teaching opportunity. I learned so much from them and realized how similar our challenges are. Learning from and sharing my experiences, resources, teaching practices and assessments with them confirmed for me the importance of the work we are doing for the lives of English language learners worldwide.


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Getting to Know Our Families’ Cultural and Social Assets: The View from Dearborn, MI

Getting to Know Our Families’ Cultural and Social Assets: The View from Dearborn, MI

Nadra Shami currently serves as a Language and Literacy SIOP Trainer in Dearborn, MI. The daughter of immigrants, Nadra grew up in Dearborn and her first job was at the school she attended as a child. To learn more about Nadra’s work and the EL support offered in Dearborn, take a look at her interview as the February 2017 WIDA Featured Educator.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Dearborn school district and its ELL / immigrant / refugee population?

The district, which is just outside of Detroit, currently has the highest number of English learners (ELs) in the state of Michigan. The EL population is increasing due to steady immigration and the relocation of families from other districts. Our students come from thirty-two language minority backgrounds, the majority of which are Arabic, Urdu, and Spanish. DPS has over 21,000 students in 22 elementary schools, 7 middle schools, 3 high schools and a number of other technical programs and centers. English Learners comprise about 50% of the student population. This includes about 2,000 immigrant students (who have been in US schools 3 years or less) and about 300 refugee students. The percentage of ELs varies in each school across the district and becomes significantly higher in lower socioeconomic areas of the city.

Tell us about your EL Department Team and the role they play.

The Dearborn school district has recognized the educational needs of English Learners and has established supported programs for them since 1976.

The EL and Compensatory Education program is a support that enables our linguistically diverse children to achieve the same challenging academic standards required of all students in the district. The district team is led by the EL Director and EL Coordinator and includes three Language and Literacy SIOP Trainers and a Language and Literacy SIOP Coach. The EL Director and EL Coordinator are a power pair that drive and support district initiatives by making decisions in the best interest of kids. Along with other responsibilities, each Language and Literacy SIOP Trainer is assigned to support one of three feeder tracks. A couple years ago, Dearborn’s Superintendent restructured the district and made the change to feeder tracks to create a seamless transition for students as they move from elementary to middle school to high school. We have three comprehensive high schools in Dearborn; a feeder track is made up of one high school, the middle schools that feed into that high school and the elementary schools that feed into those middle schools. The idea is that initiatives, focus areas and expectations from the lowest levels will all flow into the high school that students feed into. Additionally, the Language and Literacy SIOP Coach supports new departmental teachers working with English Learners in their first years on the job--the most critical time for job-embedded support. 

The district team is truly dedicated to supporting the coordination of supplemental services for English Learners by planning and facilitating systematic professional development opportunities for administrators, teachers and support staff, including working side by side with the school-based English Language Development Specialists, superstars who take on a variety of roles. This includes working collaboratively with all stakeholders to ensure that English Learners are provided with meaningful access to content while developing academic language. The district team also plays an important role in state-level work related to our special populations. This includes facilitating workshops across the state as well as serving on regional, state, and national advisory committees.

Check out our Blog for more info about our District Power Team and the EL department initiatives:

What kinds of systems do you have in place to welcome and support refugee families?

All Dearborn Schools have an English Language Development (ELD) Specialist who welcomes and interviews students potentially eligible for English Language services based on the home language survey. ELD Specialists interact with the student to find out background information and initiate assessment and placement. A contact is made with the student’s parents. This contact will lay the foundation for positive interaction and communication between the parents and school, as well as parental involvement in the child’s education.

Many of the refugees that register for school in the US have often lived in a country with an unstable infrastructure for years due to extreme conditions like poverty, war and disasters. They enter our school system with many basic needs. In 2016-17 school year, a “New Families” District Committee was formed to evaluate and address the needs of the growing population of refugee students enrolled in Dearborn Public Schools. The committee plans and facilitates exclusive parent meetings for refugee families at a central location to act upon our district vision by establishing a partnership with parents and addressing their families’ needs through school and community outreach.  Parents are contacted and invited to the meeting via phone and a letter sent home. The committee also worked with district transportation services to arrange for parents to be picked up from their nearest elementary school building and transported to the Administrative Service Center (ASC) for the meeting. Busses also transport parents back to the elementary buildings after the meeting.

