Episode 69 – Resilience

Fluency Consulting Episode 69 Resilience
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 69 - Resilience
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“Our students become black in America. They’re arriving directly from Africa where everybody’s black and their identity is not their color. Their identity is their ethnic group. It’s the languages they speak, is the part of the country they’re from. So for me, it’s really, really important to not to box them in that category and rather see them as multilingual from another culture. Their resilience, that would be more part of the identity than the color of the skin.”

Because language is about identity, and identity is about individuals, and individuals are often in movement on this increasingly interconnected planet, when identities meet, the response of each to the meeting will depend on the experience of each.

If the individuals have been exposed to more than one language (through home or school) that language differences are experienced as a normal, expected part of the way the world works. You may have experienced life this way. Parthena Draggett (Episode 6) expressed it beautifully, with her key insight being of course languages vary.

For such explosed individuals, accent and level of vocabulary control in the other signal multilingualism, a skill and an asset in the world, and an opportunity to learn more and “absorb” more of the world into themselves.

For those without such exposure to another language in the home or school, a person confronting another language in a stranger elicits primal tribal instincts: not my identity, not my group, not like me.

Now we are dependent on the realm of how the person was raised, their level of general acceptance of themselves and others in their home and community. If they have enough of their emotional needs met to turn the new experience into curiosity, then a new understanding and potentially new relationship are born. This experience is that of Carolyn Gill (Episode 4).

But if for some reason the person does not have self-confidence or perhaps has a history of being trained to be suspicious, then this new/other language can be seen as a problem, a threat, even an attempted attack on their own identity.

On a small scale, such a reaction can lead to mild paranoia (“That person is talking about me behind my back by using their strange language”). However, and tragically, such reactions can and often do lead to bullying, ostracism, and — in social systems — to such devastations as those experienced by indigenous peoples in our continent and across the world: wholesale shipping of children and adults to schools and facilities where their own languages are forbidden.

If anyone thinks that language isn’t a powerful tool for identity, read about such suppressions historically and in current world situations and see how foundational, how visceral, and how utterly pitiless language suppression can be.

Exposure to languages in a supportive environment is powerful medicine for the sickness of fear, hatred, and repression.

We need that medicine and we have no time to lose.

Let’s commit to celebrating the resilience of those who have been confronted by situations of confusion, fear, suppression, and ignorance, and have kept their language fires burning in their hearts. Let’s permit, encourage, and support them bringing their gifts to the world. They can thereby train us all in the magnificent skills and offerings of humans in all cultures, using their unique languages.

Enjoy the podcast.

Scroll down for full transcript.

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Transcript

Norah Jones:

Again, a great pleasure to welcome a guest that was also on my heritage podcast sequence, specifically week two, about opening doorways for heritage language students. My dear new friend, Agnes Tounkara. Hi Agnes.

Agnes Tounkara:

Good morning Norah. I’m so happy to be here.

Norah Jones:

Well, delighted to have you back because it was so much that delighted me about what you shared that prompted deep emotions and deep thoughts. So I hope that those who had not listened to episode 61 will take advantage of listening to you being part of that panel about opening doorways to heritage.

Norah Jones:

Today, I like to frankly start with, what story do you tell about yourself, Agnes? How does your story illuminate what you’re doing and what you care about?

Agnes Tounkara:

Thank you Norah. Once again, it’s a pleasure for me to be here with you. And yeah, that conversation about heritage language was really fun. And I’m glad I have the opportunity to come back and tell you more about my work, my passion and who I am, which influence my work.

Agnes Tounkara:

So what I say now, and I’m 50 years old, so I guess I’ve lived a little, when people ask me question about myself, I say that I spent a third of my life in Senegal, a beautiful country in West Africa, another third in France and another third in the US. And that really defines who I am, a little bit of all of those countries.

Agnes Tounkara:

And I have with me a little bit of all those countries. I mean, I left Senegal when I was 16. So my roots are in Senegal. And I usually use the image of a baobab tree, this huge tree that you find in my country, they have very deep and very wide roots. So I’m very deeply anchored in my Senegalese roots.

Agnes Tounkara:

But I spend some of my teenage years and my college years in France, and that also have shaped me. I have very fun memories of time spent with my French family. And then the US is the country where I had and I’m raising my children. So that’s also important.

