Teaching U.S. history, not English, is her job

High school classes in Spanish would be rare if Prop. 227 passes, since the initiative assumes students will be fluent by then

RICHMOND — Up an outdoor staircase to a second-floor classroom at Richmond High School, the 15 students in Isidora Martinez-McAfee’s class grapple with ordinary themes in 19th-century U.S. history: the dawn of industry,
tide of European immigrants, impact of the transcontinental railroad.

Except in Martinez-McAfee’s classroom, students use words such as “nuevas industrias,” “inmigrantes” and “ferrocarril transcontinental.”

It’s called a bilingual class but that’s a misnomer. The textbooks, lessons,
lectures and class jokes are almost entirely in one language: Spanish.

“Yo no entiendo 11, 12 y 13,” says one student, hand high in the air as she prods Martinez-McAfee about several questions on a study guide. The teacher responds in Spanish with an occasional “That’s right!”
in English.

Opponents of bilingual education expect this type of class to be harder to find if voters pass Proposition 227 on June 2. Under the model proposed by Silicon Valley electronics entrepreneur Ron Unz and Orange County teacher Gloria Tuchman, high school students would rarely require a Spanish-based social studies class in high school because they would learn English more quickly in the lower grades.

Martinez-McAfee and other bilingual educators maintain that even if students speak a school-yard English, they might not be able to confidently debate 19th-century U.S. history.

“I have always felt if I teach in the native language, I can go more in depth in the subject matter,” Martinez-McAfee said.

Although most Richmond High students have limited English skills, some of Martinez-McAfee’s students do speak English fluently.

Lissandra Ochoa, 17, came from Mexico with her family when she was 2 years old. With the exception of Martinez-McAfee’s class, she is taking all mainstream or English-based classes this semester.

“I took it so that I don’t have to forget my main language,”
Lissandra said about Martinez-McAfee’s class. “I think it’s going to help me a lot.”

State guidelines prevent Martinez-McAfee from teaching half in English and half in Spanish since educators don’t want students to end up with an amalgamation of languages — in this case, Spanglish.

Martinez-McAfee said she has little idea how much English her students speak. Teaching English is not her job.

Her job is to make sure the students learn U.S history. She does that by teaching her students in Spanish and by weaving their experiences into the context of U.S. history.

She surrounds her class with photos of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. A poster on the wall reads in Spanish and in English, “Everyone in the United States is a descendent of immigrants.
Whatever happened to America — land of immigrants?”

In her classroom, nearly every student — with prodding or by choice
— participates in the class discussions. A 22-year veteran teacher at Richmond High, Martinez-McAfee connects the experiences of her students and their parents to other waves of immigrants.

When she lectures about the exploitation of European and Chinese immigrants in factories or on the rail lines in the late 1800s, she asks students about the experiences of their first generation parents in the late 1900s. “Has it changed?” she asks in Spanish. “How many of you think your parents have had success?”

Only a few hands go up.

Andrea Lampros covers education and issues related to Proposition 227. You can reach her at 925-943-8155 or P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, CA 94596

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