Thursday and Friday of this past week, my colleagues and I headed to the big city for a conference on Celebrating Linguistic and Cultural Diversity.
Can I tell you how much my mind was blown during the two days of learning? Unreal.
Ok, so not all of us are big city fans. I do not enjoy trying to navigate Toronto in a car, and from where I live West of Toronto, the amount of traffic that would have been endured in order to arrive at OISE at 8 am, and then to leave Toronto at 3:45 pm the next day to return home… well… I’d likely have cried.
Naturally, then, we took the train. We ventured from our homes, left our cars in Burlington, and took advantage of the wonderful transit system that we all wish would come farther West. But that’s another topic entirely.
Throughout the two-day conference, I learned about things like respecting the voice of English Language Learners in our schools — letting them speak their own first languages, letting them show what they know in their language, and encouraging them not to lose that incredibly valuable and special piece of who they are. I learned about social justice for refugees, and I got to listen to the fascinating linguistic research behind the developmental stages of our English Language Learners, and the linguistic research and data that drives the way we aim to help them best.
But to the point of this post, I was struck on the way home from the conference yesterday by the power of nonverbal communication — which is essential when a student enters my caseload, and therefore my care, and doesn’t speak any language at all. When I don’t speak their language, and they don’t speak mine, how do we communicate?
It’s challenging. It’s difficult, and I’m not here to minimize that. On the train on the way home from Toronto yesterday, we entered a train car that was packed right full — we shouldn’t have been shocked, we boarded a 4:10 train at Union Station. The lower level had no available seating, so those leading the way ahead of me continued on up to the upper level. During rush hour, the upper levels of the GO trains are reserved as “The Quiet Zone.” We knew this, and we were being quiet. We were either whispering or talking very quietly, as some others on the train were. Shortly after the train started moving, however, the passenger beside one of my coworkers removed her earbuds to say, rather snarkily, “hey guys? This here is the quiet zone, so if you’re gonna talk, you need to go downstairs.” She put her headphones back in and continued staring out the window. Everyone around her looked at her like she had taken it a bit far (which I believe she had), but being the respectful individuals we are, we entered quiet mode.
If you know me, you know how much I hate having to be quiet. I don’t mind quiet time, but I don’t like being told “you can’t talk.” It stifles my process. I tried to do yoga once — never again. But I digress.
A couple of us pulled out books to read, one played on her phone for a bit, and the other sat quietly and looked out the window. About ten minutes into the trip, the guy beside me answered a phone call. I’m surprised the passenger who’d made her position on quiet VERY clear didn’t lose her mind. I looked at one of my coworkers, who did nothing but wink at me, and I started to giggle… silently, of course, so I just looked like a smiling goof whose shoulders wouldn’t stop shaking. Another coworker looked at me, raised her eyebrows, motioned at the guy on the phone, then motioned over her shoulder to the lady with the headphones sitting beside her. I silently giggled again. We all exchanged varying degrees of knowing glances, pointed nods, and hand gestures (all of them appropriate), before we got tired of not completely understanding each other and started to send text messages despite being seated right beside each other.
What struck me though was that before we gave up and moved to our phones, we were all able to communicate quite a bit with no words. We just had to be observant enough.