What are the primary concerns and questions your families have?

During our initial “New Families” district meeting a parent survey was administered and completed by parents with native language support. Survey results assist in planning future meetings and making ‘next step’ decisions. Some of the areas of need (based on parent feedback) included a need for Adult ESL classes, Health and Dental concerns, Jobs and Financial Support, Legal advice and Special Education services.

Can you provide some examples of steps that have been taken to address those concerns, as well as examples of collaboration and community partnerships?

To address the families’ needs, follow-up meetings were planned with opportunities for parents to enroll in ESL classes, local groups were invited to discuss health and dental options, and a more specific career survey was distributed to find out parents’ previous occupations (in their home countries) and the skills they possess. The committee also reached out to community outreach organizations who presented on ways they can help address the families’ needs. Support ranged from food distribution to after school programs focused on academic and/or physical engagement. Other presentations included a district team preparing information for parents regarding the roles and services of school psychologists, speech pathologists, social workers, etc. Representatives from the local credit union presented on the financial services they provide and shared tips on establishing credit. During another session, a pair of legal attorneys led a segment titled “Know Your Rights” which was greatly appreciated by the families given their new arrival to the country.

What are some of the strengths of your families upon which they are drawing right now?

Every family has a story. As educators, we need to be willing to listen to their “where I came from” stories, their “what’s important to me” stories, and to all the other stories that make up who they are. When we truly get to know our English learners and their families, it is easy to acknowledge the social and cultural capital they bring, such as resilience, collectivism, commitment and courage. It’s our job as educators to get to know students’ strengths and to use what we learn about them to implement culturally responsive approaches aimed at improving their educational experiences.

What are some examples you’ve seen of how teachers or schools are supporting families effectively?

We have developed, over the years, a cadre of professionals who are resourceful in working with parents. Many elementary and middle schools hold parent education meetings once a month. Language and Translation Assistance is provided for parents that need language support. A district Parent Support Educator also supports schools by providing Parent Talk workshops. Parent Talk is a skills-based and research-based parenting program that provides parents with practical, usable verbal strategies for raising responsible children. The skills reduce family conflict and build family solidarity while encouraging autonomy and mutual respect. Other school level initiatives include Parents as Partners Open House where parents are welcomed to do classroom walk-throughs during instructional time to see the teaching and learning in action. Technology sessions are offered to bring parents up to speed with tech tools and skills in order to bridge the digital divide. Throughout the year, staff members partner up with outreach programs to organize clothing and food drives for families in need as well as celebratory and enrichment opportunities for kids. Home visits are also utilized to support families while strengthening the home-school connection.

You get a lot of visitors to your district! What do you think is working well that visitors want to see?

Our district gets many visitors from other districts for a variety of reasons but mainly related to our work with diverse populations. We credit this to the hard work of dedicated staff at all levels as well as Michigan's spotlight on Dearborn’s successful EL program.

