hablo lo inglés matao
hablo lo español matao
no sé leer ninguno bien
so it is, spanglish to matao
what i digo
¡ay, virgen, yo no sé hablar!
–Tato Laviera, “my graduation speech”
When I applied for a job at Breakthrough Collaborative in Santa Fe, I thought teaching writing for a nonprofit would be a chance to do what I love and also do some good. After three years of majoring in English at Drake University, I had only completed work in my field of interest during the school year—tutoring college students in my university’s writing workshop and helping elementary and middle school students practice their English while I was in Spain. Perhaps as a consequence, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with an English degree. As I grew closer and closer to graduating, I became increasingly nervous about finding a purpose. It didn’t help that my major seemed to be the butt of every joke. In Spain, when I told a cab driver I was studying English, he said, “Ah,” as if he now understood that I was suffering from a grave predicament. He turned to me confidentially and said, “Estás estudiando tu propia lengua.” Listening to John Mulaney on Netflix, I heard something similar, as he cracked a series of jokes about obtaining a four-year degree “in a language I already spoke.” In the words of Princeton, a singing puppet down on his luck in Avenue Q, “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” I hoped teaching would be my answer, so I could finally have a sense of direction.
For two packed months in the summer of 2017, I worked as a Breakthrough teacher. In the morning, I taught seventh graders how to write persuasive and expository essays. In my afternoons, I met with my supervisor, made lesson plans, and led a short slam poetry workshop for both seventh and eighth graders. After school, I took a brief break to call students’ parents and give them updates on upcoming Breakthrough events (which always made me nervous, even when I didn’t have to use my shaky, broken Spanish). Then I had professional development workshops to attend, then committee meetings, then more lesson planning, grading papers, and eating dinner with my coworkers at 11 PM while we laughed about how much we still had to do before we could go to bed that night.
Breakthrough was created to provide reading, writing, science, and mathematical instruction to underserved students. To be accepted into the program, students had to prove that they were “highly motivated,” meaning they worked hard in their classes and their parents were willing and able to play some sort of role in their students’ education. While a goal of the program was to get students excited about learning, it also demanded a great deal from them. With our small class sizes, no student was allowed to slip through the cracks. My time at Breakthrough was primarily spent trying to navigate various forms of boundaries. In one sense, I was trying to help my students “break through” a social boundary, a socioeconomic barrier that could prevent them from someday obtaining a four-year degree. At the same time, I was trying to keep my students and myself from crossing over the boundary between “teacher” and “friend.” While I liked my students as people and needed to form a certain bond with them, I also needed them to see me as some kind of an authority, even though I didn’t always feel like an authority.
Finally, there was a language boundary. While I spoke some Spanish, I wasn’t nearly as fluent as most of my students. When I first started teaching, I found myself occasionally slipping common Spanish phrases into my own speech without thinking. “Por supuesto,” I said, after one student asked if they would need to do homework. “¿Hablas español?” he replied excitedly, quickly rattling off several more statements in rapid Spanish. I fumbled for a second, and finally blurted, “Sorry, I’m still learning Spanish. I’m not very good yet.” In that moment, I felt a disconnect between myself and my students. I was like them, and yet I was not like them. I could understand them, and yet I could not understand them. And as the person of privilege, the white, middle-class woman from the Midwest attending a four-year university, I could both feel my desire to learn from them and my discomfort with the fact that, in a sense, it was my job to make them more like me.
Most of the time I worked at Breakthrough, I was both extremely tired and extremely happy. While I could not say that teaching gave me energy, I loved getting to know my students. I had fun coming up with new activities and lesson plans, trying to get middle school students excited about outlines and introductory paragraphs. Every day was different, not just because I was teaching something new every day but because the classroom dynamic was shaped by my students’ experiences outside of the classroom, parts of their lives I couldn’t see. Were they tired or hungry? Were they fighting with someone? Was there something going on this afternoon that they were excited about (and that they would be spending the rest of class trying to derail the lesson in order to talk about with me)? I felt like I’d found what I was meant to do with my degree. I counted every improvement in my students’ work as a personal success. Thesis statements that followed the formula in the curriculum, five-paragraph essays with introductions and conclusions, quotes with parenthetical citations at the end—every achievement made me glow. Look, I’d think, as I scrawled congratulatory comments on the margins of their homework. It’s working. I taught them that.
