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Understanding how to meet the needs of bilingual students and address cultural competency in schools has often been a large feat for educators and students alike.

For students who grow up speaking a language other than English as their first language at home, nurturing aspects of their cultural identity in the classroom might mean having to compromise their native language and other aspects of how they identify, for English. In schools like Whittier Elementary, however, bilingualism and more specifically “bi-literacy,” provides students with the opportunity to equally explore and learn in English and Spanish. Located in a predominantly Latino/a/x neighborhood in Chicago, Whittier Elementary offers a dual language program that places English and Spanish learning at the same level such that students are “pushing themselves academically” while fostering “appreciation of their own cultures and other cultures,” states Principal Dr. Antonio Acevedo. This, in conjunction with the New Chance Arts and Literature Fund, has opened the doors for students to connect with art that is rooted in community history, language, and ties to home.

With access to greater financial resources through the Chance Fund, Whittier has been able to implement a ceramic arts program rooted in pottery from Mesoamerican traditions, offering students an opportunity to engage with 3-D art and ties into Pilsen’s culture. For students at Whittier like Alma, having the clay program every Monday makes her experience in art class a unique one. She states, “We had art before, but now we have a clay program every Monday so that’s cooler because we get to do something a little different [and try] new things.” Alma and other students like her describe feeling fortunate because working with their hands on pottery and ceramics gives them a greater opportunity to express themselves. For Aly, a student who also takes pottery, it feels like an “honor…to have supplies” that have changed how she interacts with art and allowed her to express herself.

Creating a classroom space where students can express themselves drives educators at Whittier.

Art teacher Rosemary Lopez-Martinez, one of the main proponents of the ceramics class, describes seeing herself in many of the students she works with having grown up in Pilsen. One of the most rewarding aspects of being able to engage with her students through the art fund has been having the opportunity to see them grow artistically and emotionally in this positive environment. Art, for Lopez-Martinez is transformative. When asked what challenges she and her students face, she describes “seeing a student’s emotion reflected in the art,” meaning she sees the good days and the bad days. By fostering a space that is safe and where self-expression is valued, students can bring their authentic selves to the art room and beyond. Ultimately, the art room becomes a bridge between school and home for students as they explore emotion in conjunction with Latin American historical art and are able to take their ceramics creation back home to share with friends and family.

At Whittier Elementary, the New Chance Arts and Literature Fund offers more than a space to create and engage with ceramics.

The Fund provides children and teachers with the resources they need to make the dual language program one that centers on the importance of identity and self-expression when those opportunities are made available at a young age. At Whittier, it means engaging with curriculum in two languages such that “work[ing] across cultures” means you “don’t have to choose one or the other,” as Principal Acevedo states. Instead, it means bringing your authentic self is celebrated in your journey as a learner.

Learn more about the New Chance Arts & Literature Fund. You can also learn more about our mission and other initiatives like Open Mike.

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