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Minding the Gap

Meh Sod Paw

UNC graduate student Meh Sod Paw knows first-hand the challenges English Language Learners may face in the classroom and hopes to help her students feel a sense of identity and belonging. Photo by Woody Myers

October 28, 2022

Children stepping into classrooms where language and culture are unfamiliar can feel isolated and disconnected academically and socially. UNC’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education programs help teachers bridge the gap.

When Meh Sod Paw arrived in the United States at the age of 12, she found herself immersed in a world where language, culture and customs — not to mention education — were very different from her own. 

I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. My family was resettled in Georgia in a town called Clarkston. When I first came, there were not a lot of people from our country,” she explains.  

Clarkston has been called “the most ethnically diverse square mile in America.” It has been a new home to more than 60,000 refugees over the past 40 years. 

Many were escaping persecution in their home countries. Paw’s family, who fled Burma, are Karen, the country’s second largest ethnic minority, with their own language and culture.  

Oppressed in Burma for hundreds of years, many Karen have fled to Thailand and resettled in other countries. Between 2008 and 2014, more than 100,000 refugees from Burma arrived in the U.S. from camps in Thailand and Malaysia.  

“I will say, school was very hard. I didn’t know how to talk to people, I didn’t know how to make friends. I was not able to do similar things as other people, so a lot of times I was not included in a lot of the activities. In that sense, I felt very disconnected from my classmates,” Paw remembers. 

In the refugee camp in Thailand, she had attended a school where she learned how to read and write in her own language. It was there that she first began to imagine what she wanted to do when she was older. 

“I think ever since I was young, I have always wanted to become a teacher. One thing that influenced me was in the refugee camp. I saw people who became a teacher and I think I just wanted to become a teacher.” 

Paw earned her bachelor’s in creative writing at Agnes Scott College in 2020. Then her desire to teach led her to UNC, where she is pursuing both a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) Elementary Licensure and the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Endorsement. 

A Growing Need  

As demographics change and the number of languages and cultures represented in classrooms grow, CLD education programs provide teachers with skills and strategies that will help all students thrive. 

In Greeley-Evans’ School District 6, more than 30% of students come from homes where a language other than English is spoken, and more than 80 languages are spoken in the district. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that nationally an average of 10.4% of students in public schools in 2019 were English Language Learners (ELLs), an increase from 8.1% in 2000. 

UNC’s coursework and degrees in CLD have been part of the university’s education curriculum for many years, though program names have evolved and changed over time. Early in the 2000s, UNC offered graduate degrees in Linguistically Diverse Education (and Linguistically Diverse Education — Bilingual, which requires the student to be bilingual). In 2012, the program became Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education (and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education — Bilingual).  

Today, students at UNC can choose from several degree programs in the field, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels with bachelor’s, master’s, endorsements, certificates and licensure.   

While CLD coursework has been standard at UNC, it wasn’t until 2018 that it became a federal and state requirement for graduation.  

“We were thrilled,” says Jingzi (Ginny) Huang, Ph.D., associate dean and school director of Teacher Education. “It’s something we have been advocating for a long time. 

“All the programs have at least 90 clock hours focusing on CLD education,” she continues, “but some pro-grams go much further. This kind of education is good for teachers because we have an increase in students coming from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Many of the refugees come without cultural and linguistic understanding of this country, but at the same time they bring with them cultural and linguistic assets.  

“So, how do we build on the strengths of students and help them build the bridge between this country and their home country, so that they can become bilingual and bicultural to be really contributing members to this society?” she asks. 

In the past, ELL students were taken out of mainstream classrooms and placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms, rather than being immersed in classrooms with native speakers of English. But that model has changed, says Huang. 

“This field has evolved so much, and a lot of people don’t understand. They think you are just teaching the children to speak English. The children don’t need us to teach them English. In just two years they will pick up the daily life language from the playground,” she says. 

Research of the last 30 years has also shown that the sooner students are mainstreamed, the better, because they are able to develop the language and literacy they need for subjects like math, science and social studies. 

“That’s one of the reasons our CLD-prepared students say that they become much better teachers for all students,” Huang asserts. “The strategies we’re using right now for CLD students are good strategies to help any student that struggles in math, science, social studies and language arts.” 

Deborah Romero, Ph.D., professor of CLD Education at UNC, points out that the bottom line is equity in education. “This isn’t just, ‘Well, if we just teach everybody in English, it will be fine.’ It’s not equal education, it’s equitable education. And that’s something that we emphasize in the classroom. English language needs to be taught in context, with the content, because it gives students something to connect the language to. We’re not just teaching English for English’s sake. We’re teaching English in a science class, right? They’re not just learning the subject they’re also learning the academic language in that subject.” 