In my newly-discovered excitement for teaching, I allowed myself to get carried away. If every students’ success was my success, then every students’ misstep was a failure—my failure. Grammar and mechanics were only a brief part of the curriculum, but I knew my students would be tested on their spelling and grammar at the end of the year. Their familiarity with Spanish occasionally showed in their writing, particularly when their verbs didn’t agree with their nouns (verbs have different rules in Spanish than they do in English) or when they replaced “a” with “e” (since “a” in English often sounds like “e” in Spanish).
In the Writing Workshop at Drake, I’d worked with students that had learned English as a second language, and I’d seen similar slips in grammar. The ESL students I was working with were typically foreign exchange—either Malaysian students or Spanish-speaking students studying abroad from Spain or Latin America. As a tutor, I knew my job wasn’t to help students with everything on their papers. For starters, there simply wasn’t enough time, but even if there was, it would be too great of a task to try to make a piece of writing “perfect.” Despite knowing this, I felt overwhelmingly obligated to try to teach my students in Santa Fe everything I could. I felt indebted to my students for allowing me to teach them, because I liked them, because I was impressed by what they could do. This compounded the pressure I felt from my own desire to succeed, a desire that stemmed from being hired to do a job I loved, a job I very badly wanted to be able to do well. I spent hours making notes on the margins of my students’ drafts, only to see the grammar errors I explained repeat themselves again and again.
I wondered if it was my commenting style. While I knew I only had a few days in class to go over grammar and mechanics, I struggled to walk the line between preparing students for their final essay and accepting that middle school students simply couldn’t be expected to be masters of grammar and mechanics just yet. When I asked my supervisor for strategies on commenting for grammar, she frowned thoughtfully and told me, “Yes, that can be a bit difficult.” She encouraged me to start smaller and be selective with my comments, but I wasn’t sure which grammar rules I should be emphasizing and which I should let slide. Combing through pages and pages of my students’ papers, I felt hung out to dry.
In the Workshop, we focused on broader issues first—organization of ideas, clarity, support for the argument—and then, if there was time, we could have a discussion about grammar. This followed what Sharon A. Myers, an associate professor of applied linguistics and the director of the Academic ESL Program at Texas Tech University, identified as a national trend in higher education, in which “form was dethroned and meaning crowned” (54). While we spent a great deal of time going over how to approach comments on global concerns, trying on facilitative and directive approaches, our discussion on addressing grammar concerns was much briefer. I learned strategies like asking students to read their work aloud, so they could hear where their verbs weren’t agreeing or where they’d missed their commas, but these sorts of strategies don’t work as well for people who are writing in their second language. When I first started, I floundered as I tried to tutor students that were still learning English, explaining grammar rules but never sure if I was explaining them well. I was relieved that these were treated as peripheral concerns by the Workshop, so that I could spend weeks and even months without once again grasping at phrases like “subject-verb agreement” and “dependent and independent clauses” when the only way I was used to explaining grammar in my native language was to say, “This doesn’t sound right. It shouldn’t read this way.”
I still remember the look of relief on the face of a tutee I met with after I studied abroad. She was a foreign exchange student from Costa Rica, and when she came in, she said, “I usually get really high grades on papers. In this class, I keep getting Cs.” As I read over her essay, I remembered how frustrated I’d felt in Spain when I’d received grades back on papers without feedback, leaving me unable to decipher what grammar errors I’d made. I knew my papers probably had broader concerns, such as not providing enough support for my argument, but it was difficult to address those concerns when I was still struggling to use the language itself. With that in mind, I circled sentence-level errors in her paper, and before we started talking about her essay, I said, “We’ll talk about organization, too, but I noticed there’s some grammar concerns in here. I know this is a rough draft, but if you want to talk about them—”
She interrupted me. “Yes, please!”
I found it easier to address her grammatical concerns because, in many ways, they were mirror images of my own. She was a Spanish student learning English, and I was an English student learning Spanish. I also had some experience under my belt after tutoring in Spain, which taught me how to provide clearer examples to demonstrate grammar rules. The main lesson I took from that tutoring session, though, was how badly foreign exchange students wanted help with their grammar, how much they wanted to learn the language.
