Ken Williams is the founder and creative force behind Unfold the Soul. He’s an unwavering voice for high standards in education and for turning noble, poster-sized sentiments into action. He’s a “paradigm shifter, a cage rattler, an unapologetic identifier of elephants in the room.” Ken is also a member of the add.a.lingua Educational Leadership Advisory Board, a trusted ally, and sounding board as we work to establish the bar in multilingual immersion education.
During a recent visit to west Michigan, we had the opportunity to break bread with Ken and to record a conversation that explored the motivation behind his work and collaboration with add.a.lingua. We also discussed some of the things he’s observed related to how our educational system treats students whose primary home language is not English. As Ken observes, “I don’t think it’s all EL or all ESOL kids, I think we’ve made speaking Spanish a disability in this country.”
That we’d treat any child’s nascent bilingualism and biliteracy as a disability is both a tragedy and a serious missed opportunity. From his work as an educator, businessman, and international traveler, Ken is convinced that multilingualism is a 21st century skill: “If we’re not all bilingual in about 10 years, we’re going to be behind the eight ball.”
But helping students achieve multilingualism and multiliteracy means adopting the right mindset from the beginning. We’ve got to establish the bar for ALL immersion students, and then help those students get to or through it. In the case of immersion, the bar involves:
- high levels of proficiency in the immersion language (at no cost to English proficiency)
- academic achievement at or above grade level (in both languages)
- cross cultural competency
As a starting place, this means ensuring our immersion programs believe that with sufficient time in the immersion language and the proper framework of support, ALL students can and will reach this bar. This mindset rules out weak immersion models based on a fear that students won’t acquire English without 50% of early instructional time in English. And it rules out transitional bilingual programs that strip away a child’s home language rather than building upon it to help the child achieve bilingualism and biliteracy.*
Yes, we begin with the assumption that all administrators and teachers want the best for their students. We readily acknowledge that a variety of factors, including limited financial resources, the challenge of finding qualified teachers, and different goals related to student proficiency influence decisions about program design (enrichment programs, world language, etc.). But for the sake of students, programs cannot be measured by good intentions.
It’s not because of high expectations for students, teachers, or immersion program design that English language learners have the nation’s lowest rates of graduation, and less than 1% of American adults are proficient in a foreign language they studied in school. It’s the judgement of adults about what students can achieve.
As Ken puts it, “If we really treat targets like they’re essential, it removes judgement. Judgment is killing us. We’re too busy trying to figure out whether kids can or can’t. That’s judgment. But if the target is essential, then judgment is thrown out the window. The kid must have it. The student MUST have it.”
Enjoy the whole unvarnished conversation with Ken Williams below, and if you want to talk about launching an immersion program in your area or about taking your existing program to the next level, fill out the contact form and we’ll be in touch.
*While it is not practicable to offer every English language learner an immersion program in her home language at this time, over 70% of English language learners come from Spanish speaking homes. The next most common languages are Mandarin and Cantonese, with a combined 4% of all ELLs.
These are what we like to call Ken Williams’ greatest hits. They’re just too good not to share.
Spanish as disability:
“I don’t think it’s all EL or all ESOL kids, I think we’ve made speaking Spanish a disability in this country.”
multilingualism is a 21st skill:
“If we’re not all bilingual in about 10 years, we’re going to be behind the eight ball.”
equity in action means high expectations:
“No kid has ever died from high expectations heaped upon him by caring educators. I’ve never met a kid that’s said ‘you know what, those high expectations and all that support and love and resources just broke me in half’…but I’ve had a hundred adults talk about the effect of low expectations and misplaced sympathy and dumbing down the instruction with love and creating 16 levels below where kids need to be just to accommodate these new levels. I know plenty of people who’ve suffered from those circumstances.”
learning English doesn’t equal intellectual impairment:
“It makes me wonder about so many kids that come in, we see them struggle with learning English and we consider it a disability right away.”
targets remove judgement, and judgment kills:
“If we really treat targets like they’re essential, it removes judgement. Judgment is killing us. We’re too busy trying to figure out whether kids can or can’t. That’s judgment. But if the target is essential, then judgment is thrown out the window. The kid must have it. The student MUST have it.”
no levels beneath the bar:
“We’ve got to stop creating levels beneath the bar. That’s what we’re great at. We keep creating levels beneath the bar. Remedial this and modified that. But there are no modified bills, there are no modified mortgages…there are no remedial responsibilities in the world. What we do to our kids when we do that is we cripple them, we cripple them with our arms around them. […] I’d rather deal with race and ethnic issues than misplaced sympathy, because it’s couched in love. It’s insidious.”
partnering with add.a.lingua:
“Not only the mission of add.a.lingua but the work you do helping schools develop and embed programs it is just night and day from anything I’ve ever known. And the mission and passion of authentic language acquisition in schools…seeing the effect it has had on kids and the parents, and the evidence…I was just thinking to myself, I need to align myself with a company that’s doing a lot of the right things…I’m sold out on your mission [and] any way I can help spread the message I do.”