Current research confirms that bilingual children learn faster and that learning additional languages also supports other types of learning. The cognitive benefits of bilingualism cover the entire lifespan and even include protection against some forms of dementia. It makes sense for schools to support the development of such a useful competency, and bilingual books can be very helpful in that effort.
But finding enough quality bilingual books at appropriate levels in all desired languages presents a challenge. There are certain types of books for which bilingual editions may prove disappointing at best and awkward at worst. Here are some examples of the types of books to watch out for, followed by ideas for the types of books worth seeking out.
What Doesn’t Work
Books with rhymes
Have you ever tried to read Dr. Seuss in Spanish? Unfortunately, both the rhythm and the wonderful “singsong” nature of his rhymes are lost in translation. You don’t need to speak a second language to understand that the preservation of rhythm and rhyme in translation usually requires a complete rewrite.
Books with wordplay
Wordplay is particularly enchanting for students in early grades. It’s also a great way to introduce humor in reading. But attempts at translation often fail because translated words rarely retain the corresponding double meaning.
Although one can find pairs of words beginning with the same letter in two languages, as a rule, a word’s translation would not bear such a resemblance. In addition, many languages have at least some differences in their alphabets, rendering the side-by-side use of each letter difficult or impossible.
Books rich with cultural references or themes
Culture-specific terms can be translated, but they usually require multiple-word explanations. Also, different cultural norms may cause a translation to be perceived as insensitive in one of the languages. Therefore, stories with universal themes work best.
Although these examples show that some books may be unsuitable for quality bilingual editions, they still present opportunities for provocative discussions about language with bilingual students. Assigning young students the task of translating a simple rhyme, for example, can help them experience one of many translation challenges they may face.
For pre-K, “pictionaries” are ideal for teaching single words bilingually in any language. In K–2, when picture and chapter books dominate reading lists, side-by-side bilingual editions become very useful to introduce new vocabulary and to help build connections between two languages.
These bilingual or dual-language editions also help affirm the value of languages and create an environment of positive acceptance by teachers and peers. Children’s eagerness to fit in with their peers motivates them to learn desirable skills, but also to abandon anything that is perceived as unpopular by their reference group. In an era of increasing xenophobia, teachers can use bilingual books to emphasize positive contributions of all nationalities and to confront misperceptions about foreign cultures and languages.
While we know that speaking additional languages has benefits, it is important that children themselves buy into this knowledge. Bilingual books open the door to conversations about the pragmatic advantages of all languages. Usefulness when traveling or when others need translation are practical illustrations.
Bilingual editions present special challenges, since not all books are suitable for side-by-side, dual-text presentation. The problems can be many, and vetting bilingual editions in both languages is important. Since it’s not always possible to do this for all languages, vetting a publisher, an editor or a particular writer may be easier. Boston-based Babl Books, for example, specializes in dual-language editions in many languages for pre-K to second grade. They are committed to the mission of providing access to bilingual books and use an innovative model of translation that utilizes a combination of crowdsourcing and trusted editors. Because bilingual editions are their specialty, they are experts at avoiding the pitfalls that are common in this type of book.
Thinking about languages is in itself a developmental exercise and it can help build cognitive connections across a broad range of disciplines and subjects. I encourage educators to take the time to find bilingual books that work well in this regard. But even unfortunate translations, when used creatively, offer opportunities for discussion and reflection, which may foster new ways of making interdisciplinary cognitive connections.
Berlin has written several bilingual children’s books, including one published by Babl Books. Learn about her work at deliaberlin.com.
It is important for educators to combat the tokenization of Black History Month. Students deserve to learn about and engage in black history and narratives throughout the year, not just encounter them in supplemental material relegated to one month. Equally important: ensuring that our curricula do not present a narrow, monolithic narrative about black history that omits certain voices and identity groups. One way to avoid such neglect is to teach about black LGBTQ people’s lived experiences, stories and contributions to our nation.
As educators, we must do a better job. For instance, teachers need to allow Bayard Rustin to ascend to his rightful place in the civil rights pantheon. Several texts, such as this moving BuzzFeed article and this PBS special, are engaging pieces that educators can use to teach about Rustin’s activism and life. Another classroom resource is Teaching Tolerance’s four-part lesson series for grades 9–12 on Rustin, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and Pauli Murray.
