Spanish in the Classroom

Benton Middle School is located in Los Angeles where the majority of the population is Latino, consisting of 1,871 students. Of the 1,397 students in the school, 1,415 students are Latino which makes up 76% of the population. I observed a sixth grade class

with thirty-one students. Thirteen of which were Latino students. Students in this class are considered to be “sheltered” learners.

During my first week of observations on October 11, 2006, I noticed students used Spanish when communicating with Ms. Mendez. As students settled in their seats for morning announcements, Kimberly said, “Ayer…” (I was not able to follow what Kimberly was saying due to my inability to understand Spanish). Ms. Mendez replied, “Good! But we can’t talk about that right now OK? We have a lot to do today.” In this case, Kimberly started a conversation in Spanish with Ms. Mendez and Ms. Mendez replied in English. On the same day, students were learning a lesson on “shadows”. While students worked on their individual worksheets, Ernesto raised his hands and got Ms. Mendez’s attention. Ernesto asked, “Como se hace…” Ms. Mendez replied, “You have to color the picture that you think is a shadow.” Again, Ms. Mendez used English to explain to Ernesto what he has to do.

Even though Ms. Mendez responds in a different language than that of Kimberly and Ernesto, they show no surprise or reaction to Ms. Mendez’s uses of English. Both Kimberly and Ernesto continue their work as if a normal conversation has just occurred. As students were working their assignments, Ms. Mendez writes cards that she sends home to her students’ parents. Each week, she picks out one student to send a card home. This serves the purpose of connecting to the parents of students and also connecting to students’ lives outside of the classroom.

In my observations, I discovered that it is extremely difficult to categorize a person as someone who conforms to cultural reproduction or someone who does not do this. It is difficult to suggest whether someone is authentically caring or not. It is difficult to determine that a teacher practices subtractive schooling or is against subtractive schooling.

Cultural reproduction involves “schools, teachers, and curricula viewed as mechanisms of ideological control that work to reproduce and maintain dominant beliefs, values, norms, and oppressive practices” (Leistyna, 1995). Often when students communicate in Spanish with Ms. Mendez, she responds in English. For example, when Kimberly shared about what she did the day before, Ms. Mendez replied in English. It was a simple conversation that both Kimberly and Ms. Mendez can engage using Spanish, but Ms. Mendez prefers to use English to respond to Kimberly. This demonstrates Ms. Mendez’s privileging English over Spanish. When she responds in English, she implicitly suggests that English has more value than Spanish, thus she only speaks English to them. When Ms. Mendez responds in English and not in Spanish, students may assume that English should be used and not Spanish. In this case, we clearly see that student’s cultural knowledge, which is Spanish, are valued less than English in the classroom. Almost all students in the class understand Spanish, yet Ms. Mendez chooses to use English. This incident demonstrates that English is the preferred language in the classroom.

It would appear that authentic caring and social reproduction are at different ends of the spectrum. Someone that authentically cares would not “reproduce and maintain dominant beliefs, values, norms, and oppressive practices” (Leistyna, 1995). Ms. Mendez presents us with a paradox as I believe she is authentically caring and at the same time engaging in cultural reproduction. Valenzuela defines “authentic caring as “connection, unconditional love, and a comprehensive apprehending of “the other” (157). Valenzuela also points out that the “best teacher …loves Mexicans and the Spanish language that we speak” (157). Ms. Mendez display “authentic caring” by connecting to her students’ lives outside of the classroom. She often asks students about their life at home and she also tries to connect her lessons to her students’ everyday lives. For instance, in a lesson about friendship, students were to write a letter to their friends at home. Also, they were able to share their home experiences with the class. This demonstrates the connections from the classroom to students’ lives at home. In another example, once or twice a week, Ms. Mendez writes a personal card to students to read at home with their parents, thus Ms. Mendez is promoting connections with classroom to students’ homes. Her students witness her sending cards home to their parents thus, she is trying to involve parents in their students’ learning. In addition to sending cards home, Ms. Mendez makes an effort to call home when one of her students had missed school for a day or two. She shows concern when students do not show up to school. Furthermore, in her use of English and support for students’ developing language skills, Ms. Mendez displays “caring” because she is providing her students English skills that will help them succeed in the dominant culture or culture of power. In addition, Ms. Mendez is also empowering the students by allowing them to learn the dominant language, giving them a chance to be in power.

