By Corey Heller
Meeting a Bilingual Education Expert
A few years back, I had the honor and pleasure of being taken out to dinner by a bilingual education expert and her husband. Earlier that year, she had written an article for Multilingual Living Magazine and now we found ourselves in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle sharing a meal and discussing the past, present and future of bilingualism and bilingual education in America.
It was a delightfully memorable evening and as we parted, I knew that our paths would continue to cross and intertwine. I knew that her brilliant insights on quality bilingual education would appear again and again.
The woman I had the pleasure of meeting in person and share a meal was none other than Sharon Adelman Reyes. Her bio is extensive: She has “worked in education for more than thirty years as a teacher, principal, school district administrator, curriculum specialist, researcher, and university professor with extensive experience in bilingual and ESL classrooms. She is the coauthor of Teaching in Two languages: A Guide for K-12 Bilingual Educators and Constructivist Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners. Today she serves as program director of DiversityLearningK12.”
With our discussions from few years back still fresh in my mind, I received a book from Sharon recently titled Diary of a Bilingual School. The book outlines not only what a quality bilingual classroom should look like (some of which she shared with me over dinner), but what makes a bilingual education program truly successful (no, not all bilingual programs are created equal!).
Sharon wrote Diary of a Bilingual School together with James Crawford, a well-known advocate for quality bilingual education. He is “a former Washington editor of Education Week, and independent writer and advocate on issues affecting English language learners and founder of the Institute for Language and Education policy. Previously, he served as executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. He is the author of seven books, including Educating English Learners (5th edition), Language Loyalties, Hold Your Tongue, and At War with Diversity. He is currently the president of DiversityLearningK12.”
Diary of a Bilingual School is not about teaching our children a standard test-based curriculum but in two languages instead of one. It is also not about some new education reform fad. It is about so much more than that! As the authors say right at the beginning of the Introduction of the book:
Some readers may be eager to know how dual immersion education can be “aligned” with the latest standards, tailored to federally mandated testing programs, or held accountable for meeting “benchmarks” of student achievement. If so, they should put down this book and look elsewhere.
What this book outlines is how to create a learning experience where school district, administration, teachers and parents come together to create a curriculum focused on stimulating students’ “intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for learning” which naturally takes place in more than one language:
This book, by contrast, is about possibility. Depicting a year in the life of a second-grade classroom, it demonstrates what can happen when the instruction is bilingual and the curriculum is constructivist.
Fundamentals and Narratives
Diary of a Bilingual School is organized into two sections: The first is titled “Fundamentals” and outlines the origins of dual immersion, what a constructivist education approach is, why the combination of bilingual learning with the constructivist approach is so successful, how assessments are conducted and what a curriculum for this kind of education approach looks like.
This section also outlines the decisions schools must make about the ratio of languages for instruction. Using Inter-American, the school discussed in this book, as an example, the authors explain why an “80-20” ratio was decided as optimal:
Initially, instruction was provided half in English and half in Spanish, a policy that required all teachers to be fully bilingual. This “50-50” model is common in dual immersion programs, often in response to parents’ anxieties. If my child is taught mostly in another language, they wonder, how will she keep up academically in English? While to concern is understandable, research shows it is largely unfounded. […] By 1990, it became clear that Inter-American students were doing quite well in English, but their Spanish proficiency was lagging. The founders recognized that the minority language, which had limited support outside of school, especially for English-dominant students, needed a stronger emphasis in the classroom. So they adopted an “80-20” ratio of Spanish to English from prekindergarten through fourth grade, combined with ESL and SSL (Spanish as a second language) as needed.
The second section of the book is titled “Narratives” and shows exactly what goes on in a bilingual classroom. It documents a year in Ms. Sontag’s second grade bilingual classroom during the 1995-96 school year. The classroom consists of a mix of many different languages and nationalities:
About half came from low-income families; the rest were middle-class. While a majority had Latino roots, many also came from bicultural homes. Their ethnicities were diverse: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Guatemalan, Columbian, Ecuadorian, Belizean, Panamanian, Filipino, Jewish, African-American, and white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Language backgrounds ranged from English-monolingual to Spanish-dominant to everything in between.