Agnes Tounkara:

And so I guess that makes me a citizen of the world. And I actually like that identity. I claim all three of them. And I think that’s the beauty of having the privilege to have traveled and have many life experiences.

Norah Jones:

And that’s brilliant. Citizen of the world. And there are so many things that you’re going to talk about how that identity, how that embrace forms what you do and the passion with which you do it. How would you describe to our listeners what you do and why you do it?

Agnes Tounkara:

Okay. I am right now the program officer of the French Heritage Language Program. It’s an education program from the FACE Foundation. It’s a foundation working with the cultural services of the French Embassy and whose mission is to promote cultural exchanges between the US and France and also education project.

Agnes Tounkara:

My specific program is serving francophone students who very recently arrive in the United States and find themselves in English speaking schools where they don’t have the opportunity to maintain their French.

Agnes Tounkara:

And we, our mission is to help them maintain their linguistic skills, but also maintain this connection to where they come from and build a community within the school. And use this bilingualism as an asset for their future academic lives and also their careers. So it’s very important to me.

Agnes Tounkara:

It’s very personal. I’m myself, raising children who are growing up here in the US. And my mission is really to make them understand that this bilingualism they have is an asset, is a superpower, is something that they should be proud of.

Agnes Tounkara:

And I say bilingualism, but I should really say multilingualism because these students speak more than two languages. They speak French, but they also speak another African language or creole because we also have some Haitian students.

Norah Jones:

Do students, we’ll start with your students first, do students, and if they are parents or guardians also in the picture, do they come in understanding the asset of their previous languages, their heritage languages incorporated with the English that they’re learning now in the United States? Do they see that as an asset?

Agnes Tounkara:

No. They don’t. And that’s really an important part of what we’re doing. These are teenagers who are trying to fit in. So English seems to them like the way to do that. When I usually ask them, when we go around the room, how many languages do you speak? Sometimes they don’t even mention the language they speak at home.

Agnes Tounkara:

And I keep telling them, no matter what languages you speak, you speak several. And that itself is an intellectual ability that a monolingual person don’t have. This is something that you can actually use, especially in a big city like New York which is so international.

Agnes Tounkara:

I guess that fear of, or that need to acquire English really fast, it also comes from their parents who are afraid that they’re not going to integrate quick enough. And parents feel like English is the passport to that. And we spend a lot of time explaining that strengthening their skills in their home language is actually helpful for English acquisition.

Agnes Tounkara:

The principles of the schools where we work are aware of that and that’s why they welcome our program. But yeah, no, that’s something that we have to tell them and remind them of.

Norah Jones:

How do you go about that? I’m asking you for your complete program plan here, I understand, but what are some of the key stories or illustrations or examples that you give?

Norah Jones:

Because this is a, well, culturally wide, I will go ahead and state that I think of it as a problem, certainly as a blockage to the keeping of heritage languages, not only the United States, but worldwide. How do you break through that reluctance to reassure and to encourage?

Agnes Tounkara:

Well, I guess the schools have a big role to play in there. And fortunately in New York City, we operate in international high schools. This is a network of school that only welcome immigrant students. And they, like I said, fortunately are very aware that when students are strong in their home language, they acquire English most faster.

Agnes Tounkara:

In our program, actually we do a lot of translanguaging and we make sure the kids understand that these metalinguistic abilities can be helpful in any language. The second thing we do and that speaks to them, the teenagers, they want to make it in this country. They’re thinking college and jobs.

Agnes Tounkara:

We have them meet with the bilingual professionals who explain how picking two or three languages have been an asset, have give them an advantage on the market force. And it’s not just the language. It’s also that cultural competence that is a skill that’s so looked after right now by employers because in this global world, as you know, when you’re sitting in a boardroom or meeting with a client, he could be from anywhere.

Agnes Tounkara:

And having that ability to understand someone who comes from a different country in itself is an asset. Those are the soft skills that are also very important. So those two things speak to these young people who just wants to make it in America.

Norah Jones:

That’s fantastic. Let me start with the first item that you, or at least part of it, that you stated there in. New York City, and you’ve spoken here about the support of the schools. What kind of insights do you have for teachers, administrators potentially that are not in a multicultural, multilinguistic environment like New York City itself.