  • For example, one district team visited because they are in the process of evaluating their EL program and they were particularly interested in guidance toward the push-in delivery model for EL support. They were enthralled to see how ELD Specialists work directly with general education teachers to support the content delivery and language development of English Learners. The visit included opportunities to see successful models of coaching and co-teaching as well as collaboration that works.
  • Another district recently experienced a significant growth in their EL population in the past year and recognized the need to restructure their EL services and professional development. The team of administrators and teachers were interested in how we schedule English Learners, including course placement, procedures and protocols, resources, staffing, and professional learning. The team was extremely impressed by the consistency and emphasis on explicit content and language objectives, student engagement, student articulation of tasks, and the positive climate and culture in every classroom they visited. In addition, they appreciated the opportunity to discuss our professional development structure and the impact it has on staff which was evidenced as they visited classrooms.
  • We have also had a couple of out-of-state visits. For example, a district team from California visited to learn how our district supports the teaching and learning of English Learners as well as the specific initiatives the EL Department has in place to serve refugees, a population that is growing exponentially. The visitors spent two days walking through classrooms and meeting with school staff to debrief and get their questions answered. The discussions were astounding as they were really impressed with what Dearborn has in place for meeting the needs of all students. Some of the topics that were positively highlighted through observations and dialogue were the collaborative teaching models, the focus on academic language development, the emphasis on all four language domains, the positive culture and climate in the schools (including the positive relationships among staff and between staff and students), the centralized professional development for support staff and the depth and breadth of professional development opportunities provided to staff.
  • A district from Indiana visited Dearborn Public Schools to learn about the successful EL practices our district has in place. The Indiana team was seeking a district with a large Arabic-speaking population (a new population to their district) that is “highly effective at all aspects that effect interactions with the EL population regarding family contact, cultural sensitivity and best practices.” In collaboration with the Michigan Department of Education, Dearborn was recommended as a district to visit.

Would you tell us about some of the training you’ve done for colleagues about cultural responsiveness and cultural assets of Arab-American / Muslim children with information about goals, activities, and responses from colleagues:

The EL Department district staff has facilitated professional development on culturally responsive instruction for administrators, support staff and classroom teachers. Sessions have included 1) an overview on developing cultural proficiency, 2) what teachers should know about economically disadvantaged students, 3) Understanding Refugees and 4) an examination between Arab home culture versus school culture. Many participants expressed their gratitude for the “eye-opening” workshops.

One instructional coach shared:

“A huge thank you and shout out to [the district EL team] for a critical, moving, emotional PD on refugees, Cultural Proficiency and responsive teaching. It was fabulous. It was important. It was wrenching. It was heartbreaking. We have no idea how much we have to be thankful for.”

Additionally, the session on “Culturally Responsive Teaching: Getting to Know Your Arab Students” was presented at a workshop organized by the county’s Intermediate School District (ISD) which included teachers from across the county. The session was also presented at the National Association for Bilingual Education a couple of times. The presentation sought to dismantle normative assumptions while examining the mismatch between home cultures and US school culture in order to create positive and valuable change in individual and social systems. Participants were able to develop an understanding of the cultural capital students bring and how implementation of culturally responsive practices can impact social and academic success.

Could you share material or an example of what #4 (an examination between Arab home culture versus school culture) might look like?

Dismantling assumptions sometimes requires an examination of home culture versus school culture. (see chart below for a sample of considerations) For example, many of our children come from homes where improvisation is a norm — they make do with what they have. When some are accustomed to not having their basic needs met (let alone wants), making whatever is available work for them becomes a way of life. In U.S. schools, standardization is viewed as a means to success. There is a set of rules, agreements and procedures (spoken or unspoken) that everyone is expected to adhere to in order to ensure good performance. In other words, there is a way of doing things and conformity is expected.

Now imagine a second-grade classroom, where the teacher asks kids to silently copy down their spelling words. A little boy searches his desk and does not find a pencil or pen. He turns to his peers but in an effort to follow the ‘no talking’ expectation, he doesn’t ask for a writing utensil. Finally, he finds a red crayon among his things and begins to copy down the spelling words in an effort to follow directions. Upon seeing this, the teacher approaches the student and is peeved with what he is doing. Why couldn’t he just do what he was asked to do? Why would anyone copy a spelling list with a red crayon? This example illustrates a mismatch between home and school cultures.  Although not immediately evident to the teacher, the student was improvising in an attempt to conform to school expectations or standards, yet the student's actions might be viewed as being uncooperative.  

Examining the influences of home and school cultures has nothing to do with labeling one practice as right and the other as wrong or one as good and the other as bad. To be clear, it’s not that the student should continue to do all his writing in red crayon, but neither should he be reprimanded for improvising while attempting to follow directions. As educators, it’s more important to acknowledge that there might be another perspective—then respond accordingly. Take the opportunity to teach about school practices and ways in which students could seek help when they are not sure what to do. In other words, create a risk-free classroom environment: Reflect. Ask questions. Clarify. Build understanding. Negotiate. Then, respond.

