The coolest thing about the Barbieri School’s two-way bilingual program in Framingham, Mass., was watching the obviously Anglo kids rattling away in Spanish in the normal course of their classroom routine.

Far from the stilted conversational niceties of regular foreign-language classes, these fifth graders bickered about whose turn it was to do some daily chore. Yes, the English-dominant kids were probably not quite as quick as the Spanish-dominant speakers, but only by a hair. Though we all hate bickering, doing it in Spanish looked like applied learning at its most effective. They used the language, and they used it well.

Yes, it was also nice that the Spanish-dominant children spoke well-educated English. But our reaction to English acquisition is generally a huge sigh of relief, as though the children had overcome a disability or a disease.

Two-way bilingual programs turn that seeming liability into a gigantic asset. With cooperative learning, each group of kids teaches the other. Instead of always being in a catch-up position, the Hispanic children have an obvious advantage when the teacher instructs the core curriculum in Spanish. The reverse, when the English-dominant children help the Hispanics, is no longer the rule, but just taking turns.

In fact, Barbieri started down this road twelve years ago when their (one-way) “Transitional Bilingual Education” (TBE) program seemed increasingly segregated from the rest of the school. The ESL children, who had either advanced beyond TBE or spoke an uncommon language, were in their own little world in yet another faction. Increasing white flight was also a factor.

Actually, a bilingual and a regular education teacher proposed the two-way bilingual program, and offered to help design, implement and teach its first class of first graders, which grew yearly to become a strand of K-5. Each year, 22 children of each language strength become a class of 44 for whom two teachers are responsible. The program includes roving specialists in each language, available to individual children in all the grades to support the second-language skills on a pull-out basis.

Each grade level has a different strategy for teaching and using the second language.

By the third grade the curriculum is mostly taught in both languages.

Here’s the way the fifth grade works: Two full-sized classrooms are joined by a door. One room belongs to Monica Moffitt, who teaches in English. At one point she taught English at the American School in Brazil. Cristina Sandza commands the other classroom, which is conducted entirely in Spanish. Sandza grew up in Puerto Rico with the expectation that she would go to college in the United States, as did her father. She attended Boston University and decided to stay.

Each of the two classes consists of half the Anglo and half the Hispanic students, heterogeneously mixed. The children switch classrooms weekly. During the first half of the year Sandza teaches social studies (in Spanish) at the same time as Moffitt teaches science (in English). Each class has reading, writing and math same curriculum, same homework conducted at the same time, but in the language of the classroom. At the semester, the teachers will switch and Sandza will take science while Moffitt wrestles with social studies.

Nothing is repeated in the other language.

On Friday afternoons, the children pack up their stuff and switch classrooms. The first order of business is for the students to instruct the “new” teacher in what they learned in the past week. That teacher captures the highlights on the board for their review, during which she helps the children transfer their learning to a new vocabulary.

In math, for example, the word “arrays” is translated “matrix.” Both words are up on the respective math “word walls” for easy reference during a class discussion.

In fact, the children’s biggest complaint was having to relearn the math vocabulary. Math itself is a foreign language, and while Arabic numbers and functions are the same, the words to describe them in Spanish and English are quite different.

Finally, on Friday, each child writes the “new” teacher a letter describing the previous week. Both Moffitt and Sandza are delighted to have found a technique that provides so rich an exercise in writing, a vocabulary review crucial to functioning in the upcoming week, a formal transfer of the content into another language and, best of all, excellent feedback about what was and was not understood academically and about where the children “are at.”

Besides whining about the math vocabulary, which you can certainly understand, the students felt the program was hard, but good. They were very clear that the second language would make them valuable for future employment in most fields.

But both classes, quite independent of each other, mentioned that eavesdropping was the very best part of having a second language. Of course, the appeal is not so much hearing what you’re not supposed to hear, as having a door to another world. These children want to travel, and they smirk knowingly about having something a lot of their parents and siblings don’t have.

Adding to these riches are the substantially higher scores on the state tests (MCAS) of the bilingual students, as compared to the children in the regular program. No, the program does not have more “gifted” children, nor does it discriminate against students in special education. Spanish is very phonetic, so certain children shine in the second language, while still having difficulties in other areas.

The school staff speculates that the higher scores could reflect the commitment and thus involvement of the parents who chose the program. As is usual in education, a web of factors are probably involved.

But I think that one of those factors must be that a student’s problem-solving muscles are necessarily in constant use in a dual-language situation. These kids have had to think harder, no matter how clever they are, no matter what language they speak.

The waiting lists to get into the program are so full, another Framingham school will soon be opening its two-way program, modeled after Barbieri’s.

Shouldn’t more schools be looking into this?

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or c/o EdWatch, Education & Employment, Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.

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