Norah Jones:

When students do tap into translanguaging, to the linguistic and metalinguistic behaviors that are blended between their heritage language or languages and the acquisition of English, how do you help those that might be confused by that or intimidated by it to understand what’s happening and the power of it to enhance their classroom experience as well as the student’s life?

Agnes Tounkara:

I would say, it really starts by knowing your students. I guess an administrator, you have goals, data boxes to check. As a teacher, you have a program to fulfill, you have deadlines. And sometimes I guess we just miss that first steps. I’m dealing with human beings, they come with a history, a cultural heritage, they bring so many things in the classroom.

Agnes Tounkara:

Let’s spend time just getting to know them. It will help us teach them better, but you will also send the students the message that they matter. We want to hear what they have to say. We want to hear what they have to bring. I have an example of, and that’s actually a little bit how the program started.

Agnes Tounkara:

Our founder, Jane Ross, who is, and I’m naming her because I want to give her credit. She’s at the origin of our program. She was basically walking in New York City, passing a high school, and she heard some students speaking French. And as a French teacher, she was curious and she stopped and asked them where they’re coming from.

Agnes Tounkara:

And they were all from west Africa. And she asked them if they had French in their school. And they said, “No, we don’t. They don’t offer it. And we are losing it very fast because at home we speak Wolof, Fulani, our African language with our parents.” And she went to the principal and inquire about French classes.

Agnes Tounkara:

And the principal said, “We don’t have French speakers here.” Once again, when students arrive, there is a questionnaire that ask them about their home language, but they can give one answer. So I’m from Senegal. I speak Wolof at home with my parents. On the questionnaire, what language do you speak at home?

Agnes Tounkara:

I’ll put Wolof, but I will school in French, in Senegal. And when I come to school, I speak French with my other African French, but that’s not a data that’s available to them. And the numbers are striking. I go to some New York City high schools, and I feel like I’m in Dakar.

Agnes Tounkara:

So this is a matter of who are my student? Where do I come from? What country do they come from? And that in itself, and it takes a little bit of time, but I really believe that this process help us then be able to say, okay, I know these students is from this country.

Agnes Tounkara:

Let’s use what he knows to help him understand more English. And then the students is thinking, oh, wow. I’m seen. They are curious about me. And it’s a benefit for everyone, because then the other students learn also about Senegal and the world. I don’t know if I’m answering your question.

Norah Jones:

You are. The global citizenship that’s found within classes, and pretty much no matter where one is. And I’m going to probe a little bit more in this regard on behalf of those who are listening to this podcast, who may not be language teachers, and therefore may not have the same sense that the language that may be being used out loud by an individual student as they’re thinking through something, they’re talking to themselves in one of their heritage languages or between students.

Norah Jones:

If there happen to be students and teachers that are not familiar with that phenomenon that are teaching non-language subjects, what kind of work have you already done, or have you seen, or might you think could help teachers that are not familiar with this way of working it out to not feel intimidated by, or blocked out of their own work with their subject matter with students that are bringing this linguistic skill to bear in their whole life?

Agnes Tounkara:

That’s a tough question. And I feel for the teachers. Once again, we are lucky enough to work in international high schools where administrators and teachers are very aware of this asset. They usually have multilingual staff.

Agnes Tounkara:

So in the classroom, you will have students and staff who speak some of the students’ languages, so that’s helpful. If you are in a school where everybody only speak English, it’s a little bit harder, but I’ll say the parents can be an asset.

Agnes Tounkara:

I know that, and that’s true from Senegal or France, parents are not as involved in their children education as they are in the US. They usually take a seat back because that’s just the mentality. But if they are asked by the school to help and get involved, I’m not sure that they wouldn’t be willing to do that.

Agnes Tounkara:

Another thing that happens in those schools is pairing students, sometimes it’s two students who come from the same country and one has just arrived and the other one arrived a few years earlier. That student can translate, can help the kids understand by making this parallels between the home language and English

Norah Jones:

It seems like we start with what you said at first, Agnes, namely, get to know your students proactively as an administrative stance, and then think creatively about how this is not a threat to the learning that’s going on in the school, but can enhance the learning for that student and for others as well.

