An elementary school that I will call “Silverleaf School” in Philadelphia started a bilingual education program for kindergarten students in the fall of 2014. The program is run on a 90/10 model where kindergarten students begin with 90 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 10 percent of their instruction in English. There are a mixture of native Spanish and native English speakers in the classroom. I worked in this school for three months, where I explored the benefits of learning a non-dominant language, how cultural knowledge is integrated into bilingual education, and issues of carrying out multilingual and multicultural education outside the classroom. Most of the children’s first language was Spanish with varying degrees of English comprehension and speaking fluidity. The students who were able to communicate most effectively in English and Spanish were the most attentive in class and also the most flexible and outgoing.
One student in particular, I will call Maria, often suggested practicing English with her group of three of four friends, even though their first language was Spanish. She was also one of the most independent students in the class and encouraged others to join the games she or her friends thought of, especially during recess. Sometimes she would look around, but also in more subtle ways, assess a crowd to make sure everyone understood what was being communicated and was included. Her knowledge of Spanish united students, since many of them were more comfortable speaking and writing in Spanish, but she also frequently worked with her fellow, primarily English speaking classmates to help communicate someone’s ideas, thoughts, or feelings, or her own. According to Kristin Grayson in “Two-Way Dual Language Immersion Programs,” practicing native languages in school helps students learn new languages:
[Stephen Krasken and Jim Cummins, two language researchers who had a large impact in expanding bilingual education} … have asserted and confirmed in their research that, given time, the stronger language-minority students become in their native language, the more proficient they will become in their new language (Grayson 1).
Maria’s flexibility and comfort switching languages also seemed to correlate with her attentiveness and input during class discussions. Her peers often shared more about their personal or home lives with her and in groups when she was present because they knew that if they were not being heard, she or a couple other students could help translate, linguistically or help reinforce shared cultural knowledge. The importance of different perspectives and traditions was also appreciated and acknowledged through other student’s interest and openness to listen not only to her, but to other students as well.
According to Dr. Linda M. Espinosa, an author, consultant, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri-Columbia, learning more than one language does not hinder the acquisition of English or delay academic success in English when both languages are reinforced. Calculated and thoughtful exposure to English when a child is young while also learning valuable concepts in a student’s native language culminates in the greatest knowledge and fluency in both languages by the end of Third Grade and into the rest of the student’s education (Espinosa 5). English Language Learners who are given regular and organized opportunities in their native language from when they are three to eight regularly perform better than those who are enrolled in English-only programs in-terms of academic performance in English throughout high school and middle school.
Although the students did not necessarily understand everything the teacher said, the three or four students who were the most fluent in English and Spanish translated phrases or reminded their peers of words they had learned in previous lessons. These students were essential to many of the best outcomes of the bilingual education experiment, especially in uniting people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Though many students were from lower income neighborhoods, a couple students suggested games that seemed to incorporate shared cultural knowledge between races and classes. The teacher’s valuing of different languages and cultural expressions led to more flexibility in discussion topics and more opportunities for children to learn from their peers.
Most young children in the world learn more than one language in their first years (Espinosa 4). Though it is difficult to assess the advantages of students learning two languages in a few months, research suggests that students’ cognitive abilities are increased through bilingual education. As stated by Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier in their “English Learners in North Carolina 2009” report, bilingual education is beneficial for English leaners and native-English speakers:
Since available research indicates that all three groups in dual language programs perform better than comparable students who do not participate, dual language programs represent an across-the-board improvement over traditional education programs for these three groups (English learners, language minorities, and native-English speakers), and a potential education reform than can improve the outcomes of current U.S. education for all groups (Collier and Thomas 2).
According to this study dual language students’ average reading scores are higher than the statewide average scores from third through eighth grade. Sited in this same finding after the fourth grade, dual language students approach and then surpass the statewide scores of students who are a year above them in school. Students who study English and Spanish in school score higher on their End of Grade tests and benefit from learning another language (Collier and Thomas 31). The achievement gap is even larger for African American students. This study reveals that African Americans’ needs are being addressed more and they are given more fitting accommodations in dual language programs.
Strengthening and endorsing dual-language programs addresses the achievement gap of African American native-English speakers overall. African American native-English speakers who are enrolled in dual-language programs are at or close to Grade Level achievement. Grade Level achievement is explained by statewide average scale scores for every grade. African American native-English speakers who are not enrolled in dual-language programs are scoring significantly below grade level and some are cognitively a year behind average statewide students (Thomas and Collier 1).
