CARMEL VALLEY — You might call Room 5 at Torrey Pines High School its Tower of Babel.
That’s where Judy Shlasko’s fifth-period history class meets. The students are from 15 countries — from Afghanistan to Vietnam, Iran to Poland.
Boosters of the Unz initiative that would ban most bilingual education in California public schools might very well smile on this group of English learners with an “Aha-I-told-you-so!” satisfaction.
The language of instruction in Shlasko’s classes is exclusively English,
just as the Unz initiative on the June statewide ballot would dictate.
Yet these kids, a jumble of freshmen through seniors, are not mired in incomprehension. No one squirms in their seat because they don’t know how to ask permission to use the restrooms.
To the contrary, they ask Shlasko if taking the SATs more than once will reflect badly on them before college admissions counselors.
The measure, the English Language Education for Children in Public Schools initiative, is more commonly known by the name of its author, former gubernatorial candidate and millionaire businessman Ron Unz. It proposes abolishing most native-language instruction for English learners.
It would provide instead one year of “sheltered immersion classes”
— English-language instruction in science, social studies and other classes that feature curriculum and presentation specially designed for students who are learning the language.
After a year, students would enter mainstream English-speaking classrooms.
Shlasko’s students learn in English. But they are also learning?
They get both from her. Every day they get two hours of English as a second language instruction. Every other day, they get her sheltered immersion version of U.S. history.
And almost all spend more than a year in English as a second language and sheltered immersion classes.
When Mandy Wang, 17, of Taiwan was asked what her father does for a living back in her country of birth, she couldn’t answer. She pulled out a pocket computerized translator and typed in the Taiwanese term, then displayed the translation on her screen: member of a legislative body.
Ana Carrillo, 18, was born in Stockton but grew up mostly in Jalisco.
Her English is slightly fractured, and she’s glad that after a year at Torrey Pines she can continue her transition — whether in Spanish, English as a second language or in Shlasko’s sheltered immersion history class,
instead of plunging directly into the mainstream classes the Unz initiative would make mandatory after a year.
“They shouldn’t take it away,” Carrillo said. “They think that all the years is the same. They don’t know that ESL prepares us to go out and go to the regular classes.”
Shlasko doesn’t think the Unz initiative is a good idea, but she doesn’t entirely disagree with the thinking of its proponents.
During a break from class, Shlasko spoke with her native New Yorker directness about the task at hand.
The foreign taskmaster
“It’s your duty and responsibility to learn English. It’s an English-speaking country,” Shlasko said.
On the other hand, she said moving immigrants too quickly into English-only instruction can have devastating consequences on their academic achievement.
She doesn’t coddle students, but she teaches with a customized delivery that reaches immigrants.
In other history classes, teachers don’t parse words such as “reformer”
and “progressive” down to their roots and prefixes to deduce their meaning.
But in Shlasko’s U.S. history class, there is a heavy emphasis on vocabulary.
She also uses lots of visuals. One recent afternoon she showed slides to illustrate the conditions in meat-packing plants in turn-of-the-century Chicago.
At least one student picked up on a modern-day parallel.
“La vaca loca,”? he blurted out. That’s Spanish for
“mad cow” as in mad cow disease.
Things are very literal for those with a tenuous grasp on the language.
For example, one afternoon Shlasko monitored students completing a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary lesson.
“Are you finished?” she asked the class, then ordered: “Put the word on the board,” so the students could share the answers.
She turned around momentarily and when she glanced up at the board she broke out into a laugh. Two students had written “finished” on the board. A third was scrawling “f-i-n-i .?.?. “
Shlasko said she hopes she has created a classroom environment in which students aren’t afraid to make mistakes. But she has them only for U.S.
history and English as a second language. They study most of their other subjects in mainstream classes.
While her English as a second language students may study only six or seven books a year compared with mainstream English students’ 20, they still learn what a simile is and how to analyze characters, Shlasko said.
Their academic performance runs the range just like their nonimmigrant peers. One girl in her class scored over 1,200 on the SAT. Another, Shlasko said, would probably get C’s and D’s no matter what teaching techniques she employed.
Most of the students in the class, however, will go to four-year universities after graduation, or to community colleges in preparation for a later transfer to a four-year college.
