Magazine Feature

Dancing with Languages

Lilia E. Sarmiento, a scholar and expert in biliteracy, shares a personal story about the challenges and joys — and ultimate effectiveness — of bilingual education.
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Illustration by Jonathan Burton

"Hola. ¿Cómo te fue en la escuela? ¿Qué hiciste con tus estudiantes? ¿Se portaron bien?" ("Hi. How was school? What did you do with your students? Did they behave today?")

As usual, my son dashes to the door and bombards my husband, Salvador, with a litany of questions about his day at school. Salvador teaches at a nearby urban school in a 3rd-grade bilingual classroom. Salvador responds to the questions as he rolls his plastic crate brimming with papers and books across the tile floor. I glance up and take note of his measured steps and slightly bent shoulders; a shadow crosses his face, and his eyes lack their usual luster.

"What's new?" I ask, sensing that today may not have been a very good day.

He takes a deep breath and begins, "A parent approached me for advice. You're not going to believe this, but our school is disbanding the bilingual program at 2nd-grade due to low numbers. Our administrator is taking this parent's child out of the bilingual program and placing him in a Structured English Immersion setting (SEI). The parent feels that her child is being cheated because she is being denied the opportunity of assisting her child in Spanish, the only language that she knows. To top things off, today one of my students said to me, 'I don't want to speak Spanish!'"


A Current Negative Climate

This is the beginning of a story of disillusionment and empowerment and how one teacher integrates his passion within a standards-based curriculum to teach in a climate of high-stakes accountability and negativity toward biliteracy.

Teachers in traditional bilingual settings confront strict program requirements under the guise of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), excessive assessment demands (state, district and program assessments in both English and Spanish), and negative attitudes about bilingual education from many in the political and public spheres. I use the word "bilingual" with some trepidation because of the negative views associated with the concept. Since 1998, the passage of Proposition 227 in California and similar laws in other states have forced the implementation of Structured Immersion Programs for English Learners (EL). As a result, students with limited English skills are taught in English with some or no primary language support. These students are falling further behind in learning English and other subjects, and the high school drop-out rate is getting worse.

The decline in bilingual education also contributes to the loss of heritage. Most second-generation Hispanics, for example, prefer to speak English, and by the third generation most Hispanic Americans are no longer able to speak Spanish. It's difficult for many bilingual teachers to turn away from programs that promote biliteracy and instead teach English in ways that many feel are less effective.


The Low Status of Spanish

This was the case with my husband, Salvador. For more than an hour that evening, I heard him rant about the low status of Spanish, the diminishing numbers of parents wishing their children could participate in bilingual programs, the increasing number of parents uninformed about bilingual program options, limited administrative support, the demands of NCLB, the focus on skills-based instruction to assure that the students "pass the test," and the growing numbers of EL students in special education programs.

"Ten years from now, when I'm ready to retire, what will others remember about me?" he asked. "What will be my legacy?"

As the stream of words slowed down, I realized that his passion to teach was being undermined by bureaucracy and politics.

"So, what are you going to do about it?" I asked.


"What are you passionate about?"

His eyes shifted to the right in thought.

"Start by teaching what you are passionate about."


Living a Bilingual Life

This conversation was the beginning of the self-realization that he had the power to change the outcomes of students in his class.

Salvador, a U.S. citizen, has always had a love for the Spanish language and is proud of being Duranguense, born in the state of Durango, Mexico. He sprinkles dichos y refranes (sayings and refrains) into everyday conversations in an effort to better enable our sons to understand the nuances of the language.

Our boys speak Spanish to their father and English to me. This was our way to live a bilingual life within our home. Our home is filled with indigenous drum and flute sounds and the thumping norteño beat, typical of the northern part of Mexico. He is also passionate about dance. Salvador excels in the Latin rhythms of cha cha and merengue, and he teaches and performs Mexican folkloric dances.


Advocating for Biliteracy

Teaching Tolerance illustration of a person with a World Globe as head playing drum in a classroom

Salvador felt uneasy acknowledging that he had to change his teaching practice and invest more time, but, on that day, he made a couple of decisions. First, he agreed to mentor a student teacher from the university where I teach literacy courses for future bilingual teachers. With 30 years of classroom experience, he could surely mentor a young teacher in the value of being a bilingual educator. He also felt that this young teacher could reinvigorate his instruction.

Next he met with the distressed mother who had previously approached him for advice on how to ensure the continuation of the bilingual program for her son. They outlined a plan to fight back. She contacted other parents to collectively challenge the decision to place their children in SEI settings. Parents have the right to request waivers to optimize the linguistic and cultural opportunities afforded in a bilingual program option. They made an appointment with the school site administrator and continued to voice their concerns with the teachers.