Other activists also deserve their place in our historical narrative. From Stonewall to Black Lives Matter, black LGBTQ people have played a crucial part in shaping the discourse around justice and belonging in the United States.
Although he is straight and cisgender, it is important to note the historical and unprecedented role President Barack Obama played in advancing LGBTQ rights, both domestically and abroad. President Obama appointed black LGTBQ judges Darrin P. Gayles and Staci Michelle Yandle to federal judiciaries. His State Department univocally declared that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights once and for all.” President Obama also presided over the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the passing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and played a pivotal role in the litigation of marriage equality. Our nation’s first black president should be taught as the advocate for LGBTQ rights his legacy presents.
Social studies curriculum is not the only discipline in which black LGBTQ people should be highlighted. English teachers need to deepen their reservoir of black authors to disrupt single stories and expand students’ understandings of intersectional identities. Jacqueline Woodson’s The House You Pass on the Way and After Tupac and D Foster are excellent young adult pieces that explore the intersection of race and sexuality in nuanced and powerful ways. High school teachers have some of the finest writers in James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde to explore with their curricula. The recent documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, would make an excellent resource in a high school English classroom.
Contemporary black LGBTQ individuals also deserve their place in our classrooms. Frank Ocean’s highly lauded album Blonde features several songs that deserve to be explored from a critical literacy perspective. Memoirs such as Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness offer accounts of how racial identities intersect with sexuality and gender identity, respectively. Finally, the award-winning film Moonlight, a coming-of-age story about being black and gay in Miami, could be used to explore visual literacy and narrative.
As educators, we must make sure our students understand how black LGBTQ people have shaped and continue to shape our culture and society. And we must acknowledge that a myriad of figures who are not commonly taught exist throughout our history. It’s time to bring their experiences and stories to the forefront of our own and our students’ understandings of American history.
Miller teaches ninth-grade English language arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K-12 laboratory school. He is also a recipient of the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.
In the nearly two decades I have been in the classroom, teaching literature and writing has never felt more vital. Since November, I have struggled to be positive, to take what I see as a deterioration of the United States’ core beliefs and find a positive way forward.
Right now we face a public narrative that erodes empathy rather than embracing it; many of our country’s most empathic enterprises are threatened. That undermining had me feeling a bit hopeless when my wife handed me Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing. After reading it, I find myself doubling down on my efforts to root the study of literature and written expression in an emancipatory impulse.
The novel begins in the 18th century within the walls of a British castle on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in Africa. Two women born of the same mother meet very different fates—one marrying a British officer and one being enslaved and held in the dungeons below her sister’s feet. From there, the book alternates chapters following the descendants of these two women across time and continents. Both lineages are filled with tragedy and subjugation, and both have moments of beauty and grace.
To me, a white male who has benefitted from both my skin color and my gender, the story resonated with much of what I see around me. I thought of the stark contrast between the education I received growing up in Haddon Township, New Jersey, and the educational opportunities offered to kids living just 10 minutes down the road in Camden. The story made me think about the systemic discrimination that is the foundation of our country’s history, and how that history has shaped movements like Black Lives Matter. It made me think about undocumented immigrants, whose life circumstances are so different from mine simply due to the geographical chance of birth. It made me think about refugees trying to flee war and people incarcerated in overcrowded U.S. jails. It made me think about unemployed factory workers and people piecing together minimum-wage jobs.
Teaching in a relatively affluent, largely white high school, I have always been troubled by a lack of empathy I see in some of my students. Too often in conversations about injustice or unfairness that spring up from the books we read, my students seem unwilling to acknowledge the advantages they have been given over so many others in our society. Beautiful schools, well-appointed science and computer labs, free tutors and test-prep classes and relative safety, to name a few. Many students seem to believe that they are where they are simply due to their merits, that a history of systemic discrimination has nothing to do with it. People who struggle must simply work harder, some of my students believe, failing to acknowledge that those who struggle have to travel farther to achieve the same ends. I fear that attitude is a large part of the reason we find ourselves in an empathy-deprived society.