Norah Jones:

Let’s go back to those soft skills for just a moment. The way that the brain works for bilingual, multilinguals persons is a little bit different. What are some of the insights based on your work, your background, your research, that you’ve discovered that indeed are available to employers as well as to institutions of learning because of multilingualism in the students that you’ve worked with?

Agnes Tounkara:

And I’m only speaking about French because that’s the language I’m working in. This practice of translanguaging and asking the students to compare to linguistic system, it’s not something that we do a lot in French. The traditional way of teaching French is kind of very unilateral, home languages are almost excluded in the classroom.

Agnes Tounkara:

And that’s changing, obviously, because France is becoming diverse and more multilingual. But traditionally, if you’ve been in a French classroom, you either have been traumatized or you think that there is maybe one way of speaking French.

Agnes Tounkara:

When really, if you allow the students to make mistakes, to bring his own flavor, we don’t speak French the same way in Senegal or in Canada, then students are able to really take advantage of the learning process and allowing their home languages in the classroom and allowing them to make comparison. That’s really helpful, because all of a sudden they become aware of that. Canada is much better at doing that, I think.

Norah Jones:

Interesting. You were talking too, about the multicultural aspect of say someone, and be sitting in a positing here, a meeting room, and there is someone from a culture and the person that is multilingual, multicultural by background or is aware of it, can make a better sense of what’s happening and help to move things along.

Norah Jones:

Have you seen any particular examples of that, or is there something that makes you laugh when you think of a story in your own life about that kind of awareness?

Agnes Tounkara:

I guess, I mean, I don’t have a specific example, but as a person who have lived in different country and who has the privilege of having this soft skills, I see sometimes how a monolingual American who’s never been abroad is uncomfortable with the way people react, with the way they communicate.

Agnes Tounkara:

I mean, I have many, many example between French and Americans because the way of communicating are so different. French are much more, and it’s true for African people too, more straightforward. I see it with my children. They’re always saying to me, “Oh, wow, you’re so mean,” because I just say things.

Agnes Tounkara:

I’m not trying to be nice. I’m not trying to sugar everything. And that could be a big problem in a company if people are not aware of those differences. And I tell my students, in a classroom, we’ll have someone from Guinea, someone from Haiti, someone from Senegal and already there, there are differences.

Agnes Tounkara:

We are from Africa. We all speak French, but we’re not from the same cultures. And they’re very comfortable navigating that because they’re used to that and they don’t see it as a skill. And I explained to them, this is something that some people have to acquire.

Norah Jones:

And they live right in it.

Agnes Tounkara:

Absolutely.

Norah Jones:

That’s fantastic. One of the things that you mentioned, going to, especially the experience that you’re having in the French Heritage Language Program in New York City, of the racial experience of students coming to the United States from the varieties of heritage speaking countries, and arriving in the United States and becoming a different kind of identity, one that’s more racially based.

Norah Jones:

Can you talk a little bit about that? You mentioned it in the episode 61 a little bit, but can you give us a little bit more insight into what happens, how that’s received by the students themselves, by those adults that may be with them, family members and by their communities?

Agnes Tounkara:

Thank you for the question, Norah. It’s such an important issue, and it’s very close to my heart because I am myself black, from Africa, born in a country, was everybody looked like me and where the color of my skin was definitely not a part of my identity and being here in the US raising black children.

Agnes Tounkara:

So there was a lot of learning. There was a learning curve for me to understand how this society worked very differently from the one I came from, Senegal and France, because it’s also different there, but what strikes me in the US is the invisibility that comes with being black.

Norah Jones:

Interesting.

Agnes Tounkara:

Let me explain that a little bit. Our students become black in America. They’re arriving directly from Africa where everybody’s black and their identity is not their color. Their identity is their ethnic group. It’s the languages they speak, is the part of the country they’re from.

Agnes Tounkara:

And they arrive here, and all of a sudden, people are referring to them as black and that’s a real adjustment. And when I say visibility, I’m talking about the teachers and the administrator welcoming these students and dealing with them in an American context and going to their color to try to understand them.

Agnes Tounkara:

And that’s where the step of getting to know your students is a very important step. They will not define themselves as black. There are many other things that they will talk about, but definitely not that. So for me, it’s really, really important to not to box them in that category and rather see them as multilingual from another culture.

