Hispanic Heritage Month gives us a special opportunity to celebrate the importance of Hispanic and Latinx cultural and leadership contributions to communities throughout the United States. My own heritage is something I celebrate every day, and I encourage my students at Achievement First Iluminar Mayoral Academy Elementary to do as well. That isn’t always easy in country that seems more divided along cultural and racial lines than ever, but what I’m seeing in our youngest generation gives me hope for the future.
Race and class have historically defined the unequal opportunities available in our country, but I want my students to know that our differences should be celebrated, not divisive; and that our backgrounds are sources of strength, not weakness. I’m incredibly grateful to be part of the Iluminar community, where we emphasize building partnerships with our students, families, and community in and outside the classroom. It is critical to our work that our students know who they and their teachers are beyond the content of lessons we’re learning so that we can trust and support one another. This is why I work hard to create a space where every one of my first-grade students feels valued and validated in their own identity.
This wasn’t my experience as a student. As a young girl growing up in Washington state, I was deeply connected to my Mexican heritage. I loved how special it felt that I could speak two languages. And I loved that I was able to spend a year living in Mexico before returning home to Washington to start school. I was so excited to start kindergarten, and as my parents filled out all my paperwork before my first day of school, they proudly checked a box stating that I was bilingual. Sadly, one of the first lessons I learned in school was that the ability to learn in English was more important than anything else. I was placed in separate ESL classes and it became clear that my goal should be to quickly improve my English so I could be in my main classroom more. I felt my culture wasn’t valued and I saw my younger sister take this message to heart, abandoning Spanish altogether and creating an unnecessary divide between her, our parents, grandparents, and culture.
To make sure that none of my students feel the way my sister and I did, I’m working to create an inclusive environment in our classroom. I want my students to feel like knowledge of a second language is an asset and something to be shared. Occasionally I’ll speak in Spanish to my Spanish-speaking students, to ensure they understand their lessons. And sometimes I’ll speak in Spanish to my non-Spanish speaking students just to share a little bit of my identity in a busy day and introduce them to common sayings in a foreign language. I invite my students and their families to do the same. Parents of all backgrounds join us in class to share lessons about their professions or about their own unique heritage. The high expectations that we set for academics, combined with these personal lessons, validates for all of our students that they matter and that they are capable of excellence.
Alongside our writing and social studies lessons, my students learn what it means to be good community members and to be kind to others. They learn that each of our own unique experiences and backgrounds contributes to a richer community, and that we should each be celebrated, not just during specific heritage months, but year-round. These first-grade lessons may be good reminders for all of us.
Yoselyn Leos is a Teach For America – Rhode Island corps member and first-grade teacher at Achievement First Iluminar Mayoral Academy Elementary School in Providence. This post originally appeared on Go Local Prov.