It’s 9:10 a.m. Time for reading. Teacher Dave Witte tells students to head for the activity of their choice. On one side of the room is a Star Wars read-along tape. Over there a computer game that builds vocabulary. And in that corner a bookcase stuffed with books.
The students scatter. All except one. Adiel Sanchez, 11.
He remains seated at his desk, a blank look on his face.
“What are we doing?” he mutters in Spanish to no one in particular. No one hears him. Finally, another student, Guadalupe Peralta, rushes over and assists him in Spanish.
This is Adiel’s world.
Two years after arriving with his family from Durango, Mexico, Adiel speaks mostly Spanish. But his English as a Second Language classroom is taught almost exclusively in English.
Witte teaches in English not because of any state-imposed restrictions but simply because his Spanish skills are limited to the few words he remembers from high school in Wisconsin. Hired out of college two years ago, he joined Sullivan Elementary School, where an acute shortage of teachers fluent in English and Spanish severely limits the number of bilingual classrooms.
>From the moment the Pledge of Allegiance is televised at 8 a.m. until the final bell rings at 2:40 p.m., Adiel is bombarded with English.
How much does he understand? Poquito, Adiel says. A little.
Of the 28 students in Adiel’s class, 27 are Latino; one is African-American.
Six of the Latino students, including Adiel, barely read, write or speak English. Ten others are considered limited-English speakers.
One Spanish word Witte does remember well is Comprendes? – Do you understand? – and he uses it throughout the day.
Once a day, Witte says, a bilingual specialist is supposed to visit to fill in some of the lessons – in subjects like social studies, science and math –
students like Adiel may have missed. On this day, however, the specialist doesn’t show up.
To make himself understood, Witte speaks slowly and enunciates every word. A little acting also comes in handy.
Witte also copes with some clever seating arrangements. He groups the students into pods facing each other, placing limited-English students like Adiel in between bilingual students so they can help communicate.
During a lesson on nouns, Witte pauses for a moment to ask Annie Cruz to translate his instructions into Spanish for Adiel. Annie leans across her desk. “Tienes que escoger palabras nuevas,” she tells him. “Try to come up with new words.”
On a piece of paper under columns labeled “person,” “place” and “thing,”
Adiel lists all the nouns he can think of in English. He comes up with 13,
though two, carne (meat) and Europa (Europe), are in Spanish.
The bilingual students can help only so much. For the most part, Adiel is on his own. While his classmates raise their hands and answer questions from Witte, Adiel stares into space.
Kenneth Erickson, Sullivan’s principal, prefers bilingual education over this cold-turkey approach.
“What you have is kids staring at the wall losing all that content,” he said. Critics of bilingual education disagree, saying students get trapped in their native language for years longer than necessary.
Back in the classroom, Witte asks Adiel to read a story in English. The story is about a mouse who repays a lion for sparing his life. Witte points at a paragraph. Adiel manages to pronounce most of the words, but has trouble answering Witte’s questions about the content. Witte scribbles some notes in a small notebook. Adiel’s reading fluency is improving, he writes,
but his comprehension is low. He’s not understanding the words.
Witte is not so worried about Adiel. Although he reads at the kindergarten-level in English, in Spanish he’s reading at the fourth-grade level. That’s going to make Adiel’s transition from Spanish to English easier.
But there are other limited-English students in Witte’s class reading at only the first-grade level in Spanish. For them, he says, the transition will be much harder.
Witte begins the day with 28 students in his class. At day’s end, there are 29. One more has arrived from Mexico. One more who doesn’t speak English.