Many students in Shlasko’s class say that school was much more demanding in their country of birth. Most of them had English classes before coming to the United States, but they said the lessons tended to emphasize grammar more than written and oral communication.
Most of them hold their own in casual conversation, but educators insist that the students need the specialized instruction to help them master the language and have succeed academically.
Striving for the best
Shlasko’s students by and large are privileged, just like their U.S.-born neighbors in Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe. They are generally not escaping a life of crushing poverty in their birth country but are here because their parents are government officials, UCSD professors and international business people.
Living in material comfort and attending the public high school with the county’s highest average SAT scores doesn’t diminish the challenge of learning English while studying algebra, science and social studies.
Take Soroush Elmi, 17, of Iran. His parents were educated abroad, too,
in France, and they sent him to live with grandparents here to attend high school in preparation for university studies in the United States.
Soroush thrives in most classes, but even after a year in this country his language shortcomings catch up with him in geography, which he attends with native English speakers.
It’s not unusual, he said, for geography homework to keep him up past midnight.
Last year, he struggled in algebra II.
“I felt so bad because my grade is coming down and if I want to go to university here I’m not supposed to have bad grades, so I was scared,”
If he were mainstreamed into six classes now, he said, there would be no way he could keep up.
Angela Lin, 15, of Taiwan said: “If you go to a regular class and do not speak English very, very well, American kids don’t want to talk to you and you can’t take notes.”
Her parents own a video store in Kearny Mesa. She still trips over words and gropes for vocabulary after 2-1/2 years here.
Angela and Soroush both said Shlasko is their favorite teacher. They said she not only teaches them American language and culture, but she also sympathizes with them for being different and gives them leeway in settling into a new place.
Room 5 is a refuge for these students. They feel so comfortable here that they spend their lunch period in the hall outside the door to Shlasko’s room. Shlasko said she has to keep her door shut to have lunchtime to herself because the students enter the room as soon as she opens the door.
Once inside Shlasko’s room, Afghan sisters continue to whisper to each other in their own language. Koreans banter during pauses in the lesson.
Ana can speak Spanish with her brother and other Mexicans in the class.
But it’s all about English, and that’s the only language they use with Shlasko.
Room 5 also is an acculturation chamber. Shlasko said she’s answered questions about such nonacademic subjects as hair removal products and dating.
On her wall, she’s hung students’ reports titled “How to be a cool U.S. teen-ager.”
Their tips include an exhortation from a Korean for boys not to wear tight pants. A Brazilian boy cautions girls from his country to leave their famously skimpy bikinis back in Rio de Janeiro. The reports draw one common conclusion: English is cool.
A teacher’s view
With all these additional factors to consider in the classroom, Shlasko said she doesn’t think a statewide initiative can tell her how best to educate her students.
As a language instructor, she wants her students to be ready for mainstream English before she releases her kids from English as a second language.
When they move from ESL to Torrey Pines English, they’re trading simplified reading materials for “The Canterbury Tales” and “Macbeth.”
As a teacher in general, Shlasko wants the freedom to tailor her lessons for her class. She taught this year’s history students the Charleston as part of their unit on the United States in the ’20s.
She emphasizes computer-assisted research for term papers. She chooses textbooks with vocabulary lists at the beginning of each chapter and simple,
succinct summaries at the end.
She knows how important it is for these students to learn English and urges them to speak more of it in the world outside Room 5.
These students didn’t choose. Instead they have been chosen. Shlasko said 90 percent of her class do not live in two-parent households, and many times not with their siblings.
“(Parents) have made the decision to split up the family for the benefit of one child’s education,” Shlasko said.
And English is the linchpin of their education here, whether through immersion or through Shlasko’s visual techniques.
To illustrate isolationism vs. imperialism, Shlasko put a spectrum on the board and asked students to mark their native country on that spectrum.
Everyone marked their country as less imperialist than the United States.
Her students include those from Russia, Turkey and Iran. They had no choice in coming. Now they have no choice but to learn English.
“(My parents) just come to here and visit San Diego and they buy the house,” said Mandy of Taiwan. “It’s crazy. We didn’t plan it.”