Students acquire a better understanding of math and history if they study these subjects in their native language first. According to Linda M. Espinosa in “Challenging Common Myths About Young English Language Learners,” learning two languages benefits the brain through the growth of greater brain tissue density in parts of the brain connected to attention, language, and memory. Dual language leaners experience more brain activity in the sections of the brain that are connected to language processing. As claimed by Linda M. Espinosa in “Challenging Common Myths About Young English Language Learners” expanded brain activity resulting from learning more than one language, improves perception and discernment: “This increased brain activity and neural density may have long-term positive effects on specific types of cognitive abilities, such as those that require focusing on the details of a task and knowing how language is structured and used” (Espinosa 4). New research from psycholinguistics and neuroscientists have determined that the human brain has a vast capacity to learn multiple languages (Espinosa 4). Children who learn English after they have established their first language obtain lasting economic, intellectual and cultural benefits.
Pictures, imagination, and images were essential and extremely helpful tools in the students’ education and process of learning how to read. Through contextual clues and repetitive images, students began associating English and Spanish words with different pictures. Many of the children connected with the books that we read in Spanish, which described cultural traditions of Latino families, which a number of the children had experienced or celebrated. For instance, the teacher read one book about the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. One child raised her hand and said, “Muchas personas vienen a mí casa. Tenemos una fiesta para celebrar México. Ponemos una bandera de México en nuestra casa. Es muy divertido.” (Many people come to my house. We have a party to celebrate Mexico. We put the Mexican flag in our house. It is a lot of fun.) The student’s description of the holiday was reinforced by the pictures in the book, her peers, but also the teacher’s and the knowledge of other volunteers who worked at the school, of the celebration. Not only were different traditions honored and discussed, but the book and the student’s expression of her own experience encouraged her peers to share their own ways of celebrating the holiday.
The opportunities to include personal experiences in the curriculum proved to be some of the most fruitful and valuable outcomes provided by the bilingual experiment. Children whose cultures are normally suppressed and underappreciated learned about their own traditions in school. The concentration on meeting the students where they are at and discussing topics that are relevant to the students, not only reinforced the values and beliefs they were taught at home, but gave the students a first-hand opportunity to learn about and appreciate people who come from different backgrounds. As stated by Jeff Bale in “The Fight for Bilingual Education”, bilingual education not only improves language and cognitive abilities, but it also enhances cultural awareness and sensitivity:
Nevertheless, the balance of research is irrefutable in terms of the benefits of bilingualism and bilingual education. Not only do bilinguals have access to the various cultures associated with the languages they speak, but also their language skills tend to lead to greater appreciation of human diversity (Bale 4).
Since bilinguals recognize and value that there are many ways to express similar ideas, bilinguals are often more cognizant and respectful of their fellow students’ needs. Bilingual students demonstrate more adaptability and flexibility in their thinking. They are more competent in inventive thinking and thinking that deviates from norms and expectations. Children who know more than one language also have an easier time being understood and heard through language.
One key component of the diverse classroom was that it in some respects, it was more difficult for students to “otherize” certain cultures, races, religions, or languages because they were present in the classroom. Ideas of appreciating people from different backgrounds was taught, but also constantly practiced with or without adult supervision. Students who speak English and Spanish proficiently are more relaxed in a multicultural setting and are often more accepting and receptive to people, religions, cultures, genders, ethnicities, and languages. By being in these bilingual settings, a kid becomes an adult who comfortably accepts adjustments and reordering. The child can more intuitively address the needs of the listener by easily switching between languages and different vocabulary. With previous experiences in bilingual settings or by taking part in bilingual education, a child is more poised and can move more effortlessly within many environments (The Local Europe AB 2).
Shared cultural knowledge can be more accessible and highly regarded in a bilingual setting. Jeff bale links cultural diversity and knowledge to bilingual education in “The Fight for Bilingual Education”: “Not only do bilinguals have access to the various cultures associated with the languages they speak, but also their language skills tend to lead to greater appreciation of human diversity” (Bale 6)
These ideas of inclusivity and appreciating differences seemed to be more effectively taught starting at a young age, when even though the students can recognize different skin tones and languages, are not as aware of social inequalities and morals and values attributed to skin tones, religions, or cultural backgrounds. Language was also often taught through song and rhymes, which provided an enjoyable platform for students to learn new words, phrases, and traditions. Often the children asked questions about why certain aspects of the songs were included and where certain ideas came from.