Agnes Tounkara:

Their resilience, that would be more part of the identity than the color of the skin. These students arrive here in sometimes very difficult conditions and they have responsibilities at home, they have a job. Sometime they’re illegally immigrants. And yet they come to school every day and they focus and they try to succeed.

Agnes Tounkara:

Those things to me, bear more value than the color of their skin. And I don’t want to ignore that, unfortunately, being black in America means a certain amount of things, but I really, really encourage all the adults interacting with those students to see beyond and get to know their students.

Norah Jones:

Thank you so much. And tapping on, kind of coming at it chronologically here. So much of what’s engaged with what you just said is certainly the racial identity aspect of the United States culture. Second, it’s kind of looking back, where did you come from is an important question.

Norah Jones:

But I’m thinking especially about, you keep talking about empowering the present and the future. There are different roots for black young people and black adults to be able to try work with in the culture, I should say better, to try to overcome some of that invisibility. Language and cultural background and skills maybe another tool, I guess, is where I’m headed here.

Norah Jones:

What kind of role in being acknowledging, enhancing, confirming multilingualism and multiculturalism in an individual would help to bring about, do you think, some of that acknowledgement of the humanity and the contributions of those that might be otherwise marginalized by the racial categories?

Agnes Tounkara:

I mean, that’s really at the heart of what we are doing. For me, it’s actually everything. Our program is basically sending the message that once again, more than the color, more than the labels, English learners, multilanguage learner, ESL students, under privilege, these students are multilingual and that’s an asset.

Agnes Tounkara:

We do it through French because we are turned towards the future, not to say that their maternal languages are completely obsolete. No, absolutely. They speak them at home. It’s very much part of who they are. But as new Americans arriving very late in the game and trying to make it, like they say, speaking French can be a bridge towards college and the future.

Agnes Tounkara:

I’m going to take a very, it’s not silly, a very striking example. It’s the AP French, the AP French exam is a very prestigious exam. The class is a college level course. And we started a few years back to prepare and offer it to our students.

Agnes Tounkara:

For once, it helps them get accustomed to a college class in the US, because the instruction style is very different. 75% of our students get at least a three with two hours of instruction per week. Because once again, they were schooled in French and we tend to forget that.

Agnes Tounkara:

And all of a sudden, the principals, the teachers are like, “Oh, my gosh, these students are taking the AP and they have good scores.” Then the attention is shift from, oh, they’re black and they’re under privilege to, wow, they actually have an asset and they can succeed in this kind of exams.

Norah Jones:

Well, you picked up a tool that was already present in the, shall we say, the mainstream society and applied it. Are there other examples that make us go, aha, or are there other directions of other tools that you’re looking at that can continue that kind of trajectory?

Agnes Tounkara:

Yes. And unfortunately, the aha moment is sometimes what everybody’s looking for. And it’s true for our students, we have to convince them sometimes to come into our program. They see it as a, they want to focus on English.

Agnes Tounkara:

They’re very busy. They’re in high school, they have after school programs. They do have this trauma of this old way of being taught French and see it as a very dry rigid class. And once we explain that the setting is different, this is a multilingual space.

Agnes Tounkara:

You can be who you are in this space, then they’re interested. And then we add AP French that can give you credit and visibility on a college application. And then the other example would be the Seal of Biliteracy. I’m really, really pushing for this.

Agnes Tounkara:

And it’s not recent, but more and more schools and administrators fortunately are seeing how this formal recognition of students bilingualism by giving them a seal after obviously having them take a test or a test of certain level of language in English and another language, how this seal can be a great motivation for this student.

Agnes Tounkara:

It’s concrete. It’s something that they can take with them to college and to the job market. And that’s an extra motivation. And same thing, they have an asset. They have this capital and it’s recognized and it’s celebrated.

Norah Jones:

Recognize and celebrated.

Agnes Tounkara:

So that’s another aha moment.

Norah Jones:

A lifework recognition and celebration moments indeed. Do you have a story of a young person or a group of young people that you can share that you feel that story illustrates, in a profound way, some of the impact of what’s happening in what you do?

Agnes Tounkara:

Norah, I have so many examples. I have many, but I’m thinking about a student, she’s actually a senior this year, so she’s going to leave our program. And actually, no, because we try to have the alumni come and help in the classroom. And we’re trying to organize a network of former students. So this student is from Guinea.