What are some particular concerns of Arab-American and Muslim families?


Our community faces many of the same concerns as any other community including basic rights and other common social and emotional issues. Additionally, the reality is that common occurrences of racial and religious discrimination do exist.  However, for the most part, within our city, we are very fortunate to have a nurturing community and a district that assures parents of its commitment to welcome and support all families.

Are there things teachers who are new to working with Arab-American or Muslim students can do to make individual students and families feel welcome and supported in the classroom?

In today’s climate, in order to make a positive impact, educators need to make a conscious effort to dismantle assumptions and acknowledge the cultural capital Americans of Arab descent and Muslim students bring with them. Rather than neglecting or overlooking the diverse needs, reach out to families and find out more about them--where are they in their journey, what are their needs and wants, how are they feeling, etc. Another way to learn more is to reach out to organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. Their headquarters are located in Washington D.C. with many chapters around the country. They provide many publications including reports, guides and toolkits. Organizations could also request speakers on a variety of relevant topics. Connecting with local mosques and other community groups (if available) are also a great idea.

Keep in mind that Arabs and Muslims are two distinct groups; the first can trace their roots to a country whose dominant language is Arabic, the other is based on religious identification. Neither group is a homogenous mass and both groups have been in America for decades, if not centuries. The best way to bring people together is to ask questions and initiate conversation. Families not only welcome inquiries but they appreciate them as a way to avoid misinformation from spreading.

It’s best to not assume that a language barrier exists; however, if one is identified and a staff member is not available for language assistance, reach out to other members of the community willing to help. There are also apps like Apple’s My Language Pro that serve as a great resource for translation. And remember, smiles and positive body language also go a long way!

Educators must also recognize that their own personal culture influences how they see and respond to others. We are all cultural beings; we all have biases of what we know and are familiar with. What's “normal” is relative and varies from time to time and from place to place. Taking the time to do some individual introspection in order to successfully “de-bias” will help build bridges and develop compassion for others. Be cognizant of your own thoughts by paying attention when unconscious biases arise and intentionally replace stereotypical responses with an unbiased one. Assume that all parents care about their children so if there is a mismatch between home and school culture, encourage families to provide insight that will help teachers in the classroom. Be sensitive to the cultural differences that exist among different groups and respond appropriately.

Your district union is affiliated with our founding partner, the American Federation of Teachers. How does your department partner and collaborate with the Dearborn Federation of Teachers?

The EL Director and Coordinator work closely with the DFT president for staffing needs. For example, in the event that an appropriate certified teacher is not available for a bilingual department position from the pool of new hire candidates, an agreement between the selected new hire candidate and the designee of Dearborn Public Schools is signed and filed with Human Resources. The new union member accepts the position with the understanding that he/she will meet the requirements of the collective bargaining agreement between the DFT which entails obtaining credits toward an ESL or bilingual endorsement.

Another example of collaboration is that this fall, in partnership with the DFT, the EL Department will help provide professional development opportunities to teachers who are involved with the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP) in our district. The request was for training to learn more about Arab and African American students. The meetings will be held after school at the DFT office.

Is there anything else you’d like to highlight?

The district established a 3-D community of support staff which consists of ELD Specialists, Instructional Literacy Coaches and Special Education Resource Teachers about five years ago. Three departments (EL & Compensatory Education, Special Education and General Ed) came together with the purpose of serving the needs of all students in our district. Each of the three departments brought a different dimension to the table, hence the name. This year, the team collaborated together to create interactive lessons aligned to the EL Department’s Specially Designed Instructional (SDI) for Newcomer students. A lesson consists of an Oral Language Development opportunity, Phonics and Word Work, a Reading Strategy and a Structured Writing Task. The lessons are made available for teachers to use during the district’s Accelerated Summer Academic Program (ASAP) for immigrant students as well as other summer compensatory education programs. The small group routine lasts about forty-five minutes of direct explicit instruction coupled with students’ engagement.

