Language backgrounds of students at Claremont Immersion Elementary
Well, the nature of the school that we’re a two‑way immersion program means that for the most part, half of our students are native English speakers and half of our students are native Spanish speakers, sort of that’s a general description. Of course there are some students for whom English is a native language and Spanish is a native language. They come here as bilingual speakers.
There are also some students who have Spanish in the home but have a pretty good command of communicative English. We also have a few students who for whom English or Spanish is a third language. So, however you look at it, all of our students are learning one or the other or both languages.
But what we focus on here is learning language through content. So, that brings in academic language, academic vocabulary, structures of texts. It’s languages for the purposes of communication about science or about history or about literature.
Using a push-in model for ELLs
We use a push-in model here at Claremont, as opposed to a pull-out model. There’s some exceptions to that, but we feel that students really need to continue this sort of community feel that we have worked so hard to achieve, and we don’t really want students to feel isolated or feel like they have to be brought away from the regular instruction of the day in a pull-out model.
We work closely with teachers here. The ESOL teacher is assigned to a grade level, in some cases two grade levels. We plan together. And we team teach. And then we separate for parts of the day, but it’s generally within the classroom. So, for example, I work with a fourth-grade team, and I push into the fourth-grade teacher’s classroom on the English side of the day.
And when we divide students by reading levels, we will take different groups and work in different parts of the classroom. So, nobody really feels like they’re being sort of pulled away from what everybody else is doing. And the regular classroom teacher might take the middle group and work with them on a text or a novel. And I will take generally the ESOL students, the English language learners. And sometimes in that group we might have some native English speakers also, depending on their reading level. So, that’s how we operate.
Collaborating at team meetings on behalf of ELLs
So, we get together on a weekly basis by grade level. And in that meeting will be all of the classroom teachers, both the English side and the Spanish side, the specialist, the ELL teacher, the special ed teacher, and an administrator, either the principal or the assistant principal.
And we talk about what we’re teaching and if students are learning and how they’re learning. And if they’re not learning, what do we need to do about it? And we use assessments as a basis for this instruction. So, we have data. The assessments aren’t always standardized assessments. We use student work, work samples, teacher-created tasks [ph.], and sometimes we use standardized assessments too.
And we bring this data to this meeting and we talk about what we’re going to do to change and to improve and if the students aren’t being challenged enough, maybe the teacher for the gifted and talented might say we need to challenge students more, all students, not just students who have been identified as needing academic challenges.
The English language learning teacher might say, “Well, these students appear not to have gotten this particular content concept. What are we all going to do differently to make sure they get it?” So, we’re not a perfect system, but we work towards it, we’re striving towards it. And everybody I think has also bought into the professional learning communities where our goal is to push ourselves to always improve instruction.
Extra time for ELLs: The lunch bunch
So, the whole concept behind the lunch bunch is that we take advantage of every available moment in the student’s day, and we don’t let anything go to waste if at all possible.
And we wouldn’t do this if they didn’t enjoy it. I am a big believer in letting kids have their free time, their recess and their lunch if that’s what they want. But for the most part I have kids who beg me to take them at lunch.
So, lunch bunch is about a 15, sometime 20-minute time in the day when students will leave the cafeteria and come down to a hallway, a table out in the hall, wherever we find a place, and we work on extra skills. So, it depends on what they’re learning in the classroom. I might work with what the teacher has asked me to do with them that they don’t seem to get or I might play a game that sort of focuses on different content area issues.
We might do some work with practicing for an upcoming assessment or study skills. So, basically the students that I work with have been identified by the classroom teacher as students who need extra help. It’s generally English language learners but not always. And we work for those 15 or 20 minutes once a week, twice a week on different skills.
The other purpose of the lunch bunch is — and I feel really strongly about this, is that the students and I have a relationship. And so even though I can’t work with everybody that I’d like to work with, I will have a handful of students who get to know me really well so they have at least one person in the building that they feel comfortable they can come and talk to about things.
So, our lunch bunches are generally skill-based, academic, but sometimes we end up talking about life issues or something that’s important to them. And so I’ve got this relationship with them that’s more of a casual kind of thing, and I think that they feel that they can — they generally feel that they can talk to me about things.
Everyone is learning something
For the most part our students tend to really get along well with each other. They tend to I think overlook differences. I don’t know if we can attribute that to one thing. I’ve thought about this a lot because I have been at a lot of schools, and I have never seen anything quite like what we have here at Claremont.
You walk down the hall and really you don’t know if you’re going to hear Spanish or English or a mix of either language. And it’s perfectly acceptable for people to speak different languages in the hall, you know.
I think it also comes from the fact that everyone is learning something. There are no true experts at everything here at Claremont. So, the students for whom English is a second language, they get to be experts in their native language, in Spanish. So, they benefit from each other. Students see what everybody’s bringing to the table.
Students' pride in speaking two languages
When I was a beginning teacher in another school, students didn’t often have pride in their native language. Most of the students were Spanish speakers, but not all. And they would try not to speak Spanish or they would be told that they couldn’t speak their language. And a school like this is very important for students to embrace their cultural heritage, their native language, their parents’ language.
