Teacher Scholar Voices

Education Flows Both Ways: An Inquiry into the Needs of Mam Speaking Newcomer Students

Teacher Scholar Voices

Marla Kamiya

As Oakland Unified School District and other districts across the country experience an unprecedented influx of newcomer English Learners, even veteran teachers are left with a myriad of questions about the best way to support their students’ social-emotional and academic development. Marla Kamiya of Bridges Academy at Melrose participated in our Teachers of Newcomers inquiry group. Her inquiry began with an exploration of the best classroom placement for Mam speaking students from Guatemala and El Salvador, but led her to some important realizations about the relationship between newcomer families and schools.


My school, Bridges Academy at Melrose, is experiencing a huge increase in Mam-speaking students over the last two years–an increase mirrored in many other Oakland schools as well. Mam is one of the Mayan languages spoken in the highlands of Guatemala and El Salvador. It is one of the 21 Mayan languages officially recognized by the government of Guatemala. In this last school year, 15 Mam speaking students enrolled in our kindergarten classes, bringing our schoolwide total of Mam-speaking students to approximately 50 students over 10% of our student population. These new students were all placed in our Spanish bilingual program.

Our school’s bilingual program is an early exit program designed for native Spanish speakers, a program designed to build upon students’ primary language to transition them in English. Since these students were clearly not Spanish-speakers, my fellow kindergarten teacher, Bernadette Zermeno, and I decided to study this question:

Does it best serve Mam-speaking newcomer students to be placed into our school’s bilingual program or would they be better served in our Sheltered English program?

I envisioned a relatively straightforward path that would include learning more about the linguistic features of Mam, consideration of common underlying proficiencies among Mam, Spanish, and English that may affect second language acquisition, and interviewing Mam speaking parents regarding their desires for their children’s education. We hoped, in our words, “to establish a clear school policy and procedure regarding the placement of Mam-speaking students into the Spanish bilingual or Sheltered English program.”

Instead, we learned much more about the importance of relationship building, of drawing these parents into an ongoing dialogue about school and their child’s education, and we received a quick education about how deeply these parents want their children to learn Spanish, based on their own experience of bilingualism/biculturalism in their home country.

The Complexity of Language, Identity, and Experience

In order to learn more about the Mam language, we reached out to, Dr. Lyle Campbell, an expert in Mayan languages.  

“Mam is about as different in terms of structure and vocabulary from both English and Spanish as a language can get, that in comparison to Mam, English and Spanish seem very similar to one another indeed (and Mam not similar at all, to either).”  

His email response was  corroborated by Judith M. Maxwell, Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology and Nora C. England, Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Center for Indigenous Languages of Latin America at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of The Grammar of Mam.

We set out to interview parents to better understand their hopes and desires for their children. Ms. Zermeno, a bilingual teacher with multiple years of Mam-speaking students in her classroom, a teacher who builds very strong ties with her parents, quickly identified a parent who might be willing to translate and parents who might be willing to be interviewed.

“My parents grew potatoes,” said Ms. R., speaking through an interpreter. “They sold huipil (the embroidered cotton blouses) to make money. I went to school until second grade and then I stopped. I spoke Mam but reading was in Spanish. I stopped because the older kids would bully me and I had to go to work.” She explained this in a very low voice, clearly sad that she had stopped school. She is now living in temporary housing, with two children, both in elementary school. Here in Oakland, things cost lots of money and she cannot work to earn money, she explained, indicating the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) electronic monitor around her ankle, a heavy, conspicuous band that cannot be removed, which allows ICE to track an individual’s movements and location.  She thinks her daughter is doing well in school. “I want my daughter to learn both Spanish and English,” she said firmly, her voice strong. “In Guatemala we learn Spanish and speak Mam. In this country, my daughter will learn Spanish and English at school and speak Mam at home.”

Our interviews with five parents echoed the strands of Ms. R’s story:  an early life of hard work, an interrupted education, schooling that was bilingual with reading and writing taught only in Spanish, and traumatic life events, including a parent being kidnapped, threats by gangs, early pregnancy and marriage at a young age. And, all of them said very firmly, with deep feeling, that they wanted their children to learn both Spanish and English here in the United States, and to continue to speak Mam at home. Retaining Mam and learning Spanish are entwined within their identity, and Spanish remains a pragmatic necessity as new residents in a predominantly Spanish speaking community here in Oakland.

Sharing their life stories was painful for these parents, yet they agreed to talk with us. We hoped they understood our intention–that we were trying to improve the way our school served their children. We had planned to interview 10 parents, but we heard through the grapevine that some parents felt we were “asking too many personal questions.” We reflected on this feedback and decided that yes, the interviews were intensely personal. Asking why you left Guatemala leads to very personal disclosures of the violence and fear that your family experienced. Asking how long you went to school leads to very personal disclosures of the hardship a family faced that required children to go to work. 

We decided to stop interviewing parents. But the five interviews had a profound effect on us, leaving us shaken by the great difficulty of the journey, the many painful steps that had been taken before the parents walked through the door of our school office to enroll their children in Bridges, and the extent to which their life experience diverged from the typical narratives and assumptions we hold about families in our school system.

Going Beyond the Numbers

We shifted towards standardized forms of inquiry, looking at student achievement data for the handful of Mam-speaking students who had been at Bridges for more than a few years; looking at achievement data for the 15 Mam-speaking kindergartners; looking at the entry level of Spanish proficiency (as measured by the IPT Language Proficiency Test) for native Spanish speaking students in our bilingual program and comparing the IPT scores of Mam-speaking children. Mostly, what can be said is that there is great individual variation among Mam-speaking students, as there is for all students at our school, including the few who excel and the many who are struggling in reading and math. There is significant variation in the level of Spanish and English proficiency of these students (and in their parents), and significant variation in how easily they acquire literacy skills in Spanish.

Of greater importance was the work that occurred outside our inquiry plan. Shortly after we ended the interviews, Ms. Zermeno plunged into an organizing project to respond to parents’ need for basic help–winter clothing for their children and a food drive to supply basic groceries. Nearly every Mam-speaking family in the school benefited from her efforts and parents responded with growing confidence in the school. We also reached out to these parents to participate in our school-wide discussions regarding the vision, mission and program of Bridges, focussing on the future of our current early exit bilingual program and the issues of dual language instruction. A strong contingent of Mam-speaking parents participated in these parent meetings. A focus group of Mam-speaking parents was organized during the summer to continue this discussion about how the school can better serve the needs of their children. In all of these discussions, a deep desire for their children to learn both Spanish and English at school while maintaining their Mam language at home was expressed.

We hope that these parents will be an active part of the School Site Council and school design work in the coming school year. This is the best outcome possible–that these parents are active partners in defining the kind of education they want their children to have here in the U.S., by participating alongside other parents in our school’s re-design work in this coming year, in defining the values and academic, cultural, and language proficiencies that they want the school to consciously develop in their children. Although we didn’t come up with any neat and tidy answers to our original inquiry question about the best classroom placement for Mam-speaking students, we realized that the work of supporting our newcomer families is mostly about relationship building, listening, and education–education that can flow both ways, between the school and the parents.


Marla Kamiya has taught in Oakland since 1995. She recently retired from classroom teaching but remains involved in various projects at her school, Bridges Academy at Melrose. In the classroom, she especially enjoyed teaching reading to the diversity of children in East Oakland. Engaging parents in their children’s education, through both school-wide and classroom efforts, has been one of her consistent priorities. She regrets that she waited until her last year of classroom teaching to participate in the Mills Teacher Scholars program.