In Acacia WoodsChan’s ethnic studies class at Castlemont High School in Oakland, California, students chat with each other in Spanish, Arabic and Mam, a Mayan language from Guatemala. The students have only been in the US for a few weeks or months.
Some are from Yemen, and many are from countries in Central America–Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Last year, WoodsChan became concerned when she started hearing the Spanish-speaking students laugh when their classmates spoke Mam or Arabic or make fun of how those languages sounded.
“You could literally look at the faces of the students who spoke those languages – Mam or Arabic – and just see the level of disappointment,” she said.
WoodsChan came up with an idea. She asked her students to take turns teaching a little bit of their home language each day. Students taught their peers how to count from one to 10, how to introduce themselves and how to say basic phrases or words like, “Cool.” Then, they recorded themselves saying those phrases in short video clips.
WoodsChan says it made a huge difference.
“You could see a huge shift in the way that not only the Mam-speaking students regarded the importance of learning Mam and having it visible, but also in the way that the other students received it,” WoodsChan said.
WoodsChan’s classroom is just one of many across the country with an increasing number of immigrant students. In the last five years, Oakland Unified School District experienced a spike in the number of immigrant students from Central America. More than 200,000 children and youth under 18 were detained after crossing the border alone since 2014.