We talk a lot about where families come from and life experiences. A lot of our students were born in the United States so we can’t always ask that typical question tell us about your home country because their home country is our home country, the home country of almost all of the students — almost all of the students is the same.
But we can talk to them about where their parents came from and where their grandparents now live, and we use Spanish as something to be very, very proud of. They understand that it’s an advantage to them throughout their lives. So, it’s not really typical for students here to say oh, I don’t really speak Spanish.
They are loud and proud about the fact that they can tell you words in two languages or more languages. So, I think that’s part of it. It inherently builds up their self-esteem and it makes them proud of who they are.
Gian Carlos: A newcomer ELL
So, I have a student who is — he’s not a typical student here at our school. He came to this country in October of the school year. He was adopted from Colombia along with his siblings.
And he had been educated in Spanish and taught some English. So, he definitely knew colors, numbers, animals. He could — I think he could count to 25 in English and had some basic other information, man, woman, some body parts, clothing, things like that.
He’s kind of an amazing learner. So, he came without too much English but took off immediately, started learning, started to be able to put sentences together in English. I work with him three days a week for about 40 minutes, 45 minutes. And our approach is to do oral language development because I’m kind of old-school and I really believe in things like total physical response as a way to get beginning learners to learn.
So, we do a lot of tactile, moving around. I sort of let him take the lead a little bit on instruction. I give him choices of what we’re going to do. The point is really to speak a lot of English, as much English as he can without forcing it. It has to be natural for him.
The minute he says he doesn’t want to talk about something or read something in English, I don’t push him because I think that he needs to just have his own version of the silent period.
So, that’s sort of how I operate with him. He has learned English though so quickly I think because he’s motivated. He sort of has an advantage too because he gets to continue learning his Spanish for half the day. So, he doesn’t have to stop having his own cognitive development continue. He’s able to study science and mathematics and literature, reading, writing in Spanish while he’s acquiring the English language for half the day.
So, he’s sort of in a good place for him. He’s not a typical student though. We don’t have very many students who come to us in the middle of the school year or really any time except for maybe a few kindergarteners who don’t speak any English. Really most of our students are fairly communicative in English, oral English communication skills when they come here to Claremont.
At a bilingual school, ELLs don’t start at the beginning
So, my student who is developing English at a beginning level, WIDA 1, is not at grade level in reading in Spanish. And there are a few holes in his content knowledge in science and some in math also. So, but he’s not a beginner at reading in Spanish. He’s not a beginner in math.
So, the advantage that we have here at Claremont is that he doesn’t have to start at the beginning. So, in other words he is learning to read with fluency and improve his reading comprehension. Because we’re a bilingual school and we have a lot of bilingual resources, I can work on his reading fluency in Spanish. And he needs to become really comfortable with that and develop his oral English language before I would start working on fluency of reading in English.
Losing native language
I think the biggest problem with losing a native language is the whole cognitive development piece. I mean again I’m old-school. I’m a big Cummins believer, the iceberg theory, if their language instruction is in a second language other than their mother tongue and they have to stop learning their first language in order to start learning a second, then academic — cognitive development is what suffers.
Whose Student Is She?
So, I was doing a project actually for the Southern Poverty Law Center. And their publication is Teaching Tolerance and they asked me if I would write an article about something that I do instructionally in my school. And since I had been brought here to train teachers in SIOP, I thought that would be the perfect thing to write about.
So, I did some research and I did some interviewing and I wrote an article called “Whose Student is She?” And the title of the article is based on an experience that I had when I was a new teacher back in the late eighties, early nineties. And I taught at a school where the students who were the ESOL students, the ESL students, the English language learners, they were new to the school. They had just started basically busing the students in. They called it redistricting, but the students were essentially brought in from other parts of the county. And we started with maybe 40 students, and the program grew to about 110 students.
But they were still sort of separated from the regular, the other middle school students in the school. They were in their own hallway and they didn’t really mingle in the other parts of the school unless they were at very high levels of English language learning. And the school was in a part of the district that had wealthy students and upper middle class families. And so my students had a really hard time kind of breaking in.
And the teachers I think showed a lot of intolerance to my students. Some were wonderful, but there were teachers who were not used to having students who needed extra help, who couldn’t handle the curriculum, who couldn’t read the texts. Yet we were supposed to put them out for certain classes to be integrated and to become part of the school. And at the higher levels of English they were exited from our program.
So, teachers, there were some teachers who would come back to me and say, “You know, your student can’t do this,” and “Your students are misbehaving in the hall and your students are not following the rules in the class — in the lunchroom.” So, there was a lot of that language like not that these are all our students, but the students who were dark skinned and who spoke Spanish as a native language or at that time we also had a lot of Mongolian students. We had a lot of students from other Central and South American countries, Salvador, Bolivia.
We had students from — I had some Brazilian students at the time. We had some — we also had — it was a mix. I had Chinese students, Korean students. I had some Bulgarian students. Anyways, so these students were unique, and the teachers would say “your students” and they called them “Yours.”
And nobody ever kind of took them in as our students, that we were all teaching them, that we were all responsible for them. So anyway, so I named the article “Whose Student Is She?” after a particular student that I thought of and I wanted to recognize that she didn’t belong to me personally. She was somebody that we were all responsible for teaching.