The chapters in this section recount actual dialogs and discussions between students, student and teacher and, at times, student and parent, many of which Sharon observed first-hand. We are given a chance to see how, exactly, Ms. Sontag creates opportunities and environments for her students to interact and build social, academic and language skills all at the same time. The children help one another build comprehension and vocabulary in both languages as they engage their blossoming curiosity and eagerness.
Although Ms. Sontag conducts her teaching in Spanish, even when she dresses up as a beekeeper, the students in class are heard engaging in discussions in English and sometimes often address their teacher in English. Rather than reprimanding, Ms. Sontag continually responds back in Spanish yet ensures that her students understand. She uses targeted vocabulary and physical gestures to get her meaning across:
Now entering their third year of the dual immersion program, the children were not yet fully bilingual, although their skills varied significantly. When speaking in their second language, most students still made plenty of mistakes. Yet they were usually able to follow what Ms. Sontag was saying. As a former ESL and family literacy teacher, she knew how to make both Spanish and English input comprehensible to second-language learners, skillfully using physical gestures and context, along with a conversational style that stripped her speech of needless complexity.
Diary of a Bilingual School illustrates how Ms. Sontag uses context to her advantage. It isn’t an accident that students develop language skills naturally. Ms. Sontag creates environments which foster language learning together with academic learning.
What About Testing?
Many parents worry about sending their children to a bilingual school for fear of poor testing results. What consequence will that have on their children’s futures? Ms. Sontag’s school, Inter-American,
adopted a policy of limiting standardized tests. In line with its ‘philosophy of education the whole child,’ the school resolved to evaluate ‘progress not only in knowledge, but in skills and abilities such as thinking, valuing, and social participation. […] Inter-American recognized a pitfall that many other schools have since experienced: Unless kept in perspective, standardized testing can restrict – and even shape – curriculum and instruction.
Despite this cautionary view of standardized testing,
Year after year, standardized test scores for Inter-American students were among the highest in Chicago, even though a sizable percentage of the children came from low-income and minority households.
At the end of the book, the authors share information about the lives of the students today. Many still use their Spanish regularly and some have even gone on to use their bilingualism in their careers and/or to help them learn additional languages. Each remembers their time in Ms. Sontag’s class with fondness and express their appreciation for the opportunity to be educated in more than one language.
Making Meaning of It All
The authors of Diary of a Bilingual School do an excellent job of intertwining the actual in-class activities and discussions with informational boxes that explain the theory and research behind each of Ms. Sontag’s efforts. Some of the topics include: Collaborative learning, Literacy in two languages, Metalinguistic awareness, Constructing identity, Building on prior knowledge (plus many more).
The beauty of Diary of a Bilingual School is that anyone can read this book and gain something from it. Parents of bilingual children will learn tools on how to help their children’s education thrive. Bilingual educators and administrators will gain insights and tips on how to create the best bilingual classroom experience possible. Bilingual expert and layman alike will appreciate the combination of theory, research and hands-on examples for making education better overall.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in bilingual education, be it dual immersion, immersion, English as a second language or any other language education methodology.
We are delighted here at Multilingual Living to have the opportunity to give away a copy of this fantastic book! Thank you Sharon Adelman Reys, James Crawford and the whole DiversityLearningK12 team!
NOTE: This giveaway is open to everyone, not just those participating in Language Challenge 180!
How to Enter the Giveaway…
To enter this giveaway, all you need to do is to leave a comment below as to why you would like to receive this copy of Diary of a Bilingual School. Would it help you in your own bilingual classroom? Would it help you in homeschooling your bilingual children? Maybe you would like to donate it to your local school district?
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