REVERE—Twenty Cambodian second graders at the Garfield School beam at teacher Diane Schwalb and chant together, “I have a special kind of walk.”
“We walk to learn English,” she says, leading them in a strut between the desks and around the room.
They laugh, they sing a song. Schwalb turns the pages of a big book propped on an easel and points to parts of the body. The children are dressed in jeans and sneakers, and some girls wear earrings. One small girl says the words softly while her hand rests on top of her little plastic shoulder bag.
Schwalb leads them in a spirited game of Simon Says. “Simon says, ‘touch your head!’ Simon says, ‘touch your cheek!’ ” “Ah,” she calls to one beaming girl touching her shoulder, “You’re out!”
She calms them down with an art assignment. “Tell me about your picture by writing about it,” she says. She holds up a paper with a brightly-colored drawing on it. “Look,” she says, “Sandy likes sitting on her bed – she’s writing a story about it.”
While they write, wiggling a little and chatting quietly, she measures each one’s height and weight and tells them, writing it down on a chart so they can keep track of their growth throughout the school year.
The children ask her how to spell words. “Just try to sound it out,” she says. “Mrs. Schwalb, do you know how to spell ‘take’?” She laughs. “Yes,” she says. “I know how, but I want you to figure it out.”
Figuring it out is called invented spelling and it’s how Diane Schwalb helps her second-grade English as a Second Language students. “This is new,” she says to a visitor, “using whole language in ESL.”
“Whole language” is a philosophy of teaching that immerses children in a web of books, writing, listening, songs, words and encouraging them to produce their own work as well as to read.
“Whole language works well with multicultural children,” says Garfield principal Dorothy Foley, who leads a cheerful tour of the school that includes an especially small bilingual class held in a former broom closet and the latest in computer education.
At the Garfield, 59 percent of the 531 students come from homes where the first language is not English. Current figures show 270 are Cambodian, and the others are Vietnamese, Hispanic, Algerian, Italian and Chinese.
The school already has won a prize for its work with multicultural education, but Foley and the school are not resting. Teachers and principal are constantly trying new ideas for teaching children from other cultures.
The school groups children who need bilingual and English as a Second Language education in integrated homerooms.
Everyone scatters for 90-minutes period of reading and math, the bilingual and ESL children into clusters of 100-120 with the same five teachers, allowing all groups to work at challenging levels.
The children rejoin their homerooms for music, art and gym classes, spending a third of their days in mixed groups.
A pilot program uses whole language to explore the theme of racial harmony and appreciating diversity and neighborhoods.
The school already appreciates diversity: The halls are lined with photos of famous people of many cultures, and when a Cambodian teacher became an American citizen, the school gave a party.
In the computer classroom, where every first grader spends an hour a day, two Cambodian boys work as a team as a Cambodian teacher sits nearby.
Conferring eagerly in Khmer, they stare at the computer screen where a graphic of an airplane appears along with the word. The letter “a” blinks on the screen, and they find it on the keyboard and press it. “It’s a whole new alphabet,” Foley says. The children are not distracted. They are already looking on the keyboard for the next letter.