On her own, this parent requested a meeting with the district superintendent that caused the liaison of the district's parent bilingual committee to take notice. A couple of days later, the director of the English Learner Program mediated a meeting that included parents, teachers and the principal — and the parents prevailed. Their children continued onward toward a goal of becoming biliterate.


Finding Passion

Most importantly, Salvador decided to integrate his love for dance into the 3rd-grade English Language Development (ELD) and writing curriculum. He knew how to teach dance, but to integrate the skills of language and writing required strategic planning.

Salvador, the student teacher and I began by identifying essential standards in ELD, writing, and visual and performing arts. Although the language of instruction would be English (to learn English is a major goal of all bilingual programs), the new instructional unit was conducted in the primary language during Spanish Language Arts. Salvador shared with his students his background in dance and completed an organizer tapping into the students' prior knowledge. For homework, they interviewed a family member and asked them to share a personal story that involved dance. The following day, students' stories began to emerge, linking culture and tradition to music and dance.

Salvador searched through his collection of CDs and landed on a merengue rhythm whose roots stem from the Dominican Republic. During physical education he began to teach movement and directionality to the beat of his hand drum. With time, he added three basic steps and created a choreography. It was later decided that the dance would be performed at the yearly winter school program. Each time the students rehearsed, a small crowd would gather. Soon, the other 3rd-grade teachers wanted to take part.

Students read aloud from books about dance. Lists of colorful and descriptive words began to fill the walls as the students closely observed the writers' craft. Poems emerged, and the student teacher focused on descriptive writing. The writing would eventually lead to a procedural piece on how they learned to merengue. At home, Salvador recounted the newfound energy in the students and within himself. I noticed a little kick in his walk as he came through the door each afternoon.

Early on, we decided that I would present the outcomes of this work at a state bilingual conference. I videotaped a rehearsal, celebrated accomplishments, and requested that students write a letter to other teachers telling them how they could teach their own students — and what a difference dance had made in these students' lives.

One child hesitantly asked, "Will teachers really read our letters?"

"Definitely," I responded.

Many sat a little taller and looked at me a little more intently. This heightened their self-esteem and their interest by being given a real reason to write. This assignment served as the assessment of their English and their content knowledge of dance in a procedural piece of writing. Later that evening, my husband commented on how the students were motivated, like never before, to use the resources around the room for the proper structures of English and to spell words correctly. They loved the idea that teachers were going to read their writing.

That grading period, most of those 3rd-grade students met or exceeded the benchmark in the district's performance writing assessment, in both English and Spanish.


Bilingualism as a Resource

Educators, parents and leaders need to acknowledge the multiple benefits of being biliterate, or better yet, multiliterate in today's society. We need to embrace the importance of building children's sense of self through cultural experiences. Also, teachers must search within themselves to tap into their passion. We must recognize the value of collaboration to maximize linguistic, cultural and educational learning opportunities.

I saw that value firsthand, when my husband came home and handed me a plain manila envelope. "I have to show you what a student gave me today!"

Two cards slid out.

The first one was a mint-colored card cut from construction paper into the shape of a shirt with a darker green tie. Inside was a photograph of a group of giggly girls. The card read, "Querido Maestro: Gracias por enseñarme nuevas cosas y por hacer su mayor esfuerzo para enseñarme divisiones, multiplicaciones y fracciones. Que Dios le siga dando sabiduría siempre." ("Dear Teacher: Thank you for teaching me so many new things and for putting in all of your effort to teach me how to divide, multiply and fractions. May God continue to bestow upon you knowledge always.") This 3rd-grader has been in this country for three years and is his most fluent English reader.

I opened up the second card and inside were two photographs of my husband and me standing side by side in front of a group of teachers at a recent conference. This student's mother had attended the session to learn more about what takes place in bilingual settings.

I looked up to see my husband grinning from cheek to cheek.

English Learners, at a glance...

"After about three years," Matthews said, "all kids are performing better than in English-only models."

The import of that fact becomes even more important when you consider this nation's future.

Researchers at the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence, located at the University of California at Berkeley, suggest that by the 2030s, English learners may make up 40 percent of the nation's school-age population.

How are current English learner programs faring?

A survey by the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that only 12.5 percent of teachers with English learners in their classrooms have had even a day's worth of English learner training in the past three years.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that less than five percent of 8th-grade English language learners scored at or above "proficient" in reading in 2007, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

And the 8th-grade reading score has gone up only 1 percent, despite current federal law — the No Child Left Behind Act, signed in 2002 — that requires schools to make progress with all students or face sanctions.

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