Agnes Tounkara:

She arrived in the US four years ago from a small village where there was no electricity. She was going to school there, brilliant student. She arrived in one of these international high schools where fortunately, they are set up to welcome these students.

Agnes Tounkara:

And with a lot of hard work, she’s graduating this year. She did a lot of programs, prep programs. She’s been in our program for the past three years because she kept telling me, “Oh, I’m losing my French so fast. I don’t want to forget.” And I kept telling her, “Yeah, that’s something you can use.” So she took our AP French prep class last year.

Agnes Tounkara:

She took the AP, she scored a four. She was involved in another program we have with the Lafayette College, which is a private college in Pennsylvania who was interested in connecting their student enrolled in a French program with French speaking youth.

Agnes Tounkara:

So we have this peer-to-peer mentoring where for a year, she met over Zoom with an American student enrolled in Lafayette and taking French, who help her with her college essay, help her understand how to fill out the common application. Because once again, these students are arriving from Africa and they don’t know anything about the college system and they’re in 10, 11 grade.

Agnes Tounkara:

So it’s an urgent need. And [inaudible 00:31:40] is going to Colombia. Now, that’s a star. That’s my, but I am… And last year I had another one going to NYU. And a lot of them go to college and that’s because obviously they are brilliant and they are resilient. And I actually read someone the other day say that there is a strong correlation between hardship and success.

Agnes Tounkara:

These students have to deal with so many things. They are prepared for college where you have all these responsibilities and goals to achieve. So yes, I have many, many stories on example of students who arrive here afraid that they’re not going to make it, not necessarily interested in continuing with French, but that then coming to the program.

Agnes Tounkara:

They meet other students like them who understand exactly what they’re going through. They speak the same language and we build these bridges. And French is this bridge. The bridge between a student from the Bronx and an American student from Easton, PA Lafayette College, very prestigious private school.

Agnes Tounkara:

This student would’ve never met, but French allowed that. And that’s really the power of our program. All these bridges we are able to build between communities and people who might have never met in an American context.

Norah Jones:

It’s a powerful program. And the excitement and the effectiveness of it is very clear here through your stories, through your explanations. In your role, or outside of it, potentially, what kind of counseling do you do?

Norah Jones:

What kind of presentations or explanations do you do to other individuals, groups, organizations that share this program concept, its successes and provide advice for those who might want to create such bridges themselves? What kind of sharing do you do with others of these experiences and potentially counsel them if they want to start something or grow an organization that will help to do just this kind of bridging?

Agnes Tounkara:

Okay. We’ve been talking a lot with the school district who are welcoming more and more African student, because African immigration in the US is on the rise. And in very improbable places, I’ve been talking with people in Iowa, Wisconsin school district where they’re telling me, “We have 200 French speaking students, and we would like to meet their needs.”

Agnes Tounkara:

We are helping them start French heritage programs specifically for these students. So that’s one of the thing that we do. A lot of school district have been reaching out for that purpose. And our program is not a New York program. It’s really a national program.

Agnes Tounkara:

We’ve started a program in Maine, where there is also a growing population of French speakers. In Florida, with the Asian population. And a little bit in Philadelphia too. So there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Norah Jones:

Therein lies, my next question is where are things heading? What’s the next stage?

Agnes Tounkara:

That’s a tough question. I mean, there is so much to do. I would love for all these students to be able to have access to a French heritage program, but ideally, and in New York City, hopefully it’s not in a too far future. Ideally, our program shouldn’t exist.

Agnes Tounkara:

Ideally, all those students formally schooled in French and arriving in the US should have access to a immersion program in French. Fabrice Jaumont and the cultural services of the French Embassy have done a lot of work creating bilingual programs in the city, but there are so many communities that are not served.

Agnes Tounkara:

One of the biggest French speaking community in New York City is in the Bronx there. There isn’t a dual language program in French in the Bronx. So for me, that’s a goal. And it’s talking to the community first, because these are grassroots movement to sometimes convince the parents that putting them in a bilingual program is not going to hinder their success at the contrary.

Agnes Tounkara:

And then it’s also convincing the DOE that this student will be better served in a bilingual program at a time where everybody’s talking about culturally inclusive education. This is how you do culturally inclusive education. These students have an asset.

