Back to school means back to learning English

Some kids don't get much exposure to the language during vacations.

SANTA ANA — In the cold crisp morning, 18 young minds were warming up from the two weeks away at winter break.

The first-graders at Martin Elementary are adjusting to a lot this week: a new teacher, a new year and a new atmosphere of learning in English, as mandated by Proposition 227.

For many, the two weeks of winter break, like other extended time off ? such as monthlong intersessions in the year-round schedule ? means immersion into a different world.

It is a world in which students are surrounded by Spanish, where moms buy meat in bulk from the neighborhood carniceras, where salsa or ranchero music flares into streets from car windows and front porches. Children as young as age 6 can recount the story line of “Gotita de Amor,” or “A Little Drop of Love,” a popular soap opera on Spanish-language TV while singing the “Rugrats” theme song in English.

The life that these kids live is one of the reasons voters passed Prop. 227, a law that has California’s 1.4 million limited-English students learning mostly in English, says the initiative’s co-author Gloria Matta Tuchman.

“If these kids don’t get English in school, they’re not going to get it anywhere else,” said Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher. “That’s why the law was mandated.”

Yet families affected by the law say learning English is a given. They expect schools to teach students English along with reading, math and writing. And parents say they don’t have to look farther than right outside their doors to see that English will come with time.

“I don’t have any fear that my daughter won’t speak English,” Juana Ramos, mother of Johanna, a rambunctious brown-eyed first-grader, said in Spanish. “You look at the older kids, and they speak English fine. She’s growing into her English.”

In class, Johanna is one of the few students who can form a full sentence in English after about two months of English immersion.

“Excuse me,” says Johanna to the new teacher, Joanne Sims, “may I sharpen my pencil?”

Her question is one of the first to break the tension in the room, as her classmates adjust to being in a predominantly English environment again.

“Two weeks is a long time when you’re 6 years old,” said Julie Janz-Quimby, a teacher at Martin who taught the class when their regular teacher left on maternity leave. “These kids have stayed up late, played with their cousins, taken trips down to Mexico ? they’re tired. Just like big people, it’ll take them a couple of days to warm up.”

Warming up means replenishing their vocabulary with English words that were temporarily out of practice. Warming up means building the courage to pronounce something wrong out loud in class or having the confidence to raise a hand when puzzled.

During a class review of short vowels, students brainstormed for words that started with letters A, I, O or U. And the exercise was tedious for some.

“Agua, no,” mumbles Emanuel Mendoza, correcting himself. “Apple, angel,” he says, copying from the blackboard filled with contributions from the more outspoken kids.

“Aaah, Aaah,” he says, sounding out for English words that would come to mind. “At,” he said to himself.

For many, the environment at home is a big factor in building students’ confidence in school, teachers say.

Just days before school started, Johanna Ramos was dreading a return to class.

She was having so much fun, riding bikes, having Jell-O parties and playing with a miniature Foosball game her younger brother Brian got for Christmas.

Her playmates Raquel and Angie Dominguez speak English at home and at their school, Greenville Fundamental Elementary, where the program is English only.

When the kids are together, though, the chitchat is always a mix of English and Spanish, even though Johanna asserts: “We play in English!” as she giggles off into a new game in which her directions are in Spanish.

“Vamos a bailar (Let’s dance)!” Johanna shouted, after switching on her father’s stereo roaring with salsa music one recent afternoon.

The kids hold hands, spinning around a center dancer whose hips and shoulders wiggle to the quick tempo.

“Faster, faster. You next,” Johanna says, pointing at Raquel.

Juana Ramos sees her daughter’s English skills grow through sing-alongs with Barney, or when Johanna explains the plots of “The Lion King” and “Hercules” to her parents when they watch Disney videos. When Johanna reads from the seven books her mother keeps in a cardboard box in the back of their sofa, her mother keeps a Spanish-English dictionary close at hand. It’s helpful when both mother and daughter get stuck on the meaning of words like “sleigh.”

“On our way to school, Johanna reads the street signs to me: McFadden, Edinger, Lowell,” recounts Ramos.

Meanwhile, her classmates at school are trying to shed their timidness. A spurt of free play allows the kids to congregate and speak in Spanish.

But back in class it’s back to work.

In self-sustained reading, Johanna quickly flipped through pages, reading out loud: “Four lettle (little) ducks went ou-t one day, ov-er the hills and far away.”

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