OAKLAND – When it’s time to teach math, Carolyn Meeajane hands out colorful connecting cubes. For a social studies class on Saudi Arabia, she carts out pots, postcards and clothing from the country.
Meeajane, a teacher for 23 years, speaks only English. Her 20 second-
and third-grade students at Lakeview Elementary speak nine languages – from Tagalog to Amharic to Cantonese.
Using a special teaching technique called “sheltered English immersion,”
she uses props and skits to connect with students who struggle with English.
If Proposition 227 is approved by California voters June 2, children of immigrants will no longer have the option of being taught in their native language. Instead, every school will have classrooms that look a lot like Meeajane’s.
Students of different ages and nationalities would be taught for one year in a sheltered English immersion class, then graduated to a regular classroom. Though Meeajane’s class differs from the one required by Prop.
227 in several key ways, in many respects it offers a window onto a world without bilingual education.
Lakeview, an Oakland public school of 430 students, separates students by language ability, placing children who lack English skills in special language-development classes. Under Prop. 227, sheltered English immersion would become the only method of instruction teachers could use with children of immigrants.
An array of programs is currently used to teach the state’s 1.3 million children who lack English skills.
An estimated 20 percent of them are already in sheltered immersion classes like Meeajane’s. Thirty percent receive instruction in their native language
– the majority in Spanish – and 50 percent get no language support, according to the state Department of Education.
School groups similar ages
Although Lakeview wouldn’t need to change its method of instruction –
as would other schools – if the initiative becomes law, the school would have to reconfigure classrooms and reassign teachers.
Lakeview puts immigrant children of similar ages – grades two and three or four and five, for example – in classrooms together. Students who do not learn English after one year stay in special classrooms until they do.
The initiative, by contrast, would place children of widely different ages who are learning English in the same immersion classrooms. Fifth-graders could be with first-graders. After one year of immersion instruction, all students would be placed in regular classes, regardless of how well they speak English.
Lakeview Principal Stanyan Vukovich said it “makes no sense”
to place students of widely different ages together. “Just imagine being a university student who has to sit next to a 5-year-old.”
Standing in front of a poster reading, “Everybody smiles in the same language,” Meeajane said, “This type of teaching is tougher than it looks.”
To learn how best to teach an increasing number of students who speak little if any English, Meeajane returned to school to earn her CLAD, the Cross-Cultural Language and Acquisition Development Credential, issued by the state.
“As a teacher, you need to know how to make learning come alive for these kids,” Meeajane said. “That means bringing in artifacts like pots and postcards from Saudi Arabia. You tell them, but you also must show them.”
Length of study varies
Some students pick up English in a year, Meeajane said. Others take several years.
“Children with older siblings generally learn English faster than those without because they have someone at home to speak English with,”
Third-grader Aldvin Sakanovic, who emigrated to Oakland from Bosnia last fall, had Meeajane as his second-grade teacher. “He knew no English when he came here and said nothing for an entire year. He was a sponge,
soaking it all up,” Meeajane said.
“When he came back after the summer, it was like someone had flipped a switch,” she said. “You couldn’t get him to stop speaking English.”
Aldvin, 9, said he was learning, but he was too shy to speak up in class.
“I spent the summer with a friend reading to me in English,” he said, smiling. “I like English because when I grow up, I’m going to need it.”
Third-grader Monica Ramirez spoke only Spanish when she started kindergarten.
By the beginning of first grade, she felt comfortable speaking English,
“My parents want me to learn English because I already know enough Spanish,” Ramirez said, taking a break from studying fractions.
Meeajane said that even with her special training and decades of experience,
she needs significant classroom support to teach youngsters who speak no English.
Having a part-time aide allows her to divide the class into groups of 10 students. She also recruits fourth- and fifth-graders to help younger,
less fluent students.
Nevertheless, there are times when language barriers prevent her from getting through. When she was teaching the mathematical concept of borrowing and carrying, for example, a Bosnian student who had emigrated at midyear wasn’t getting it.
Determined to reach the student, she called in the principal, who speaks Serbo-Croatian.
“Teaching immigrant children in this style can work,” Meeajane said. “But it takes a teacher who is willing to put in a lot of extra training, effort and time. And, especially in the lower grades, you have to be able to act everything out.”