Wendy Chambers' Learning Story


Many of the most significant learning moments in my life have happened to me throughout my 17 years as a professor at Georgia Southern University. One particularly poignant episode took place last year, in a class that I teach called Cognition and Language. The class is a sophomore level course for education majors and focuses on cognitive and language development in children, including issues of 2nd language acquisition. I teach this course quite frequently, and I had been struggling with the dilemma of whether to continue to devote a significant amount of class time to whole class discussions. Like many educators today, I guess I had been putting pressure on myself to find ways to be more ‘productive’ and ‘efficient’ in terms of thoroughly covering all the topics that are on the approved course outline.My students in this class are primarily White and African American; however, that particular semester I happened to have two sisters who were Mexican American, the children of local migrant workers who worked the onion fields near Vidalia. Vidalia is widely known for their sweet onions, and around here, also for their large population of Latino migrant workers who labor in the fields. ‘Maria’ and ‘Catrina’ had grown up working long, hard hours alongside their siblings and parents, picking onions as well as harvesting peanuts, tobacco, and blueberries, and generally doing any other work they could find. These young women were very shy and quiet in my class, and never spoke up during discussions (although they would stop by and talk with me outside of class quite often). This all changed, though, the day that we discussed ESL learners. Roughly a week earlier, Maria and Catrina had stopped by my office to chat. I mentioned to them that we would be covering the issue of learners of English as a 2nd language in class soon, and that if they would like to share anything about their personal experiences, I was sure the class would enjoy hearing about it. I remember that they both just looked at each other and did not respond. I quickly added that there was no ‘pressure”that they did not have to talk if they didn’t feel comfortable. The following week, I began the discussion about ESL learners as I typically do, by asking my students how they think they might effectively deal with having a child placed in their class who does not speak English. One of my key objectives for this topic is to encourage empathy and compassion from my students, many of whom seem to have rather narrow-minded attitudes toward migrant worker families, and some of whom are actually children of the farmers who hire these workers. In response to my question, one or two students in the class began to somewhat half-heartedly attempt to throw out suggestions and share ideas. Suddenly, Maria raised her hand and began to share her story of being a young girl in a local area school with no proficiency in English. Her memories of her teachers ranged from those who, at best, tried to ignore the girls as much as they could in order to get on with their ‘normal’ school day, to those who actually treated the girls with cruelty. She went on to share the story of being made to read aloud in front of the class. Although she was doing well by this point with her oral and written English language skills, as she was reading the word ‘yellow,’ she pronounced it ‘jello’ due to her Spanish accent. Her teacher responded with hostility by making Maria stand in the corner of the classroom, facing away from the class, for what must have seemed like an eternity.Our class fell silent. A few moments later, Maria’s soft-spoken younger sister Catrina, with tears in her eyes, continued by sharing how she was in the same class as Maria and had to watch helplessly as her sister was humiliated. She went on to tell of how, on the school bus every day, the other kids would ridicule the girls, telling them that they ‘smelled like onions’ and that they should go back ‘to the fields where you belong.’ By the time Maria and Catrina were finished sharing their stories, there was not a dry eye in the classroom. The discussion that followed was ignited with a spark of passion and a sense of relevance in my students that I don’t often see. After class, several of the students thanked Maria and Catrina for sharing their stories. Although this was the first time these young women spoke up in our class, it was not the last. The experience seemed to give them a feeling of confidence that they were accepted and appreciated, and confirmation that they had something important to contribute.As I walked back toward my office that day, congratulating myself on a successful class, it immediately struck me that I could not take any of the credit. I realized how Maria and Catrina’s life stories had impacted their classmates, and I appreciated the courage that it must have taken for these young women to share their traumatic experiences with the class. I made a renewed commitment to myself to always make time and provide opportunities for this kind of interaction among my students. The life lessons that they can share with one another can sometimes be so much more meaningful than what they can learn from ‘the teacher’ –even (or perhaps especially) at the college level. It might sound like a familiar clich