Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sink or swim

I learned English as a child, it's my second language. When I was four, my mother enrolled me as a pre-kindergartener in an English-speaking school. I arrived the first day, and after the usual period of adjustment in such situations (children crying, shell-shocked-looking parents, consoling teachers), we all sat in our tiny little chairs and heard our teacher introduce herself and let us know what we were in for.

"My name is Mrs. Adame. I'll be your teacher, and this will be one of the few times you will hear me speak to you in Spanish. I will speak to you in English at all times except when you truly don't understand what I am trying to tell you."

And indeed, after that, it was all English, all the time. It was complete immersion. We learned our colors, we learned our shapes, we learned songs, we played with blocks and did this thing where we walked on a balance bar -- all of it was based on instructions given to us in English, even though none of us spoke the language.  I don't remember being freaked out about it much, in fact, I remember coming home from my first day of school and saying I loved it, and after being asked if I had cried, I admitted to having cried un poquito when Mrs. Adame left us with the teacher's aide for a few minutes. By the time kindergarten came around, I spoke to my teacher in English almost exclusively.

Kids who started in that school as of the first grade and did not speak English had to go through the school's ESL program. These students would take certain classes with an ESL teacher and not with the rest of us. Science and math, mostly. Some kids would be done with the program pretty quickly, being mainstreamed after a school year. Others needed more time.  But without fail, those kids learned English and received a proper education at the same time. 

I started thinking about all that upon seeing a ballot measure that is up for voting here in Oregon. Measure 58 seeks to limit the amount of time students spend in ESL programs at Oregon public schools. The limitations being proposed are:

1 year for students in kindergarten to 4th grade.
1.5 years for 5th grade through 8th grade.
2 years for high school students.
It would also prohibit ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching programs for longer than the mandated time.

After that they will have to be mainstreamed into the general school population for all subjects. This means that if a student has not quite become proficient enough in English at the end of their allowed ESL time, they'll still be expected to keep up in all their other classes. The "hope", and I say that loosely, is that complete immersion will take them the rest of the way into fluency.

I am a product of immersion, but I do not support this approach. Immersion worked for my classmates and me because we were in a very particular circumstance: we were young enough to still be veritable sponges, soaking up all information thrown at us, and we were not learning subjects like math and science. The rule in my kindergarten class was that during the first semester kids were allowed to speak in Spanish, but by the second semester they were required to speak in English only. We were learning to read, an important skill, obviously, but again, one that we were all picking up anyway, regardless of which language came easiest to us. 

As we got older it was obvious that a bit more care was required with students who were not very proficient in English. They stayed in the ESL program until the teachers were confident that they were ready to be mainstreamed completely. It would have been inconceivable to throw a child into an English-language math class without the proper command of the language he or she was being taught in. What kind of frustrations would we be setting children up for, if at every turn in their school lives they are being presented with such hefty challenges, without any kind of assistance? The people who put this measure on the ballot say that they are looking after the kids' best interest, because immersion would give them no choice but to learn English quickly. But in reading statements made by people in favor of the ballot, I see statements such as "In this country, we speak English." One of the groups supporting the measure is Oregonians For Immigration Reform.

Which shows that this is not, and never will be, about wanting to help kids. This is about putting non-English speakers in their place, and using students to that end. But my fear is that there are people out there who truly might think that this is for the best, and vote for the measure because they think it stands to reason that immersion will always work. 

It's not enough to have experience with learning another language. Try learning another language and also having to get good grades in all of your other classes. Already we have a problem with Latino students dropping out, already we know that ESL classes in this state are not performing adequately. But instead of looking at the curriculum and pinpointing the problem, we're being asked to wash our hands of it. 

Not infrequently, I am reminded that I was lucky enough to receive a quality K-12 education. And I stress "lucky". I'm saddened by the challenges so many of our kids have to face just to receive an education, and I'm saddened that so many of those challenges are imposed on them by adults who really should know better.