I am not talking about creating sympathy; I don’t want my students to feel bad for or pity anyone. I am talking about teaching empathy. I want them to be able to understand the feelings of those whose experiences look nothing like their own. So, after reading Gyasi’s remarkable book, I am reinvigorated to show my students the advantages they have and foster their understanding of the inequities in a system that prevents so many others from accessing those same advantages. But awareness isn’t enough: I want to develop young adults who use the advantages they have been given to stand behind and work alongside those who have not.
I am asking my seniors to think and write about justice. What is justice? What does it mean to get justice? Is justice the same for everyone in this country? Should punishment for criminals be punitive or rehabilitative? The first time I asked them that last question, most said strictly punitive. Now, after days of debate, after watching Adam Foss’ TED Talk on the role of a prosecuting attorney and Dan Pacholke’s TED Talk about allowing inmates to live fulfilling lives, many are changing their minds. Some are seeing prisoners as people for the first time. Others are now looking at all sorts of questions through a more empathic lens. Still others have taken my suggestion and are picking up Homegoing.
Now, more than ever, I want my students to view literature as a reflection of our world through which they may bear witness to the atrocities of the past and present and the remarkable ability of the human spirit to persevere, evolve and overcome. Now, more than ever, I want them to write in ways that help them find their own voices and illuminate the power those voices have when raised to amplify the voiceless.
Knoll is a writer and English teacher at a public school in New Jersey.
The Atlantic: “The [community school] model is based on the idea that diagnosing the social and emotional needs of children and their families and then alleviating barriers such as hunger, mental-health issues, and poor eyesight will make academic success more attainable.”
Chalkbeat: “Here is what the young protesters had to say about the president’s recent immigration orders, federal education policy and what it’s like to be Muslim in Trump’s America.”
CityLab: “Often, it was school segregation that created neighborhood segregation, not the other way around.”
EdSource: “‘There are thousands of students today in classrooms with teachers who are wholly unprepared.’”
Education Week: “We need to reassure the most vulnerable students in our school districts that we will support them in their time of need. ... However, we also need to have difficult conversations with all of our students, especially when there is so much uncertainty in the world.”
Education Week: “The district’s new police department is the first step in Atlanta’s efforts to confront a challenge many urban school systems have not easily tackled: concerns that putting police in schools undermines efforts to create a safe and supportive learning environment.”
The New York Times: “High school students may broadly back the First Amendment, but not without limits: Their support is tempered depending on the kind of speech and where it’s delivered.”
Voices In Education: “Teachers have been connecting with each other to confront racism and learn to talk about race with their students in three ways: organizing gatherings and safe spaces; making, sharing, and curating collections of lesson plans or curricula; and holding public conversations and workshops.”
The Washington Post: “‘Many students and teachers were confused by how the posters themselves could be causing a disturbance or concern, since their sole purpose was to make minority students feel represented and accepted.’”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.
Being a Teaching Tolerance advisor is a great way to give back to the education community, learn more about our work and network with other anti-bias educators. We established the board in 2011 to help ensure that our materials are relevant and reflect the diverse needs of educators working in school communities across the country. The board consists of classroom teachers, staff developers, librarians, school counselors and administrators who are currently active in K–12 education, including people working at the university level in teacher preparation programs.
This year, we’re recruiting to fill five slots on the board, and the process is competitive. We are specifically looking for middle school counselors, librarians and STEM educators working in the Mountain and Great Plains regions of the Unites States. The application is now open!
Advisors contribute to TT’s mission in a variety of ways, including but not limited to:
- Giving feedback on content;
- Sharing expertise and practice via our blog;
- Reviewing feature stories for Teaching Tolerance magazine;
- Contributing book and film reviews via the Staff Picks departments;
- Helping program staff anticipate important trends and changes in the field;
- Acting as ambassadors for the program and its mission.
TT Advisory Board members serve two-year terms—the next term begins June 1, 2017, and ends May 31, 2019. Appointment to the board is contingent on the ability to commit to attending our annual summer meeting in Montgomery, Alabama. All expenses are paid for this trip, which is a unique experience to meet with like-minded educators and share ideas while visiting some of the most important memorials and landmarks of the civil rights era. This summer’s meeting will be held July 19-21.
If you think your experience, practice and expertise fit the bill, be sure to apply. The deadline is March 9; new advisory board members will be notified by early April.
We look forward to reading your application!