Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bilingual field experience #3

My next experience wasn’t part of my punishment for criticizing the bilingual program. In fact, it preceded the entire situation by more than a year.

I had made a goal for myself that I was going to visit at least five schools a year. Sometimes we went to various schools as a matter of course and other times we had a specific purpose. I believe this visit was to find out about a counseling program of some sorts, but such visits also included a tour of the place.

This school can be described as a monument to failed instructional theory. It was one of those “open classroom” designs from the 1970s. Someone wrote a book based on their research that “proved” how well the one-room school house worked. So they built schools all over the country with a large open classroom area that had no doors or partitions. And they turned the teachers loose with their classes and walked away.

The “experts” returned in a couple of years and found the classes set up around the edges with the desks in neat little rows and the teachers talking softly to the students to avoid disturbing the class next to them. Where was the happy din of students of all ages mingled together in learning? Well, it didn’t work, folks!

So, the school districts used partitions to divide up this large hall into classrooms resembling slices of pizza. After spending extra money we were back to the traditional classroom once again, sort of.

It was in one of these wedge-shaped classrooms that I was told of a young fifth grader who had just transferred in. He was from Egypt. His parents had brought him here because his father had taken a job assignment in the area.

I asked, “What do you do for a boy from Egypt?” The principal explained to me that he was placed in the rear of the class along with one of the brightest students. They would work together and this other student would guide him along during the day. He explained that no one in the school spoke Egyptian. (I thought to myself, that’s not surprising but what the boy really needs is someone who speaks Arabic. But I held my tongue.)

The boy had only been here a few weeks and yet I observed that he seemed to be flourishing. Watching TV in English was a big boost for vocabulary and accent. And his family wanted him to learn English and encouraged him.

There were no textbooks for him, no teachers who spoke his language, no Arabic-speaking classmates. And yet somehow he was managing.

His situation is typical. Most school districts are proud to say that their students speak 60 different languages. But only in the fine print do you realize that the bilingual program is almost entirely a Spanish program. Here and there you will see a Korean program or a Polish one, but the business is in the Spanish arena. That’s where all the emphasis is. That’s where the textbooks are. That’s where the payroll money is spent.

The whole sentiment that you have to devote huge resources to kids who don’t speak English only applies if you can build a program around it. Otherwise, the two or five or ten kids who come here from other countries have to sink or swim. There’s not much we can do for them. The teacher and the principal just do the best they can with them.

I’d like to see a longitudinal study of the performance of these oddball foreign students compared with those in a structured bilingual program. My guess is that they’d outperform the transitional kids by a mile. But that would just embarrass the school districts and force them to say that the Spanish speaking kids have other challenges due to the poverty of their families.

It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the program itself. Or could it?

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