Back to la Escuela #3: Spanish for English?

In my previous two “back to schools” blogs, I focused on bringing back librarians and basic supplies such as tissue. I struggled more for the third topic, because the obvious choice seemed to be to bring back teachers! Recently the media has been covering Arizona’s dire teacher shortage, and my colleagues have written so well about it that I can just suggest you read their posts (see September).

So I am going to mention two other things we have lost which need to come back to schools.

The first is full-day kindergarten. Arizona has not funded full-day kindergarten for over five years. Some districts offer it, at the expense of other budget items, in order to be competitive and keep families within the district. But as time goes on and money gets tighter, more districts are beginning to charge for the full-day programs.  

Perhaps if we were in a time of greater income equality, the impact of having a shorter kindergarten day would be minor. However, Arizona has high levels of children living in poverty, which puts them at risk. If we expect kids to rise to new, higher standards, we need to provide them with the services and education that will help them overcome obstacles. And it is an era of greater expectations as well.

My second suggestion seems a bit less essential. However, I think it is something easy to forget we ever had. Let’s bring back Spanish and other world languages into elementary school. Does anyone else remember those times back in the ‘90’s when many districts offered a Spanish program to elementary students? It was another “special” like music and art. Research generally shows that learning a second language helps students cognitively and socially. We know that. We also know that if we want our adults to be bilingual, they will become more fluent in a language if they receive instruction in that language throughout school. Very few schools offer second language instruction in the early grades.

Here’s what I wonder: Would my students, junior high English Language Learners, the ones who have been stuck at the intermediate level for a few years now, be more proficient in English if they had learned Spanish in school?  I mean, they speak Spanish, and view television and often Youtube in Spanish, but what if they were to have learned to more academic and formal language structures?  What if they hadn’t become stuck between two literacies, only partially proficient in both?  

There is a group of students who have lost more than I can measure because they have spent the past few years understanding only a small part of what they have been expected to learn.  They have missed out on math skills, history, literature and science, not to mention concepts in art, music and perhaps even health.  When we sit to read literary or informational text, they lack background knowledge that other students often have, which makes it harder for them to connect to what they are reading and build an interest in what comes next, an interest which might propel them through the unfamiliar vocabulary toward comprehension. Although they have great potential and deserve the best, it is a slow path toward proficiency. Students who have gone to school in their first language up through the elementary years seem to have an easier time, because they have background knowledge and solid language skills (though not in English).

Elementary Spanish would not remedy this issue, but in addition to its other benefits to all students, it might give at least the majority of Arizona’s English Language Learners a chance at continuing to learn important concepts and ideas (by reading more in Spanish) as they work toward English proficiency. I am also guessing that the attention paid to grammar concepts would help them understand both languages better.

At any rate, given our proximity to Mexico and the interconnectedness of our economies and cultures, knowing more ways to communicate can only be a good thing.

There are so many things our schools have lost that we could use back, but it will soon be October, and is no longer “back to school.” So on to other topics and other blog entries… with the final thought that many of the things schools need are not things we have lost, but ideas and practices with brand new potential that were never part of schools in my youth.  These ideas represent new frontiers.(And they will need funding, too.)



Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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