My Experience With Bilingual Education

by Peter Honan

My first teaching position was at a middle school in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, not far from the University of Southern California and the LA Colliseum. The school was 96% Latino and 4% African-American. I was assigned to teach Beginning ESL, Intermediate ESL and 7th grade World History. All of my students had Spanish as their first language. This paper will focus on English language learners who have Spanish as their first language since the vast majority of English language learners in the U.S. are first-language Spanish speakers. ESL stood for English as a Second Language. Those classes are now labeled ELD-English Language Development since someone felt that the English language was Number 1! and should never be considered Number 2! The teacher I was taking over from stayed with me through my first day and I thought he was going to be there for the rest of the week but on my second day I was on my own, and I struggled. My academic learning was hitting the hard road of educational realities and not holding up. At the end of my second or third day of struggle, I asked a Teaching Assistant that I had, what I was doing wrong. She said "these kids are so used to being screamed at, that it’s the only thing they will respond to." Hmm, OK, so I need to scream more. In other words, get mean.

This message was brought home to me by one of the two Mentor Teachers that were assigned to me-Mr. Jones, more about him later. Although I didn't know it at the time, my 3 classes were perfect examples of the process of assimilation-where a minority takes on the cultural characteristics of the majority-that Latino students experience in the U.S.

The Process of Assimilation

Most of the Beginning ESL students had been in the country for only a few months. One was from Honduras, another was from El Salvador, and another was from Costa Rica and the rest were from Mexico. I put a map of Mexico on the board and invited them to put pins where they were from and most of them came from areas around Mexico City. Their behavior was what a teacher would call "squirrelly" meaning that they were just bursting with energy and found it hard to stay in their seats and focus on any kind of academic task. This would prove useful in asking for volunteers since when I did, almost every student in the class would raise their hand. They wanted to do SOMETHING, and they didn't care what it was. I guess going from rural Mexico to the heart of Los Angeles put them on some kind of sensory overload which accounted for this.

The Intermediate ESL students were different. They had spent a few years in Los Angeles, and were lacking most of that energy and drive that the Beginning students had. When I asked for volunteers, only a few hands went up or they would need to know what it was before they would commit to volunteering. They knew more English but they lacked the joyful and innocent nature of the Beginning students.

The 7th grade World History class were students that had grown up in LA so I thought that these would be the "good" kids who had benefited from a long exposure to the American educational system. I was soon to find out otherwise. The teacher I was taking over from would only say that they were "hard to control," and were they ever. On that first day, this teacher passed out a worksheet, spent maybe a minute explaining it, and spent the rest of the period playing prison guard trying to keep the students in their seats and not hurting each other. The school had an interesting system for removing especially disruptive students. It was a referral room-a classroom with a full time teacher who did nothing but take in disruptive students who were sent to him from other classes. You could send up to 3 students per class to the referral room and I used it a lot especially in the beginning when I was learning how to teach.

Mr. Jones Enters The Room

It was at the beginning of class on one of my first few days with this class of fully assimilated Latino students, that I met my first Mentor Teacher, Mr. Jones. The class was it's usual chaos, kids doing somersaults and jumping from desk to desk but when Mr. Jones entered the room-all the kids immediately froze, their eyes got big, and they meekly went back to their seats. I could tell by their reaction that they were literally terrified of him. I remember him saying that I had to "hammer" these kids, in other words, be a strong disciplinarian, to get them to take their education seriously. Up till then I was the bleeding-heart liberal who felt that if you were just nice enough to these poor disadvantaged kids, they would do what you wanted them to do. That approach was not working, so I decided to follow Mr. Jones' advice. One interesting thing about Mr. Jones was that he was also the Band Teacher and many of my students were his students. Music can be a powerful tool in language acquisition and being a musician, I would later use music to my advantage. It would be my kryptonite to the supermanlike wall of resistance to my attempts to educate.

Something In Our Culture

These 3 classes taught me a lot about what immigrant students experience when they come to the U.S. Each class had undergone a certain amount of assimilation. The Beginning ESL kids had not yet undergone any assimilation, the Intermediate ESL kids had experienced a few years of it, and the World History students had spent most of their lives being assimilated. What surprised me was that the more assimilation they got, the worst they became as human beings! This was diametrically opposite from what I expected. Something in our culture was doing this, and I didn't know what it was.

My Other Mentor Teacher

My other mentor teacher, Ms. Taylor, had a different approach than Mr. Jones, although to this day, I'm not sure what made it so effective. What struck me about her classes was that whenever I would visit them, I felt like I had entered a library-it was totally quiet and every single student was on-task. My only clue as to how she did this was her 5 Class Rules, which I copied and have used to this day. They are 1. Be on time 2. Bring supplies 3. Ask for Permission 4. Listen Carefully and 5. Respect yourself and others. When going over these rules with every class I teach, I tell them that number 5 is the hardest for students to follow, and that to respect others, you first must respect yourself. I believe that the negative socialization that Latino students experience in the process of assimilation due to their language is the number one barrier to their success.