In addition, if a student receiving EL services with reasonable curriculum adaptations and instructional accommodations does not show adequate progress over time using culturally fair and reliable formative assessments, then the student may be referred for a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS).

When a referral is made of an English Learner to MTSS, it is highly recommended that the support team includes a Bilingual/ESL certified staff member in the pre-planning, planning and implementation phases of such a process. Data must rule out primary language, EL characteristics, environmental and cultural factors and mobility rates.

It is also critical to examine to what extent the child has had equitable access to the curriculum including best practices in second language acquisition and/or instruction delivered in the child’s native language if necessary.

Any final thoughts?

With all that we have in place, we continue to explore other ways to help students and their families be successful. At Dearborn Schools, we believe that by examining the different access points to what students need and having all the tiered supports in place, we strive to educate the whole child. 


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact

Windows and Mirrors: Latinx Experiences in Children's Literature

Windows and Mirrors: Latinx Experiences in Children's Literature

Dr. Tracey Flores and Dr. Sandra Osorio discuss the profound impact that Latinx books have had on them throughout their lives as students, parents, and educators. This article is part of our guide to using diverse books with ELLs.

Image: Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin by Duncan Tonatiuh

As educators, we must strive to create classrooms in which the languages, practices, and resources of students and families are central to curriculum and our collective understandings of what it means to be a reader, writer, and storyteller.

Central to these classrooms must be the intentional selection of texts that affirm and are reflective of children’s language and cultural practices. This may include selecting texts that include translanguaging, meaning that multiple languages are represented in the story that reflect the everyday speech and communication practices of students and families.

These are practices we have reflected on through many different life experiences and we'd like to share some of our favorite books, lessons learned, and recommended resources in the following essay.

Our Stories

As Latinas, mothers, and educators, we can attest to the importance of seeing yourself, your family and comunidad (community) represented in the curriculum. From our own personal experiences, we did not attend schools where we were provided the opportunity to learn about the contributions of our ancestors, the richness of our cultures, or read literature written by authors who shared our experiences.

Our students deserve to see themselves represented in the school curriculum, not exclusively during one month, but as central to the history, music, art, science and literature that is important to our nation. They should not have to wait until college to learn about the beauty of who they are and the contributions of their ancestors. We continue by sharing our own stories about why we are deeply committed to this work.

Why Mirrors and Windows Matter: Dr. Flores' Story


Mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors provide an important framework for growing readers and writers who can envision their own stories as important to how we understand the world and what is possible for them and their communities (Bishop, 1990).

As a young Chicana growing up in Arizona, I was an avid reader and writer. When I first learned how to read, I remember enjoying the Just For You (Mayer, 1975) and Corduroy (Freeman, 1968). During my tween years, I devoured Sweet Valley Twins (Pascal) and the Babysitters Club Series (Martin), spending the summer reading a couple books each day.

These books defined my reading life and are part of my earliest memories of reading and learning how to read words. Shortly after entering high school, I turned away from reading, only reading the short stories and novels for literature circles and class assignments.

During my junior year of high school, I discovered Gary Soto and his book Jesse (1994). His writing and this story held up a mirror which brought me back to myself and to reading. It was the first time I remember reading a book that centered around the lives of Mexican-Americans and where I witnessed the dreams of generations and the love and faith of an entire family.

As a classroom teacher, I strived to ensure that my students had access to books that served as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. For example, in after-school Family Writing Workshops I organized for my multilingual students and their families, I selected mentor texts that served as mirrors to also inspire oral storytelling and writing of personal stories and histories.

Relating their own experiences to such picture books and poetry anthologies as In My Family/En mi familia (Garza, 2000), The Dream on Blanca’s Wall/El sueño pegado en la pared de Blanca (Medina, 2004) and Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para soñar juntos (Alarcón, 2005), my students, their parents and siblings shared and wrote stories from their own lives. Our stories served as mirrors and windows into our collective and unique experiences that cultivated a strong comunidad.

