Conference Presentations as Social Justice Interventions?
This week, Maddie and I presented on our thesis project at West Chester University for their Latino/a Community Conference. The session was titled “Be PreBeared: Las Ardillas Preparadas, A Multilingual TIE Project for Early Learners.” It was a great experience to share about our work with students and visitors to the university, but my biggest takeaway came from an interaction after the session.
As we were cleaning up our supplies, a woman came into the room and expressed how sad she was to have missed our session. She quickly asked us to share what our session was about and then asked if we spoke Spanish. Then she began to ask me questions and engaged me in conversation about our project in Spanish. She revealed that she is a Bilingual Education Advocate for students with disabilities in Pennsylvania. She lamented on how little support there was in her school district for acceptance of home languages in the classroom, especially for students with disabilities.
She shared that she speaks 5 languages, and is fluent in 3 of them. When she presents at conferences, she spends the first five minutes of her presentation speaking in a language different from her audience. If her audience is primarily English speaking, she’ll speak in Spanish for five minutes. If the audience is primarily Spanish speaking, she’ll speak in English for five minutes. And if there’s a mix, she’ll speak in French for five minutes. After the five minutes, she tells participants that they can leave the room if they don’t feel comfortable being at a session conducted in a language they don’t understand.
She waits. She then asks her participants to share how they felt sitting in a room where they couldn’t understand what was being said.
That is the point. As adults, we have a choice to leave the room when we feel uncomfortable.
She asks her participants to think about their students. The participants of the session only had to sit through five minutes of not understanding. What about their students? Their students might have 6-8 hours of sitting in a classroom being taught in a language they don’t understand. How do you think that makes them feel?
Wow. Of course! As Gavin Bolton writes, “Learning has to be felt for it to be effective.” This woman was showing me that it is not just enough to share the work that we are doing. Reflecting on my own work, I need to be using conference presentations as opportunities to push past what people assume multilingual spaces look like.
This conversation with this woman made me reflect on how lucky I am to be doing this type of work in NYC. I am lucky to have access to Dual Language classes, to live in a city that embraces multilingual spaces. I should be using every conference presentation as a chance to engage other educators and theatre practitioners on language equity. This is especially true of entering spaces in this country where there might be a hesitancy to bring in home languages into the classroom for fear of failing academic achievements.
I left the conference on Wednesday feeling inspired and motivated to keep exploring what it means to create multilingual theatre education spaces. The woman we met encouraged us to keep doing the work. We are doing a small part in pushing the larger needle towards justice in language education for our students.