Valenzuela refers to subtractive schooling as the way schools are organized to subtract resources from students” (Valenzuela, 1999). One way that teachers can subtract students’ resources is to take away their ability to speak their home language. Ms. Mendez often responds in English to her students. She uses Spanish to teach in rare occasions, such as, when students have a hard time understanding a lesson. By speaking to her students in English, Ms. Mendez is taking away her students’ opportunities to communicate with her in their home language. Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital” refers to “different forms of cultural knowledge, such as language, modes of social interaction, and meaning, are valued hierarchically in society” (Leistyna et al., 1995). In this case, Ms. Mendez deemphasizes her students’ cultural capital by not responding in Spanish and not promoting the use of Spanish in the classroom. It is true that students should learn the dominant language which is Standard English, but their use of Spanish should not be restricted.

Students should be in an environment where both English and Spanish are used, rather than excluding one language over another. Students should be able to use both languages to promote their learning. Vygosky’s theory states that students come to school with prior knowledge from their experiences (Hertsch, 1985). This prior knowledge includes their home language. Given the student’s prior knowledge, Ms. Mendez can expand and teach from there.

The line is not very clear for subtractive schooling in the case of Ms. Mendez. It is not easy to categorize if Ms. Mendez demonstrates subtractive schooling or not because her actions shows both categories. Ms. Mendez practices subtractive schooling yet at the same time she allows her students to speak Spanish to gain more knowledge, thus they are using their cultural capital.

Instead of correcting or reminding the students to use only English in her classroom, Ms. Mendez opts to allow her students speak in their preferred language. In fact, I have never witnessed her correcting or reminding her students to use English in the classroom. She allows students to use Spanish to translate for other students and allows for conversations between students to be in Spanish. In addition, when students have difficulties understanding a lesson that Ms. Mendez taught in English, she would work with the student individually, using Spanish to help her students understand better. Ms. Mendez uses the student’s home language when necessary to strengthen their understanding in class.

Ms. Mendez is a teacher that authentically cares for her students yet because of the structure of schooling, she may not respond to students in Spanish, thus she is forced to undercut her authentic caring. It is difficult to show that one cares when you are in a structure that often forces you to follow their policies. Unintentionally, Ms. Mendez practices subtractive schooling where she takes away the students’ home language as she puts an emphasis on the use of English because she feels obliged to follow the school’s policies.

Ms. Mendez has the intentions of providing students with tools to survive in the dominant culture, but she is forced to undercut her authentic caring by teaching only in English. Her intentions can be expanded by providing a bilingual education environment where students are able to use their home language and English. Research shows that bilingual education helps students to “study subject matter in their first language while their weaker language skills catch up” (Durkin, 1995). There are many ways that bilingual education can play a major role in student’s learning. For example, Ms. Mendez can use concurrent translation where an explanation is given in both the students’ primary language (Spanish) and in English during the same lesson (Durkin, 1995). Furthermore, the amount of each language used is also important in determining subtractive schooling. In her classroom, Ms. Mendez can use English for 70% of the time and use Spanish for 30% of the time. This way, Spanish is not completely excluded in the classroom.

1. Durkin, D. B. (1995). Language Issues: Readings for Teachers. White Plains N.Y.: Longman.
2. Hertsch, J. (1985). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
3. Leistyna, P. et al. (1995). Breaking Free: The Transformative Power of Critical Pedagogy. Cambridge: Harvard Educational Review.
4. Valenzuela, Angela. Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexico Youth and the Politics of Caring. New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.