Why Mirrors and Windows Matter: Dr. Osorio's Story

"Felíz New Year, Ava Gabriela!" by Alexandra Alessandri

Mirrors and windows are extremely important to ELLs because when multilingual students do not see their linguistic and cultural resources reflected in the curriculum, they can feel like there is something wrong with them (Bishop, 1990).

I remember my own struggles of growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. At home, I grew up speaking Spanish and having strong cultural connections to my Colombian heritage, but at school everything was in English and my cultural heritage was never recognized. This is where multicultural and linguistically diverse children’s books can support teachers in recognizing their diverse student population.

For example, I was very excited to recently come across the new book Felíz New Year, Ava Gabriela! by Alexandra Alessandri because it shares the experience of a little girl named Ava visiting family in Colombia. I was excited to share this book with my own children where they could reminisce on the experiences they shared with Ava. These included making buñuelos, creating el Señor Año Viejo to say goodbye to the past year and eating twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight to bring us good luck throughout the new year. The text also included language practices similar to my own (and my children’s) use of language.

The text provided a mirror for our language practices and presented them as "normal." Books as windows are texts where a child can learn about a view of the world they might not be familiar with. This can include a text that provides a window into a cultural or language background that is different from their own.

Books that I have shared that have served as both windows and mirrors include I Hate English! by Ellen Levine and In English, Of Course by Josphine Nobisso. While neither one of these children’s books include a Latinx character similar to those that I have previously taught, the texts spoke to the difficulty that a multilingual child can experience while learning English. This is something that anyone who has gone through that experience can connect to. It is important that children see mirrors and windows throughout the curriculum they are exposed to in the classroom.

Windows and Mirrors in the Classroom

As a classroom teacher, Dr. Osorio was required to use a basal reader in her developmental model bilingual second grade classroom with all native Spanish speakers. This basal reader was a direct translation of the English basal reader and therefore did not include any characters that were Latinx or deal with bilingualism or biculturalism. This is when Dr. Osorio decided to bring in Latinx children’s book into her classroom.

Some of the books she used were:

Many of the books Dr. Osorio first found when introducing Latinx children’s literature to her classroom all included a similar storyline. They were all about being an immigrant and revolved around the U.S.-Mexico border. Using these texts, she soon learned a lot more about her students. She heard stories about their lived experiences and that of their families that she had never heard before. She was also able to share some of her own personal family stories through the practice of vulnerability.

Dr. Osorio wanted to make sure to move beyond the "single story," so she looked for books in Spanish that portrayed the immigration story beyond the U.S.- Mexico border. She was able to find Mariama Same But Different/Mariama Diferente Pero Igual by Jerónimo Cornelles.

There are now even more picture books related to the topic of immigration or being an immigrant which include:

In addition, other topics such as civil rights for Latinx students are highlighted in books like Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh.

Why is it so important to move beyond the single story? Providing these various children's books to Dr. Osorio's students opened up a space to have conversations that she and her students had never had before. Of course, some students could connect to the characters and the story more than others, but having these texts as mirrors and windows acknowledged and valued the experiences of many of Dr. Osorio's students in ways that had never been done before in the classroom.

In addition, it was important to not just stay there on the topic of immigration but recognize the multiple identities that students have. That's why another topic Dr. Osorio explored with her students was that of language use. She used texts to not only talk about language choices, but also have texts that mirror students’ actual language practices, such as translanguaging. Examples of books that reflect these practices include:

Videos: Authors and Educators

Juan Felipe Herrera: Connecting to Latino Student Experiences

Meg Medina: Tía Isa Wants a Car

Duncan Tonatiuh on the making of Separate Is Never Equal

Closing Thoughts

Our work continues to evolve, and new books provide new opportunities for connections in our classroom. The literature that we use as part of our curriculum must be expansive and robust, providing students with access to stories that are reflective of who they are and who they are becoming. Stories connect us.

This can be made possible through literature that invites students' personal stories into the classroom. This literature must be reflective of the students, families and communities that we serve, while providing a glimpse into other realities and worlds and others ways of knowing and being.



Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix-xi.


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