EMLs are in the news, but why isn’t their real story being told?

“The Justice Department has instructed US attorneys offices not to use the term ‘undocumented’ immigrants and instead refer to someone illegally in the US as “an illegal alien.” This recent news, plus the implications of halting the US refugee program and deportations resulting in family separations, are clear policies and practices directed at the newest Americans and students in our schools. News stories continue to show the trauma that immigrant/refugee students face, as well as those who are US born and have family members affected by these policies. At MnEEP, we continue to ask: How has this contributed to teachers and families connected to this growing student group?

We know already that the lack of sophisticated news coverage about students and the families with connections to them has contributed to deficit-thinking about the fastest-growing student groups. Teachers, administrators, school board members, and communities see the bombardment of negative news defining students and their families on a spectrum from “illegal” to “traumatized.” The larger community, who may only see stories about Emerging Multilingual Learners (EMLs) through the lens of current immigration policies, could conclude the students and families should not be here, they’re waiting on DACA, or that their trauma is the only piece to address.

Yet EMLs are so much more than what the headlines share, and it’s imperative we work to support their potential. The majority of EML students are US born, and research shows their multi-linguistic skills support better English language development, academic achievement overall, and maybe cognitive executive function, or at least counteract autism. EMLs are less likely to develop, or at least delay the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia.They bring in a direct line to other cultures and languages for their classmates. They are more capable of speaking to a broader clientele and potentially earn more money as a result of employers’ demand for multilingual workers.  And their language is a right and resource, not a problem to be addressed.

Such gifted students have been in Minnesota schools for a while, but why do they continue to do poorly academically? Why do we continue to see them as Others, those having a deficit with definitions ranging from “Limited English Proficient” to “English Learner” to establish what the goal is? Why is the US severely monolingual and becoming more so? And why does the news present EMLs as simply victims in a broken immigration and refugee system?

My friend and national advocate Conor discusses this idea, and challenges local media to complete the picture they’re painting of EMLs. We at MnEEP challenge the idea of how education is delivered in Minnesota: focused on the English language and a euro-centric curriculum and pedagogy.

It is not our collective fault that it turned out this way, but it is our collective fault when we continue to deny students of color and American Indian students who make up at least 30 percent statewide, up to 99 percent in some schools, an equitable and quality education. It is our fault if we recognize the legacy of English-only, euro-centric practices and do nothing about it. It is also our fault to continue letting news stories focused on trauma and deficits color the minds of education stakeholders.

Let’s share better EML stories and transform the education they’re receiving in Minnesota and beyond.

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