A couple days ago, I had a life changing experience in the classroom that highlighted a part of my own primary education that influenced who I am today. As a kindergartner and English language learner, walking into a class where bilingualism was embraced was amazing. But it was in first grade when I had a teacher, Ms. Maldonado, who completely changed the course of what my future education would be like. She was a temporary teacher from Mexico who was on a special permit teaching us in a bilingual setting. In her class, I learned to read, write and speak in both English and Spanish. I learned to do math and understand scientific and historical concepts in both English and Spanish as well. While that didn’t last all of elementary school, as I was moved into an English only setting by 2nd grade, I can’t possibly undermine the benefits of having been exposed to both languages in an academic setting at such an early age.
As a high school student, I remember feeling unchallenged in my Native Spanish language classes. Many of my friends, who were also fluent speakers, did not share the same feeling, as they struggled with reading and writing in their Native language. Fortunately for me, I had kept the knowledge I learned back in Ms. Maldonado’s class with me and was able to easily pass the AP Literature and Language tests with perfect scores. While I do think my high school Spanish teachers had their share in my own success, I always trace my biliteracy back to 1st grade.
I am now a Digital Learning Coach at a Dual Language Academy in Pico Rivera. The first couple of days, it was hard for me to truly understand the dual immersion program. From how it was explained, the program blended two language educational models: an immersion program for English only speakers and a bilingual maintenance model for English Learners. Students in Kindergarten and first grade were supposed to receive 90% of their instruction in Spanish and 10% in English with each year increasing by 10% until they reached the 4th grade, where 50% of their day would be in English and the other 50% of their day would be in Spanish. While the concept made sense and my own research on the positive effects of a bilingual education on students only reemphasized why this setting was ideal for many of our students, it took me being in the classroom for a day to truly embrace this learning environment.
With one of our lead teachers out for a training, I was granted the opportunity to step in and be a substitute for her 2nd grade, dual immersion class. From the moment I walked into the class, I knew it was a special place. Students respectfully greeted me in Spanish and explained to me their daily procedures and routines. As I followed the lesson plans left behind, I found myself in awe as I heard students engage in academic conversations, in Spanish, using words some of my own “fluent Spanish speaking” friends would probably struggle to pronounce. Together we read a fable and discussed the “moraleja”- lesson and applied it to our own lives. We also searched for evidence within the text of the author’s use of figurative language and cited our sources using direct quotes. Yes, these were 2nd graders analyzing text and engaging in discussion, learning all the same material I learned as a 4th grader (Common Core has increased learning expectations), except they were doing so in another language.
I went through about 80% of the day teaching all content area in Spanish and about 20% teaching in English for the English Language Development component of the day.
While the entire day was an experience in itself, it was the latter part of the day that left an impression on me. As an end of the day activity, we did an ortografía (a grammar exercise) and corrected the punctuation and spelling of everyday Spanish words. I hadn’t practiced my acentos in ages. but students were quick to volunteer to help me punctuate my own sentences. I don’t know if it was the English major in me that loves writing and is a stickler for grammar, or the fact that I witnessed a group of 2nd graders demonstrate how beautiful biliteracy is, but I walked out of the class inspired.
Election is right around the corner and Proposition 58 is shedding light on the importance of a multilingual education. Proposition 58 would remove the English-only requirement and allow public schools to choose their own language instruction programs. While our elementary school has the dual immersion option and parents are able to opt in and register their students to be enrolled into this bilingual track, not many districts offer this and when they do, they are faced with the need to have parents sign waivers to enroll their children into the program. Proposition 58 would create more access for all students to be exposed to a new language, which is a true asset to our global workforce economy. Speaking another language aside from English is important as it helps with communicating with other people. Biliteracy, however, is even more important, as it allows people to communicate in more than one way, creating even more opportunities for collaboration.
I don’t know where Ms. Maldonado is today, but after spending a day with a group of brilliant Spanish literate 2nd graders, I can’t help but hope that she knows the impact she has made in my own life after helping me become biliterate and allowing me the opportunity to now be amazed by the power of a bilingual education.
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