Journey into the Unknown

A Santa Ana bilingual teacher dives into English-immersion instruction despite her fears. She has to improvise as she goes along.

Martin Elementary teacher Isabel Gervais peers down into the eyes of one of her first-graders.

“Good morning, Ms. Maldonado,” Gervais says to a tiny girl wearing a flower print shirt and blue pants. “How are you today?”

Anais Maldonado, who has only known Spanish, spreads a smile across her face.

Her fingers clutch the edge of her seat nervously. Her brown eyes search for clues in Gervais’ face.

“Are we at school or are we at home?” Gervais asks, subtly beginning the homemade test she uses to measure how much English her students understand after the 30 days of immersion required by Proposition 227.

Anais’ eyes light up. She recognizes a few words: “School.”

The one-word response encourages Gervais, 38, who is stuck between the law and her personal experience both as an immigrant and as the child of a bilingual teacher. It spells hope as she struggles to teach her students in English, though she says to do so she must compromise her beliefs about how they can best learn.

On Monday, Gervais began her final round of meetings with the parents of students like Anais, helping them decide whether to request waivers that place their kids back in a traditional bilingual class or keep them in English immersion.

In a community where a teacher’s opinion carries weight, Gervais is faced with a heavy responsibility. Parents ask her if their child will learn in an English-only class. They also want to know if the English they learn at school will one day overcome their Spanish, denying them their culture.

Many Spanish-speaking families trust someone like Gervais to know what is best, not knowing the struggles she is having with the same questions.

“I rely on my child’s teacher to push my child to learn,” said Patricia Minchaca, a parent of one of Gervais’ students. “And a teacher’s opinion is very important to me.”

Ten of the 11 parents Gervais has talked to so far are keeping their children in English-only classes based on her recommendation. Only one plans to ask for a bilingual waiver, saying her son is just learning Spanish and a second language will only cause confusion. That decision, too, was based on Gervais’ recommendation.

To reach such recommendations, Gervais has given her students marks for participation in class, noted their willingness to answer in English, looked at samples of their work in the past 30 days and listened to their parents.

Also at work is another, simpler formula: Those who can answer questions in English are recommended to stay in immersion. For those who stare blankly in class, Gervais recommends a return to bilingual.

Gervais, who until this year had spent 18 years as a bilingual teacher, is determined to teach those who stay in immersion to read in English by the end of the year.

That will be no small feat, since many of her first-graders barely know the colors and shapes in English. They slip into Spanish trying to read the letters “r” and “j.” They shake their heads, shrug at numbers higher than 12.

It will be no small feat since Gervais knows she only has four months: She is pregnant with twins and won’t be back after February.

She will have to push them hard. Put new sounds and words in their minds. Add meaning to the words. Teach them to read.

Gervais could have persuaded the parents of her 20 students to sign bilingual waivers and then go back to teaching in Spanish. At parent conferences, that was the big concern: I want my child to know Spanish, they told her.

Yet Gervais chose to teach in English, despite her fears. Despite the ghosts from her own childhood that came back and kept her up late at night.

“I didn’t speak a word of English when I started school,” recalls Gervais, who came to the United States as a refugee from Cuba at age 4 and was placed in an immersion class.

“My first-grade teacher was so mean to me. She’d yell at me for not answering her, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t respond.”

Gervais remembers being ridiculed for not speaking English. She remembers standing in corners, her face to the wall. She remembers the mornings before school. She would vomit and beg her mother not to make her go to school, where people spoke a language she didn’t understand.

This was not the type of immersion she wanted for her students. She did not want to break down their self-esteem. Leave them with the same bitter memories.

For days before this week’s parent conferences, Gervais called her father, a retired bilingual math teacher, for advice. They debated the merits of bilingual education in terms of politics, culture and education. Bilingual methods made sense to both of them.

And other teachers had decided to go back to bilingual education. English books and materials were too hard to find. Some classes were already reading in Spanish, so starting over in English would stunt their reading skills.

But Gervais chose English because she didn’t want to confuse her students by going back to Spanish.

She chose English because next year, the kids would have to go through 30 more days of English immersion.

She chose English because the chance of getting a bilingual substitute during her maternity leave would be harder than finding an English one.

But she didn’t choose English because she believed it would help kids learn to read faster. English or Spanish, learning to read is hard; what matters is to learn.

“I really don’t know what is going to happen,” said Gervais. “But one thing is for certain. I will get these kids to read.”

To satisfy her zeal, Gervais has had to invent her own teaching method, borrowing worksheets from other English immersion teachers, copying lesson plans. Her old lesson plans were in Spanish; the new ones in English are scarce.

In class, she will drill them with English vocabulary words and teach them new sounds. The ratio is 80-20 – 80 percent English, 20 percent Spanish, according to district guidelines.

But teaching them to think, Gervais says, will have to come in Spanish. And she has made deals with parents to send extra work home in Spanish to keep up their language skills.

“If I ask these students about concepts – themes, plots, characters and setting in English, they won’t know what I’m talking about,” said Gervais.

“I can only do that in Spanish. To keep them thinking, they have to be able to respond in Spanish.”

Language and the law

The bilingual education battle ended at the ballot box in June, when California voters backed Proposition 227, the law requiring English learners to be taught in English.

Now come big questions: How well are children learning English and how is the law being applied in the classroom?

During the 1998-99 school year, The Orange County Register is chronicling the law’s effect at three schools: Martin Elementary in Santa Ana, Gates Elementary in Lake Forest and Johnson Middle in Westminster.

Upcoming stories include:

  • What factors outside the classroom influence how children learn a second language?
  • How do schools communicate with parents who don’t speak English?
  • Are test scores for limited-English students rising?

To offer your comments or suggest topics for future coverage, call Register InfoLine at (714) 550-4636, category 7251.

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