Agnes Tounkara:

If you want to see them, if you want to serve them, if you want them to bring their whole self in the classroom. Well, it has to be in another language than English. So that’s an appeal. That’s my battle. I try to advocate for that and hopefully we can take steps towards that in the near future.

Norah Jones:

Do you see legislation or any other items at a national scale that are potentially going to be of help in what you are doing?

Agnes Tounkara:

I’m pretty recent in this field, I would say. I’ve been doing this for almost three years now, then with the COVID, I feel like it’s even shorter. I’ve been recently involved with the JNCL-NCLIS. I attended the last days of advocating for more bilingual programs.

Agnes Tounkara:

I tried to be present in those spaces more and more because once again, these students are invisible and they’re forgotten they are black student and they’re privilege. Now, these students are multilingual and they have a very specific identity and bilingual program is what’s going to serve them.

Agnes Tounkara:

So hopefully, once again with… And I’m very happy when I hear all these talks about diversity and culturally inclusive education. But for my students who are black, but bilingual, that means bilingual program including more of their languages in the classroom in one way or another.

Norah Jones:

Thank you for that. And it’s interesting. We came back here towards the very end of the discussion to that same aspect of the hesitancy that’s potentially there and overcoming it through understanding the power and possibilities inherent in cultural and linguistic skillset.

Norah Jones:

So what’s the last thing that you would say, you’ve turned to the listening audience and you’re like, I truly want to make sure, I want to counsel you. I want to urge, remind. What is it that you want to be sure that those that have listened to this podcast today take away from your experience and your passion?

Agnes Tounkara:

Well, a very concrete step. And I think it’s a model that we really don’t talk about enough, the International Network for Public School, this network of high schools, not only in New York City, but there is a few in other cities, welcoming immigrants and acknowledging and actually using their multilingualism in the classroom as an asset, is really a model that should be talked about more often.

Agnes Tounkara:

The graduation rate for students who arrive so late in the American system are better than the graduation rate of regular schools who welcome this kind of students. So check that out, the International Network for Public School. They have an amazing pedagogical model.

Agnes Tounkara:

And to anybody listening and having an interest in this, we go back to getting to know who you have in front of you. And that’s not necessarily data, I mean, hard data, that’s soft data. I recently read a book called street data. And the idea is that when you’re in education, yes, hard data is important, but most importantly, there are the stories of the people you are dealing with.

Agnes Tounkara:

And that’s true at a very personal human one-to-one level. And it’s definitely critical when you’re dealing with students and you kind of have your future in their hand. Get to know them, get to know who they are, where they come from. Even in terms of efficiency, if you want them engaged. If you really want them engaged in your classroom, they need to be present 100%.

Agnes Tounkara:

And that’s bringing all their baggage, all that little backpack that I talked about last time. And not telling them, “Oh, no, you cannot bring this in. You have to leave that outside of the classroom.” It’s the only way to succeed as an educator. And it’s only way to help them to succeed because once again, you want them fully present in the classroom. Get to know your students.

Norah Jones:

Get to know your students. It’s interesting. Get to know your employees too. I would say that, for businesses, the diversity, inclusion and leading to equity that we all speak about with good reason are often right there on our doorstep.

Agnes Tounkara:

Yes. And we fail to just ask the simple questions. There are diversity everywhere. I have a last anecdote. I went to a college and I was invited in a French classroom. And I always do that. And my kids are always, “Oh, you’re always talking about Senegal and where you come from.” I tell them, “This is who I am.” And I always do that.

Agnes Tounkara:

I tell them where I come from. I don’t say I’m American. I am American and I’m French, but I’m from Senegal. And my parents are from this little village and I speak this language and this language. And then the students started talking. And their teacher, we were in February, she was like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize that she had a family in Algeria and they spoke French. And this one is from…”

Agnes Tounkara:

And I’m like, “Look what you’ve missed. If you had done that in September, there are so many things that they would’ve brought.” And I mean, it’s never too late, but really just getting to know people. And yes, that’s true for teachers. That’s true for employers, employees and just for us as humans.

Norah Jones:

Agnes, thank you so much. You are always so powerfully articulate about the importance of humanity and bring it forth so beautifully. Thank you so much for this conversation today. I deeply appreciate you doing this with me.

Agnes Tounkara:

Thank you so much, Norah, for allowing this. It’s always a pleasure.

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