Learning language together

Schools stress blending of widespread cultures

Mary-Lou Breitborde Sherr, now an education professor at Salem State College, had to teach her first-grade teacher in Worcester about Jewish culture 35 years ago. “She asked us to find a word that rhymed with ‘box.’ I chose ‘lox.’ The teacher said no such word existed. I told her it did. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘It’s red; we eat it on Sundays?’ “

Today, in Haverhill’s Burnham School, Carmen Gonzalez, originally from Puerto Rico, takes her bilingual second-grade class on an imaginary trip of Mexico with junkets planned for other Central and Latin American countries. As her students make travel plans and apply for a visa, they learn about the differences between other Hispanic cultures and their own.

Lynn’s Hood School, a K-6 (kindergarten through sixth grade) magnet school with a multicultural theme, this year featured a Latino Americana festival that had an entire auditorium audience dancing in the aisles.

When Revere anticipated the arrival of more than 100 Cambodian students in 1983, teachers at the Garfield School spent the summer learning about Cambodian culture.

American schools, always seen as the gateway to the American dream for immigrants, are experimenting with teaching English as a second language while developing the children’s native tongue. At the same time, they are making use of their new students’ presence with programs that promote respect and knowledge of other languages and cultures.

Such awareness will prepare all students for their future in a country that will be less than half white in the 21st century and for multilingual roles in the developing global economy, educators say.

North Weekly cities have been responding to the 1980s wave of students whose first language is not English. Chelsea, for instance, has 70 percent such students, 54 percent of whom are Hispanic.

As of last October, Lynn’s public school enrollment of 11,778 included 3,161 from homes where English is not the first language and 1,026 in transitional bilingual education classes.

October ’90 figures show Salem with an enrollment of about 4,200 children, 23.3 percent of whom are minorities and 434 of whom have limited English. Twenty-one percent of the population, or 877 students, spoke another language before they spoke English, and 18 percent are Hispanic.

For immigrants, learning English is the key, but so is the development of reading, writing and thinking, says Ann Jeffris, teacher of a second-grade bilingual class at the Hood School.

Most children, however, need to “learn about the world and have their minds developing while they are waiting for the English to come,” Jeffris said. She teaches math and science and many hands-on activities.

Seated at a long table piled with purple, green and orange paper frogs from a bulletin board project, she listens cheerfully to her second-graders who consult her about writing a story she has assigned them. She urges them on in Spanish and English: “una cuentita, a little, little story, about a doll, a favorite old thing, something you have at home.” They oblige, writing in Spanish as they bend over their desks.

“I want them to develop the thought process,” she said, because people learning languages first listen, then they speak, then they read, and the last skill to come is writing. As these second-graders perform all four of those skills in Spanish, they are also developing in English, but about two years behind their own Spanish, so that they are listening and speaking and beginning to read in English on about a kindergarten level.

With uninterrupted study, Jeffris can expect the English of these children to equal their Spanish skills somewhere about fourth or fifth grades, and sometimes in the third.

In Lynn, Diana Morales says her bilingual class loves learning to clap and stamp to the hokey pokey with their next-door Anglo classmates. Morales, originally from Puerto Rico, says, “The children are eager to learn English in a new country, to know the culture, what’s going on around them.” A common notion holds that immersion in English is the best way to teach, but the realities are more complicated than that, educators say. Some children have a natural gift for languages, says Jack Whelan, director of bilingual education for Lynn, a gift he laments he doesn’t have, although he is now bilingual in Spanish and married to a Colombian woman. For those children, immersion can work.

About 20 years ago, immersion wasn’t working for most students, prompting the 1971 Massachusetts bilingual law that aimed to forestall dropouts by helping them perform on a par with their peers, says Richard Whaley, director of bilingual education in Haverhill. The law allowed three years to bring students into the ordinary classroom performance in English, but the latest research says it takes five to seven years with linguistic support for most students to use English, Whaley says.

Most bilingual teachers were cautious about pinpointing the ideal time for children to enter English curriculum classrooms, saying that it depends on the child, but performing in English in the classroom is the undisputed goal of all bilingual programs.

At the Federal Street School in Salem, the goal is to learn both Spanish and English. Cindy Nina, 6, who is Spanish-speaking, builds a house with plastic pieces, naming the colors in English and Spanish in her bilingual teacher’s first grade. Later in the morning, she will go next door to teacher Claire Wholley’s classroom to work, in English, on science, “Things that Hatch,” and math.

Down the hall, Alan Coddens, 6, who is English-speaking, asks teacher Pat Masse in Spanish if they can sing the tree song. “After we eat,” she tells him.