Negative Socialization

This negative socialization-the process of acquiring norms, values and behaviors that effect one negatively- has several causes. One of them is xenophobia, which is an intense dislike or fear of people from other countries when those people speak a different language or have a different skin color or religion. This holds that what identifies you as an authentic American is the speaking of English and only English. Since Spanish is the most widely spoken second language in the U.S., the speaking of Spanish is seen by millions of Americans, many of them in the highest levels of government, as unpatriotic, improper and even criminal. Even in my school district, which borders Mexico, who one would think would have an enlightened policy toward Spanish, evidence abounds of this type of attitude-a majority of my students have Spanish as their first language and I survey each class -asking them if they've ever been ordered NOT to speak Spanish in class and a large minority of students will always raise their hand. A student told me last year that a teacher he had assigned demerits when students spoke Spanish, since the teacher-who didn't speak Spanish could not monitor their conversation as to whether it was appropriate or not. I had another student many years ago who told me that his father suffered corporal punishment in his high school when he spoke Spanish

What message does this send? The message is that your language is WRONG, It's bad-It's a BAD LANGUAGE, and you're a BAD PERSON for speaking it. The language that you grew up with, that you speak at home, that you speak with your parents, since they usually don't speak English-is BAD. That you're BAD and your parents are BAD for speaking that language. Now no one says that to them in so many words but the effect of xenophobia expressed through this negative socialization results in these subconscious attitudes being implanted within Latino students which manifests itself in low self-esteem, discipline problems, high drop-out rates, alienation from parents, schools and government and the whole range of problems that educators, the media and the public puzzle about.

Another survey question I give to all my classes is that I will ask them to raise their hand if they have ever had to translate for their parents since their parents could not speak English and I always get a large minority of students raising their hand. Then I ask those students how that made them feel ABOUT their parents? Silence. Then I ask them "did having to translate for them make you respect them more or less?" Silence, although I could sense that they were engaging in some very deep critical thinking about the question. This is important since I often hear from my fellow teachers about the strong family structure of Latino families and why can't the parents control their kid's better? I would submit that this negative socialization accounts for that lack of control.

My Brain Only Has Room For One Language

During my first year of teaching, I had one especially difficult student in my Beginning ESL class. He was extremely disruptive and refused to make any efforts to learn English. I met with his father and he told me that his son felt that he would have to forget Spanish to learn English. I asked my Beginners how many felt this way and probably half of them raised their hand. After hearing that I would devote a lot of energy convincing them that it was possible and desirable to speak more than one language. I would remind them about the world record for languages spoken by one person-twenty three, and that there was plenty of room in their brains for more than one language.

Acronym Time

Unfortunately, the one brain/one language belief is common in the U.S. where, for millions of people, the speaking of English and only English is a litmus test for true Americanism. In California in 1998, voters passed Proposition 227, which, with few exceptions, required all instruction be delivered in English. This spurred the passing of similar Propositions in Arizona and Massachusetts. I remember my high school at the time had classes called Spanish for Spanish Speakers. That class is no longer being offered. Back then the teaching approach was Bilingual Education, which said that WHILE students were learning English, they still had to be taught the other subjects like Math, Science and History in a language they could understand-their first language-usually Spanish. After all, if a student learns how to find the square root of a number, or the causes of the Civil War, what difference does it make which language he/she learned it in? Bilingual Education is derived from the research of academics like Stephen Krashen and James Cummins which states that we all have a little black box in our head called an LAD (Language Acquisition Device) which, under the right conditions, allow us to learn any language, and that the better one learns their first language, the quicker they will learn another. This leads to the CUP (Common Underlying Proficiency) theory of language acquisition which states that the skills developed in one language, under the right circumstances, will transfer over to the learning of another language.

Because of Proposition 227, the Bilingual approach in California to language instruction has largely been replaced by SEI (structured English Immersion) where an ELL (English Language Learner) is immersed in English like one would be immersed in water after diving into a pool. Critics call it "submersion," by being figuratively drowned by hearing too many words of a language they don't understand. Which is more effective, Bilingual Education or SEI? I would submit that either one CAN be effective in English language acquisition depending on how they are taught. Unfortunately, racist and xenophobic motives are usually the root causes of opposition to Bilingual Education and support for Immersion education. When that is the cause of ANY approach, no matter how well structured or taught, it is doomed to fail. The fact that we have had 16 years of SEI and no Bilingual Education in California and we are STILL hearing complaints about kids not being able to speak English, is proof that SEI, or the way it has been implemented, has failed.

The Missing Ingredient

One thing that my 19 years of teaching have taught me is that even though students may be small and short, they still deserve to be treated with respect-respect for their culture, their language and for who they are, and that they are really, really good at detecting DISrespect for any of those things from teachers. Unfortunately, one by-product of racism and xenophobia IS disrespect, and until our government stops enabling racist and xenophobic attitudes in our educational system, the learning of English by immigrant children will remain problematic.

If you are interested in a music activity that advances bilingual education, check out Bilingual Beginners, which takes six songs-3 in English, 3 in Spanish ,which can be performed for both English and Spanish speakers. Along with the activity, there are two Youtube videos to show how to perform them.

Bilingual Beginners Handout
Bilingual Beginners Video 1
Bilingual Beginners Video 2