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Language Lessons

By Denise M. Hanson

West High School has more than 200 students from about 40 countries enrolled in its English as a second language program. Although these students speak a total of 20 languages, more than half speak Spanish as their first language. And while many of these students speak Spanish fluently, few have the same confidence or skill when it comes to reading and writing.

As a longtime Spanish teacher, it has always concerned me that most ESL students seem marginalized in the school. Over time, I realized that ESL students connect fairly easily with each other, especially with other speakers of their native language. They often form close relationships with ESL teachers and staff. Yet, they tend to remain sheltered in a small community within the school, and English speakers rarely form friendships with them.

Over the years, I have worked to bridge this gap by opening up my Spanish classrooms to native Spanish speakers. I've encouraged and even recruited them to take my classes. I felt their presence would enhance our classroom both culturally and linguistically. I also hoped that this would facilitate students making friends outside of their own ethnic groups. Unfortunately, my push to move native Spanish speakers into my classroom often backfired when other students made comments to native Spanish speakers along these lines: "What are you doing in this class? You already know Spanish" or worse: "You should know Spanish." At an age when peer approval is particularly important, comments like these can be hurtful.

Many Spanish-speaking students have told me they not only failed in the traditional Spanish classes, they felt stupid for doing so. I began to understand how these experiences with Spanish classes designed for nonnative speakers could actually harm the native speakers' desire to improve their own Spanish language skills. Partly due to my experience working with native speakers ill-served by the standard Spanish curriculum, West now offers a Spanish for Spanish Speakers class, which I currently teach.

Having native Spanish speakers in my classroom underscored for the native English speakers that English speakers have multiple opportunities to improve their native language throughout their school experience—an advantage most of their Latino peers do not have. This often comes up when a native English speaker asks me why a Spanish speaker would be taking Spanish—and that question comes up frequently, usually in a one-on-one situation. I tell them that, as native English speakers, they have taken English classes since they were in elementary school. It is clear to me, and borne out by research, that native Spanish speakers need to know their language not just socially, but academically. While the opportunity to be a TA gives Spanish speakers a new social standing in the school, it is also important for them to have the chance to study their language with their peers—again, one of the motivating factors for me to advocate the Spanish for Spanish speakers course.

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