The children are part of a two-way bilingual program that aims to produce students who are competent in two languages. The three-year-old program with a waiting list will add a grade each year as the current students progress.

Principal Pam Appleton originated the program, which is also being used in other North region communities such as Lynn. Besides the academic stimulation, two-way kids are farther along, says Louise Ouellette, who taught regular bilingual classes for 13 years. “I see a big difference, not only in tolerance but in an appreciation of the first language” for Spanish-speaking children,” he said. “They feel they have something valuable to offer an English-speaking person. Their language is valuable – there isn’t the separation.

“I see this as resolving the problems of two-way bilingual – this is real integration, not the phony integration of pulling kids out to be in art, music and gym. They’re not core subjects.”

A similar philosophy prevails at Chelsea’s Shurtleff School integrated fifth-grade cluster, designed by Maria Brisk of the Boston University department of education.

Chelsea’s solution to its large immigrant population is unique in the United States: The city turned its school system over to BU, which in the second year of its administration draws on its education department for strategies.

Integration, in this case, means teachers teaching in two languages and students speaking in two – or three. Bilingual teacher Peggy Harrington slips in and out of Spanish answering questions, urging her Cambodian student to show off his numbers in Spanish. She said she’d coach him in English spelling words after lunch.

Classes are conducted in one language or the other, but students can ask questions in either while studying and writing in both. Of the three teachers, one is bilingual, but students help each other and the non-Spanish-speaking teachers.

“The goal,” Brisk said, “is to show that students can learn in any language.” Although the program is in its first year, the three teachers say they are convinced students are learning faster, better and with more self-esteem.

The idea suits Chelsea’s multicultural setting, says Brisk, because it “doesn’t isolate groups but brings them together with a new view of how education should be. Kids get used to hearing other languages in important contexts and learn to respect languages of others.” The result is that bilingualism is valuable in the classroom, and those who can speak more than one language gain stature with peers, she says.

Educators throughout the North Weekly cities stressed the importance of teachers’ learning about cultural differences that cause problems:

– Southeast Asian and Hispanic students express their respect for adults by not looking them in the eye, especially during a reprimand.

– Patting a Cambodian child on the head, a gesture of affection in the American culture, could, from a Cambodian point of view, crush the good spirits that reside there.

– Cambodian parents, whose culture emphasizes respect for the teacher’s authority, don’t come to parent conferences because they feel it could be seen as criticism or disrespect.

Appleton wants her Spanish-speaking students to “have access to the language of the power culture, to know how to be American as well as Hispanic, how to put on the hat,” she says, “how to play ther role.” She sent letters home to the Hispanic parents to teach them how to color Easter eggs – it’s not something they do. They need to be part of the literacy club, to understand the customs of the culture.

In reverse cultural education for English-speaking students, she says she explains that Spanish is an animated language and the Spanish can appear noisier to those raised in an Anglo culture. “They are lively, and dancing is important,” she says, tossing her head a bit. “Sometimes I show them a little merengue.”

Adapting to new life was never easy

SALEM As classrooms and streets become more multicultural, criticism of bilingual education and special programs for immigrants also emerges. “I call it the grandfather theory,” says Arlene Dannenberg, Salem’s director of educational equity and bilingual education.

“People tend to think our grandfathers came over here, solved their problems quickly and didn’t need extra supports. It’s just not true. We don’t remember all the miserable things they had to go through.”

Dennenberg cites Jacob Riis’ “How The Other Half Lives,” a book of photographs that document the poverty and despair of immigrants in the period from 1890 to 1910. “The book says we had a lot of lost souls.”

One myth says that early immigrants learned English easily. Not true, says Marta Montero-Sieburth, assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Many of those immigrants were adults and they did learn a limited level of English, enough to get a job that could, in those times, support a family.

Workers then could also learn on the job, another task more difficult in the ’90s because jobs are more complex and “the United States provides the least amount of education in the workplace of any industrialized nation,” says Ramon Borges, labor economist at UMass-Boston’s Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy.

Acceptance of cultural diversity is only recent in the history of education, and schools “are beginning to build the differences into the curriculum, for instance, teaching history from a different perspective,” says Mary-Lou Breitborde Sherr, professor of education at Salem State College.

In the early history of the United States, assimilation was the goal. “The idea was to give over our own culture and become this other thing.” Schools generally discouraged the use of the native language, sent children home to cmerican is just a little piece of everybody, no distinguishing characteristics.”

But the melting pot makes you bury your own culture, says Sherr, who begins her course by having students trace their own families’ culture and immigration.

Some groups never “melted,” or relinquished their ethnic culture, Sherr says, and the 1960s and ’70s brought a renewed interest in tracing family roots and history.

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