Experience leads teacher to bilingual camp

Teacher Brian Kenyon is an example of how, when it comes to bilingual education, the same set of facts can lead to opposite conclusions – even in the same observer.

Kenyon was born in Costa Rica and moved to New York state at age 9. He promptly forgot his first language. Deciding he was worse for the loss, he studied Spanish in college, then moved temporarily back to Costa Rica.

There he taught in an English-language private school. Seeing how well his students functioned in their second language, he had the same idea Ron Unz was forming: Immersion is the way.

But Kenyon later decided that what he’d observed in Costa Rica actually supported the case for U.S.-style bilingual education.

That’s because the elite parents of his Costa Rican students were wealthy and literate enough to provide a home life rich in Spanish literacy.

Then, every morning, he took over in English.

“So in essence what they were getting was a bilingual education,” Kenyon says.

He changed his mind after moving to Colorado, where he has family, and encountering poorer Spanish speakers.

If Colorado’s Hispanic immigrants were on the same socioeconomic plane as the Costa Ricans he once taught, an all-English education might do for them, too, he reasoned.

But they aren’t. American schools should try to provide for low-status children the same wealth of opportunity – in both languages – that high-status parents can provide, Kenyon now asserts.

“When I began teaching, I was anti-bilingual education, and after banging my head against the wall with kids who were literate in neither Spanish nor English, I did some research on my own and was slowly convinced that this was the best way to reach this population,” Kenyon says.

While teaching in Costa Rica, “I was getting students who were chomping at the bit to learn a second language. A lot of these (immigrant) kids don’t come from that kind of home, where books abound.”

Bilingual educators, Kenyon says, “are pro-English. We’re just not anti-Spanish.”

Still, Kenyon says his side is likely to lose the battle over bilingual education, at least in public schools.

So last fall he transferred from Billie Martinez Elementary in Greeley – despite the success parents say the public school has had with the dual-language model Kenyon favors – to Escuela de Guadalupe, a dual-language Catholic school in Denver.

“I kind of saw the writing on the wall, and it wasn’t in Spanish,” Kenyon says. “I still hold to my position that the most efficient way for a kid to learn English is while continuing to study in Spanish.”

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