The greatest divides in friend groups and physical spaces were not based so much on skin tone, somewhat on language, but mostly by gender or perceived gender. TOO MUCH GOING ON IN THIS PARAGRAGH- STOP AND EXPLAIN IDEAS
Though there were many times students confused Spanish and English pronunciations of words, once they either realized that their pronunciation of a word did not make sense or other students did not recognize the word or phrase they were using, they were corrected and afterwards seemed to have a better understanding of the English and Spanish translation of that word or vice versa.
[In dual language immersion] English speakers develop proficiency in a new language, and their English skills are strengthened by this additional cognitive process. They maintain use of English in the majority culture, so their English skills do not diminish during the time they are immersed in the new language, and their English school achievement eventually outperforms that of native English speakers who have been schooled in English-only instruction (Grayson 1).
The dual language atmosphere seemed to generally encourage collaboration. When students struggled with words, they knew that their teacher and the adult volunteers were not the only ones who knew what they were trying to communicate. Students would often grab their books or writing materials and walk to other tables to a student who was more proficient in a language they were trying to understand.
The continuous and varied forms of collaboration seemed to be one of the most beneficial outcomes of the program. Students were more willing to express themselves in their native language because they knew at least some of their peers could understand them. On one occasion, a child was trying to describe a book about animals, but she could not remember the name for “vaca” in English (cow). She asked the student beside her, who made guesses, recalling the word “chicken” and other farm animals that had been described in the book, but not the word cow. As the students began describing some of the drawings in the book in Spanish, other students began gathering around and explaining their interpretations of the farm. There were many different explanations and inferences about the content of the book in Spanish and English that the child forgot what she had asked, but in the process was exposed to many other ideas and words such as “granja” (farm).
This was just one of many instances of collaboration where one student’s question was not necessarily answered but her knowledge of English, Spanish, and cultural perspectives on farms and animals was expanded and complicated. Also, she felt comfortable enough in her own space to admit that she was confused and appreciated the knowledge of her classmates. Encouraging children to learn from each other, even at a young age was supported through the bilingual classroom experience. The comfort that came with students working together created a more inclusive atmosphere. The teacher also gave the students many opportunities to incorporate their thoughts and feelings into the overall classroom content.
Studies have shown that dual language programs are advantageous to students whose first language is English or Spanish, but especially in closing the achievement gap. Research shows that students who receive bilingual education are more likely to continue schooling (Crawford 3). Separation, different treatment, and explanation of inequalities or variations according to race, ethnicity, culture, gender, or religion that were sometimes not explained, but reinforced, which sometimes led to deeper understandings of peers, also led to separation. My greatest worry in bilingual education can also be the way different cultures, religions, races, and ethnicities are taught in school. Though it is important to learn about other people and their ideas, sometimes I found that teaching about these same topics that discouraged some form of “othering” led to other forms and generalizations and a focus on distinctions that were not well explained. Often cultures were explained as if every person who identifies with that culture practices the same traditions or shares most of their beliefs, which seemed to give students a unrealistic confidence to talk about topics they had possibly not experienced and did not know very much about. I worry that these simplistic and broad explanations could lead to stereotypes and/or overconfidence in cultures/religions/races/ethnicities that children have a basic knowledge in. Sometimes I worried that distinctions between students were too often described as “natural” and not supported with explanations.
In class, for one month, the students learned about “civilizations.” They studied the Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Persian civilizations. On one of my last days at school the teacher reviewed what they had learned. When prompted, a child answered, “Isn’t that where they built the pyramids and there were mummies?” Later on that same child could not place Egypt on a map and when asked if he could say more, he did not elaborate. I worried that these brief explanations of extremely complex and varying peoples, traditions, and civilizations were simplified too much, which often lead to generalizations. Though the children were amazed at the magnificence of the pyramids, they did not have a deep sense of the importance of the first written language and how they are connected to these people’s stories and discoveries.
Another week students focused on racial disparities and differences. There were only two African American students in the classroom. The teacher read a story about children with different skin tones and asked the students, “Do we look different here?”
A lighter skin student replied, “Some of us are darker than others.”
Another student responded, “Yeah, my best friend Alejandro is lighter than me.”
The teacher nodded her head in approval and asked, “Does that mean we are not equal or that some of us are better than others?”
The class replied in unison, “No.” This interaction was one of the many that made me feel unsure and afflicted. I did not have a true grasp of my role in the classroom and though I did not want to discourage or dishearten students about the inequalities and injustices in the world, people are treated unfairly and discriminated against because of who they are and how they are perceived. To say that we all experience the world equally, even to kindergardeners seemed not only untrue, but also helped to set-up unrealistic expectations of the world they are growing up in.
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