Beatrice Mendez Newman’s essay, “Centering in the Borderlands,” explained that students with limited access to English are unlikely to respond well to facilitative approaches to tutoring, approaches that emphasize asking questions and allowing writers to form their own conclusions, approaches that I typically use: “asking questions aimed at helping the writer decipher problems in a text leads to frustration and to the student’s suspicion that tutors are ‘withholding information’ about grammar and writing” (58). As an English professor and the Writing Center Director at the University of Texas Pan-American, as well as a borderlands Spanish-speaker herself, Mendez Newman understood the difficulties faced by students trying to write in English at the college level. She advised tutors to take more directive approaches with these students, to identify exactly what needs to be changed and explain how to change it.
She wrote that the students who attended her university, students similar to the middle schoolers I taught in New Mexico, did not fit cleanly into the ESL category. They grew up around both Spanish and English, so their first language was a combination of these two languages, typically existing in only oral form (54). She explained,
For many borderlands students, literacy in English develops in school settings and is not reinforced in homes where grandparents, parents, other relatives, and family friends speak some version of border Spanish; where books, newspapers, and other reading materials are rare; and where family comes above everything else—including school attendance and school work. Thus, when these students arrive at borderlands institutions, they lack the literacy skills to succeed in college. (46)
The main rule all language learners know is that language needs to be practiced. A student’s literacy in English depends upon her access to English, so literacy levels differ depending upon a variety of factors, including class status, location, and familial expectations. Most of the bilingual students I’ve worked with at Drake were different from Mendez Newman’s “borderlands students.” When I spoke with them and read their work, they seemed to have a sharper divide between Spanish and English—they could easily note when one stopped and the other began. But many of the students I worked with in New Mexico blended the two languages. During lunch and recess, they peppered their sentences with Spanish phrases. In class, they spoke to each other in Spanish when they wanted to start playing a game while my back was turned. Once, I overheard one of my students ask another to toss him a ball in the middle of class. “Puede entenderte,” the owner of the ball muttered to his friend, watching me watch them out of the corner of my eye. “No, no habla español,” the other responded dismissively. I laughed, because they were both half-right, and then I confiscated the ball. Lacking English literacy is not the same as lacking language. My students were excellent communicators—they just didn’t communicate the way universities wanted them to. To turn to a student who is used to merging syntax, hearing two languages at once, and say, “Read this aloud. Listen for what sounds right,” felt more unhelpful than ever.
As someone who has been trying to learn Spanish for eight years, I understood what my students could do as an incredible skill. I’d read brilliant works of writing that combined Spanish and English, including Gloria Anzaldúa’s hybrid work, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, and poetry by Latino-Americans like Tato Laviera and Jaime Montesinos. These works, themselves, were highly conscious of the pressure to “adopt a discourse,” as David Bartholomae put it, which of course meant to write in a way that others could easily understand and respect, to write in one language, “to speak our language, to speak as we do” (Bartholomae 4). (This is America. Speak English.) And yet, they defied that demand and blended their discourses, creating something playful and important and new.
In “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Gloria Anzaldúa pointed out that Spanish speakers were the largest minority group in the U.S., and yet, the majority of Chicanos and Latinos were learning to adopt English as their “mother tongue” (39). She added,
I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself…. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. (40)
I wanted my students to demand something different, to abandon what Anzaldúa referred to as “the tradition of silence” (40). But my students weren’t in a position to do that yet, because they were still outsiders, separated from what Bartholomae would call a privileged discourse, a discourse accepted by academia. They were only just becoming the types of readers a privileged discourse would include. And because they were likely lacking literacy in both Spanish and English, if they were going to ever write like Anzaldúa or Laviera, they would need more practice (Mendez Newman 45). They would need exposure to formal Spanish and formal English, so that when they did switch codes, the switch would be an intentional step, an expression of what they could do rather than an expression of what they could not do yet. Most likely, my students weren’t getting any more Spanish writing practice at home than they were getting English practice, but I also wasn’t in a position to give them that practice in class. To show them how to possess both discourses, I was asking them to separate Spanish and English, and then prioritize English grammar and English rules, because those were the skills I’d been tasked to teach them.
When I’ve taken Spanish classes at Drake, I’ve spoken to bilingual activists who have reflected upon how difficult it is to hold onto another language and another culture in the U.S. My class asked Candy Hurtado, a woman whose family works to share traditional Peruvian music with the world while living in the U.S., how she was able to maintain a connection with her culture despite so many miles of separation, and she told us, “It’s because we don’t lose who we are in the end…. If you assimilate into another culture, you’ve got half of something.” Edyka Chilomé, an artist and activist and author of She Speaks | Poetry explained to my class that she writes in English because growing up in the United States, English became her primary language. “It’s a reflection of colonialism. We become disconnected from our things. It becomes violent. It becomes a form of violence.” David Bartholomae said that, often, writing is violence disguised as charity (10). When my student raised her hand to ask if she could write a poem in Spanish and I told her no, I thought, So is teaching.
