I went to elementary school with many other Lao students and we were able to speak Lao and play Lao games during recess; however, teachers who were not culturally responsive stigmatized maintaining that part of my identity. They operated from within their realm of knowing, one that was often upholding the status quo. What I’m trying to say is my schooling experience was negative because of the lack of culturally responsive practices. We need to develop learning environments in which our kids can be valued, empowered, and supported. We can achieve that, in part, through culturally responsive teaching practices.
I come from a time when all students were from Southeast Asia were aggregated and lumped into English as a Second Language (ESL) program. While I think that ESL programs were intended to serve the best interests of the student under the guise that having a better understanding of English would allow access to increased learning and success. Nonetheless, I often found myself bored, unsupported, and withdrawn.
One day I realized that I was part of a group of students (made up of Lao, Vietnamese, and Cambodian) that were segregated from the general classroom and was learning English either at the back of the school or in a converted storage closet in the lunchroom (when the lunch tables weren’t stored in there). The message I got from this was that it was remedial and my experiences were not valued.
I got fed up and announced to my teacher that instead of being in ESL, I’d rather be learning Spanish with the rest of the classroom. I had seen how much fun they had playing games, singing songs, and learning something new in comparison to the worksheets, book reports, and readings we had to do in ESL. The response I got from the ESL teacher was that because I already am learning a second language (I was perceived as a native Lao speaker and English language learner), I had to let other students learn another language as well. In my third grade perspective, I felt the guilt and shame well up in my chest. I continued on in ESL without much protest after that.
Midway through fourth grade, I was removed from ESL without being told why and was put into a gifted program called Yellow Brick Road (YBR). But, imagine coming from a very stigmatized place where I felt my learning was remedial to a program where I had to change my mindset and produce knowledge to show my individual creativity. It was an impossible task. So I had difficulties being successful after so many years of not having that support previously.
In the fifth grade I learned that I was the dumping ground for all students who recently arrived from Laos. At the time I just figured I was a classroom helper, and I willingly offered my bicultural and bilingual experience as a bridge for these new kids. The teacher placed my desk at the center and they were all situated around me. I was then instructed to translate directions into Lao and answer any questions they might have.
That same year, during a social studies unit, the teacher asked me what my nation’s capital was and I excitedly answered, “Washington, D.C.!” She chuckled out an abrupt “No.” She clarified, “The capital of your country.” I paused and looked at the other Lao kids who were gathered around me. They shook their heads and I gave her the we-don’t-know shoulder shrug. She then said, “Vee-en-tee-en. That’s the capital of your country and you should know that.”
The problem here was that my parents taught me to respect my teachers because they were the experts. We were never to question them. But, deep down I knew she was wrong for telling me my capital was Vientiane (Vieng-chan). Although I knew it was the capital of Laos, but I felt like she was making me feel different. Had she gotten to know me, she would have known that I was born in Minnesota. I had no shame in being associated with Laos (obviously), but the fact that she considered me not American was offensive and hurtful and made me feel like I didn’t belong.
So this is where I call for educators to operate from a more culturally responsive perspective. With a more diverse demographic profile (within the state of Minnesota alone) the use of culturally responsive teaching is increasingly important. Culturally responsive practices validate students’ cultural and lived experiences as well as paying attention to their learning. Teaching is also co-created in such a way that students teach about what they know, thus making them experts and teaching others including the teacher.
Had my schooling taken a more culturally responsive direction, I believe it wouldn’t have had such a negative affect on me. Although I make these observations in retrospect, I believe these negative situations allowed me to build up resilience. Had I listened to my ESL teacher, I wouldn’t have majored in Spanish Studies and went on to a graduate program in Hispanic Literature where I had opportunities to teach Spanish courses. Had I internalized the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype I wouldn’t be writing about my Lao-American experiences here on LLOTP. Let’s help our teachers move toward a more culturally responsive teaching practice!