Strategies for All Learners 

So how does a teacher — who may be fluent in one language and culture — work with students with multiple cultures and languages? 

The strategy for CLD teaching steps away from a classroom where all learning hinges on spoken language. Huang offers an example from a workshop she gave to fellow UNC faculty and to teacher candidates.  

“I taught a geography lesson in Chinese language to these professors. Nobody spoke Chinese in that particular room. I conducted a lesson for five minutes, using Chinese without using any strategies. And people got totally lost, angry and bored.” 

Then she used strategies like slowing speech, increased visuals with maps and charts, using facial expressions and adding group work.  

“When all these kinds of strategies were used, the professors got it. They even successfully completed an exercise. So, in 20 minutes they learned exactly what I wanted them to learn in terms of geography. And they even started using some Chinese words.” 

Huang points out that any classroom has students at different proficiency levels, so the ability to provide differential instruction recognizes that students have different proficiencies and can handle activities with the same content, but with different linguistic demands. 

Living in a Multilingual World 

Another important part of CLD education is understanding that it’s not about students becoming English speakers who leave behind their native language.  

“The idea is to help the students develop the English language while they continue to develop their first language so they can become truly bilingual,” Romero says. “And of course, even more languages than that would be great.” 

It’s also important to understand that the world is becoming more and more multilingual. Romero says that in one of her classes, she has students identify the number of countries and languages in the world. 

“They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s like 7,000 languages and 200 countries. There must be more than one language in most countries.’ More than half of the world is bilingual, but we have such an English-only mentality within the United States that it sometimes feels like an uphill climb. I think the good news is, as our campus and our immediate community diversifies, (multilingualism) becomes more apparent. Our current teachers see this in the classroom with kids coming from India and Asia who already speak three languages or four.” 

Huang says that she has seen some teachers who embrace the idea of bilingual by cultural education in theory, but don’t always understand it. “Sometimes they still think that if you speak more than one language that you are not good at any one of the languages really,” she says, adding that when her young son was in school, his teacher expressed support for the idea of him being bilingual, but when Huang explained that they spoke Chinese at home, the teacher asked if they could speak more English at home. 

When you ask the parent to try to speak more English at home, you are really suggesting to the parent that your first language should be taken away,” she says. 

And that, Romero says, recalls the belief expressed by a well-known educational linguist who says that when you take away a child’s language, you take away their identity.

Valuing Identity 

The distance she’s come from that first classroom in Georgia to her coursework at UNC reveals Paw’s resilience. As with so many others who have come to America over the centuries with their own languages and culture — keeping her culture and identity while finding a sense of belonging is challenging.  

“There were some teachers (at my school) who were very understanding, but I don’t think I was able to share my story or to learn more things about myself. I really struggled with knowing myself because I felt like our story was never talked about. Teachers never asked where we came from. So, a lot that I brought to America was, I felt, irrelevant,” she says. 

There were times, though, that she found connections. During the day, she attended classes at an international school for girls who were refugees, and she was encouraged to read.  

“We read a lot of historical novels related to the Dust Bowl and Holocaust. Those stories had to do with mov-ing and families being persecuted, so sometimes I related to those stories because of my refugee experience. We read a lot about female figures, like Malala, who fight for education. So, I always wanted to learn about other people’s stories and empower women to know their identity,” she says. 

As the books she read helped her build bridges, Paw was able to feel a greater sense of belonging. It’s some-thing that Romero and Margaret Berg, Ph.D., professor of Language and Literacy, have both talked about with their students and with alumni who are working in the field. 

 “One of my former students is working with Afghan women who have no literacy in their first language,” says Berg. “This is one of the most difficult challenges to overcome. I was trying to encourage (my former student) that these women have a rich heritage of embroidery work, and that they can take something from embroidery and build language around that, crossing bridges to other elements of language from a base that they already have.” 

That sense of connection is something that Paw hopes to bring to classrooms when she teaches, and some-thing that she says CLD education helps teach. 

“If I were a teacher, I will want to feel like my student. I want to give my students a sense of belonging in the classroom, where they feel comfortable to learn. I think that is done by allowing them to tell their stories. I can do simple things like putting on music that is in their language or creating connections through artwork.” 

Paw hopes to finish her master’s degrees over the next year, then would like to teach second and third graders in CLD classrooms, and maybe eventually, teach abroad.  

“Right now, there are so many refugees coming into this country. Without the proper strategies that we learn from CLD, I don’t know how teachers would work with English Language Learners,” she says. “They don’t have a regular childhood like other people, and we learn how to help them despite all these things that they go through. We know how to listen to their stories and how to make them feel they belong in a classroom and help them feel a sense of identity. To make them feel when they come here, they don’t have to leave behind all these things. Their stories are relevant, and we appreciate who they are.” UNC

–Debbie Moors