First-grade class faces a year of many changes

The introduction of 'English only' is made even dicier by a teacher's surprise departure.

Doctor’s orders.

Martin Elementary teacher Isabel Gervais must stay off her feet and away from the 20 first-graders she has dedicated herself to teaching English by the end of the year.

Just as the teacher, who formerly taught a bilingual program, began immersing her students in English, her obstetrician pulled her off the job three months early.Gervais is six months pregnant with twins, one growing slower than its sibling.

When the students return Monday from two weeks of winter break, it will be much like the first day of school _ except that half the school year is over and a new law has shaken the structure of reading and language instruction for about 18,000 Orange County students formerly in bilingual programs.

Now, Gervais’ students face yet another challenge: adapting to a new teacher.

Substitute teacher Joanne Sims will fill in for Gervais, who has taken early maternity leave.

About 60 Santa Ana teachers take maternity leave each year.Such leaves are common in a profession where women are predominant, and their complications are a natural side effect of a system reliant on the skills of its people.

How these students continue to learn English will depend on the skills of their new teacher.

“I have to be honest,” said Sims, a National University student who will use her stint leading Gervais’ class as student-teaching credit.”I come with as much experience to teaching as any other substitute _ very little.I have a zillion questions; I just don’t know what they are yet until I step into the classroom. ” The students will have to adjust to Sims’ style, drawing the line between her expectations and her ability to plant knowledge in their minds.

Sims will have to discover the needs of each student.She will have to respond to 20 different reading levels, making sure the language barrier doesn’t come between her willingness to teach and their willingness to learn.

Meanwhile, Gervais calms herself by preparing lesson plans, calling administrators to make sure they give Sims support, and trying to keep the students’ learning environment intact.Lessons will remain in the same order: reading and writing in the morning, math midmorning, and some silent reading in the afternoon.

“Prop. 227 was really hard on these kids,” said Gervais, who despite bed-rest orders went back to visit her class several times last month.”The structure was pulled out from underneath them.I had to come up with a new structure, and now I can’t be there to see them through it. ” Gervais says she is not as familiar with the new MacMillan English-language reading series “Spotlight on Literacy” the district adopted for this year as she was with her old texts.Had the students remained in bilingual education, she would know the books and lessons intimately and be able to impart a more structured teaching program to Sims.

“The kids need consistency,” Gervais said.”With all the changes going on around them, they need consistency.And we won’t know the effects of all this change until they’re grown. “

Students have started learning short vowel sounds to go with the consonants learned during the first 30 days of Prop. 227-mandated English-only instruction.

They haven’t been able to read from the MacMillan textbooks because they are still building their vocabulary, starting with supplementary books that emphasize the short vowel sounds.

One recent morning, Antonio Chavez, who was reading at grade level in Spanish before switching to English, was reading simple sentences: “The bug sat on the rug. “

These books help Chavez and other students memorize the short “u” sound by repeating the vowel sound over and over.Bug, rug, slug and dug were words on the children’s spelling test.

Chavez is among the six out of 20 students in the class who mastered reading first in Spanish.These students have been able to transfer their basic reading skills to learning English.

But many other students are more like Eric Duarte _ a quiet boy with big, dark eyes _ who crouches quietly during lessons, often lip-syncs songs and responds to instructions by asking classmates to clarify them in Spanish.These students struggled with reading in Spanish, and now English.They have not learned to read yet.

“Some of these kids are still in kinder-mode,” said teacher Julie Jansz-Quimby, an off-cycle teacher who was instructing Gervais’ class until a long-term substitute was found.”You just never know with kids.They might be staring blankly for months, then just blurt it all out one day and start reading. “

Teachers have drilled the kids in sounds through songs, dances and cheers.

One morning when Gervais stepped into her room for a quick visit, students practiced hearing and saying words in English by singing.

“I can spell hat: H-A-T,” students sang loudly while clapping in beat with each letter of the word.”I can spell cat: C-A-T!I can spell bat: B-A-T!But I can’t spell hip-po-pot-amus! “

Gervais’ heart was full.

“Wow, you guys are wonderful,” she said, dispensing high-fives and praises like candy.”I’m so proud of you! “

Comments are closed.