Teacher's success makes case for bilingual classes

ALMOST none of the 40 kindergartners in Room 1 at Redwood City’s Fair Oaks elementary school could speak English last September. When I visited Room 1 on the first day of class, I saw a few kids blinking back tears and most others staring blankly when their teacher, Carol Cross, greeted them with a few sentences in English.

But when I went back to Room 1 this week, there were no more frightened faces. A cardboard placard posted at the front of the room said, “We are speaking English today.” The class recited days of the week in unison and sang a “Good morning” song. Afterward, one boy couldn’t resist tugging on Cross’ sweater to ask — in English — if he could go outside and play.

“I’m really happy with their progress,” Cross told me. “It’s been hard for a few of them because not many of the parents speak English. But some parents have told me how anxious the kids are to speak English at home.”

Still, Cross’ class does not represent a victory for the sink-or-swim English immersion teaching method that California voters made the law of the classroom when they passed Proposition 227. Cross has taught bilingual classes for 20 years, and her students in Room 1 are learning to speak English by doing their first lessons in Spanish.

Cross is one of many teachers who believes it’s crucial for Spanish-speaking 5-year-olds to be eased into English, not forced. She lobbied hard against Proposition 227.

Once it passed, she let parents know they could request waivers from English-only programs if they worried the immersion classes would make their children afraid of school or put them behind academically.

“Of course, in most cases that’s exactly what would happen. So we took advantage of loopholes in the law,” Cross said, shrugging. “I got waivers signed by almost all the parents in this class. And, believe me, these parents want their kids to learn English. We all do. That’s the whole point.”

There’s no doubt that many schools with poor bilingual programs do a great disservice to students, and the failure of those programs had a lot to do with the landslide in favor of Proposition 227. But, Cross’ class seems to be a good illustration of the argument in favor of bilingual classrooms: When a good bilingual program does what it’s supposed to do, it’s much easier for kids to learn a second language instead of being traumatized by it.

In fact, a lot of Cross’ bilingual teaching methods are probably not what the most ardent supporters of Proposition 227 would expect. On some days, her classroom sounds more like an English immersion program.

“When we have marked on the calendar that it’s an `English’ day, we don’t do things like read them a sentence in English and then read the same thing in Spanish,” Cross said. “It’s clear that doesn’t work. If you know something will be repeated in your own language, you’ll just ignore the other language entirely.”

Still, Cross said kids are much more likely to listen to and understand English if they know Spanish is not completely prohibited in the classroom.

“They are already very receptive. They almost always understand what I’m saying in English now, even if they answer in Spanish,” she said, as she waved across the room to Eliazar, one of the kids working in the computer corner. “And a few kids, like Eliazar, speak quite a bit of English.” Eliazar grinned and blushed.

Cross said she’s confident all the kids in Room 1 will be fluent in English once they reach the fourth grade.

And, judging by the look on Eliazar’s face, being allowed to make a gradual switch from Spanish was a great way to learn to love speaking English.

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