There are ways to make preparing borderlands students for college less violent. I know one of my students was introduced to Pablo Neruda’s poetry in one of her middle school classes. She loves his writing and can read it in both Spanish and English. On my part, I introduced my students to slam poetry that switched between Spanish and English, wanting them to see that there were artists out there that communicated as they did. When they were doing work outside of the classroom, like writing thank you letters to Breakthrough teachers, I encouraged them to write in Spanish if they wanted, since several Breakthrough teachers could read Spanish. These were small drops in the bucket, but if enough teachers made an effort to integrate Spanish into the classroom, English alone would not have to be the language of school, allowing the border between my students’ English and my students’ Spanish to remain porous. In an ideal world, Spanish and English literacies would be allowed to develop alongside each other, but during that summer, I comforted myself with the fact that my students were encouraged to read in both of their languages, even if their school settings still prioritized one over the other.
Since I could not help them with both English and Spanish, I focused on what I could do. I continued marking up my students’ homework. During the first few minutes of class, which we used for warm-up activities, I assigned spelling practice for common spelling errors and a few grammar activities to help with subject-verb agreement. These activities proved more successful than overwhelming them with comments on their assignments, though this practice kept grammar peripheral to the curriculum.
The downside was that, on days that we covered grammar concerns like subject-verb agreement, I found myself more frustrated when my students continued to repeat the mistakes. Hadn’t they been paying attention? Despite knowing how difficult it was for me to learn Spanish, I had fallen into a trap, making what Myers identified as an “instructor (not student) error in teaching pedagogical ‘rules,’ which is the assumption that because they look simple to us, they are simple to a non-native speaker” (62). The Spanish students struggling with subject-verb agreement at Drake often dropped their subjects altogether, since Spanish verbs often connote the subject. I wasn’t used to seeing students have both the noun and the verb present, only to not make them agree. Reading phrases like “Pat look” and “Girls reads,” over and over, I grew more and more confused. It was only when I recalled that verbs in Spanish also work differently in this way that I was able to understand. A singular noun, like “mujer,” would not require an additional letter at the end of the verb. While in English, a woman writes, in Spanish, una mujer escribe. Women write, and mujeres escriben. Of course, then, it would be confusing to apply opposite rules to English.
In that moment, I understood that I needed to trust my students more, to trust the process, to know they were learning and trying and they wouldn’t give up easily. As Myers put it, “Learning is slow” and the process of learning that took place in my classrooms and my tutoring sessions wasn’t something that I could entirely control (57). But it was difficult knowing there was so much they still didn’t know. “Checking writing samples across periods of six months or a year may show improvement barely noticeable over a thirteen week semester—and some language features and levels of fluency do take years, not months, to achieve” (Myers 58). To give myself some perspective, I thought of everything I still didn’t know about Spanish, or even English, despite my teachers’ best efforts to teach me. I also thought of the strange, eureka moments that brought me to the level I’m at today. It was frustrating, but also comforting, to recognize my limitations.
On the last day of my training at Breakthrough, my boss shared a quote with us from Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” I imagine this is what it means to develop writing, whether I am working on my own work or someone else’s: a series of small adjustments, a progression of somethings. Effective teaching, then, is about trying to find a something that will stick, reading over my students’ carefully-written drafts and trying to provide, with understanding and support, the lessons that will be most helpful to teach them.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco, Aunt Lute Books, 2012.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 5, no. 1, 1986, pp. 4-23.
Chilomé, Edyka. Class interview. 3 April 2018.
Hurtado, Candy. Class interview. 19 April 2018.
Laviera, Tato. “my graduation speech.” Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 30 April 2018.
Whitty, Jeff. “Avenue Q.” Edited by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Avenue Q, 2010.
Mendez Newman, Beatrice. “Centering in the Borderlands: Lessons from Hispanic Student Writers.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 23, no. 2, 2003, pp. 43-62.
Mulaney, John. Kid Gorgeous at Radio City. 2018. Netflix.
Myers, Sharon A. “Reassessing the ‘Proofreading Trap’: ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 24, no. 1, 2003, pp. 51-70.