When I spoke to Steven Alvarez in June, he had been watching videos of recent racist rants caught on cell phones, most directed at people speaking Spanish in public spaces. The incidents left him shaking his head.
“In my research, I’ve never met a family of adults who didn’t want to learn English,” he said. “Parents understand the pressure” to help their kids with homework and ensure they aren’t stuck on a low-wage job track.
Alvarez is the author of a new book for NCTE, Community Literacies en Confianza: Learning from Bilingual After-School Programs, in which he discusses his work with two programs for English language learners in Kentucky: the KUL after-school club for high-school students and Valle del Bluegrass library, which offered extensive bilingual programming.
Alvarez’s own family history is a time capsule of the English-only approach and its effect on families. His father, growing up in the 1950s in Arizona near the Mexican border, had teachers who would hit him when he spoke Spanish in class. As a result, Alvarez and his siblings were raised speaking English—and Alvarez had to relearn Spanish in college.
“In my own family, we went from Spanish-dominant to English in one generation, and that’s the emerging trend,” Alvarez says.
“There are lots of arguments about why immigrants don’t learn English, but immigrants are learning English faster now than they ever have.”
“Historically it has been a three-generation process,” he says. But now the transition is happening so rapidly that immigrant parents struggle to talk to their English-only children.
Alvarez, who now teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, and coordinates the college’s first-year writing program, has distilled his work with after-school programs to a classroom approach that leans heavily on ethnography and personal writing.
A “Taco Literacy” course he taught at the University of Kentucky took off in a big way, attracting national media attention from the Huffington Post and Univision. The upper-division writing class explored the region’s changing demographics through research into local food culture. It sent students out in the community to meet owners of food trucks and taquerias, and brought journalists, food critics, and the owner of a tortilla factory into the classroom as guest speakers.
“It was the coolest class I ever taught, mostly because students in class got to know each other,” Alvarez says. “They got to eat together, got talking about food, looking at the local community, learning about their local environment.”
The class got students out of their dorms and into the community, sometimes in Latinx neighborhoods where English was no longer the dominant language. Students blogged and shared a common Instagram hashtag #tacoliteracy (students had individual accounts) so they could follow each other’s food adventures during the semester. They slipped between languages when learning how to order from Spanish-language menus. They talked to professional food writers about branding and social media and how a food writer got his first job at the local newspaper.
Alvarez says a similar class on local foodways could be adapted to any community. And he says this kind of ethnographic research allows students to complete lots of low-stakes writing, interviewing, field notes, and other research, and build, revise and edit that into more polished projects in English.
“The reality is that academic language is not anybody’s home language,” Alvarez adds. “It takes years to learn.”
Telling Stories, Building Community
“High-stakes standardized testing,” says Alvarez, “really fractures ways of building community.”
His work in the classroom and with after-school programs is an antidote to that, a way of bringing students and teachers back into relationship with each other.
He admits that the relationship-building takes time. In Community Literacies en Confianza, he suggests small steps teachers can take: holding parent-teacher conferences in community spaces, bringing in outside speakers, assigning students to create oral histories and ethnographies.
“The most important thing to think about is the communities that students build outside of the classroom, build around shared experiences,” he says. Because it’s in those spaces that the real learning begins.
Check out Alvarez’s On Demand Web seminar: “Confidence in Community Literacies: Bilingual Writers Reading the World“