Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Two's Company: A Response to Critics of Bilingual Education

I feel compelled today to discuss the idea of bilingual education. This is something I am a passionate believer in yet it is something that continues to be underfunded and misunderstood at the national level. It is something that brings forth heated debate on both sides and yet ultimately no compromise is reached. It seems like this is an issue with no middle ground. You are either for or against bilingual education in schools and there are no ifs, ands, or butts about it. It remains one of the super sensitive issues that Americans love to debate, right up there with abortion rights, health care, and gay marriage.

I could defend my position by citing study after study about bilingual research and its positive effects. However, I think it is most important to tell why I favor bilingual education with my own story. There is a simply truth: I am a better person because of my bilingual education experience. Starting in middle school when I first began taking Spanish language courses, I was opened up to a new culture. Growing up in suburban New Hampshire where my town’s population was 97% Caucasian, I did not have access to a lot of diversity. I firmly believe that I am where I am today because my bilingual education experience in schools opened up doors that I wouldn’t have otherwise known had existed.

The best thing about studying a second language is experiencing the culture that goes with it. Throughout middle and high school I ate Hispanic food, did Hispanic dances, and watched Hispanic television. I was able to read the great poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado. I got to study the amazing art of Velazquez, El Greco, Picasso, and Salvador Dali. I got to see movies dealing with the difficulties of trying to immigrate to the United States. I also had an opportunity to learn about a Los Angeles high school calculus teacher who inspired his students in the movie Stand and Deliver. Recently the math teacher, Jaime Escalante, who the film portrayed passed away. However a good friend and I recently reflected about how fortunate we were learn Escalante’s story in our senior Spanish class. The culmination of my high school Spanish experience was spending a week in Spain during my senior year and seeing just how far I’d come with the language.

In college, I continued taking Spanish courses my first two years. I read more Spanish literature and took my first conversation class. As part of that class, we had a chance to work at a center where Spanish-speaking adults were learning English. Our professor introduced us to the music of Bacilos and Juanes, two artists that now feature heavily on my Spanish playlist. We had opportunities to role play and had to create our own dialogues for classroom skits. The professor definitely challenged us to get outside our comfort zone, but in the end I felt it was a much more enriching language experience because of everything I had been exposed to.

Then, my junior year came around and I was fortunate enough to travel to Spain for the fall semester. I did my best to embrace the culture and every morning I marveled at the fact that I was walking to Europe’s third oldest university to take classes. I learned about Spanish art and architecture and got to travel all around the country. I did the touristy things such as seeing the famous statues, churches, and buildings. However, the most intimate moments I had were in the streets or in the parks talking to Spaniards about their lives and their beliefs. My parents came to visit me and we spent a weekend in Portugal together. Upon their departure my dad told me that he could tell this had been a rewarding experience for me in the fact that I was so much more confident now as a person than I was when I started.

That is my bilingual educational experience in a nutshell. I am a better person because I had all these experiences. When I first began teaching, I wanted to work with a diverse student population. I currently work at a school with a large amount of diversity and I think I learn as much, maybe more, than the kids do on a daily basis. I also greatly enjoy the interactions in the grad school program. Learning about the culture and lifestyles of Saudi Arabia, China, Taiwan, and Kuwait make me a better teacher and a person. Even though I teach history and consider myself to be fairly world savvy, I still learn new things each and every day from my classmates. Their experiences help shape who I am and how I view the world.

I realize that not everybody has had a similar bilingual experience. I also realize that I come from a privileged background and thus had opportunities that many others could not have. I was always in the advanced Spanish classes in high school. My parents could afford to send me to Spain my senior year and also afford to send me to a good university where studying abroad was an option. I had financial stability that allowed me to travel all around Europe when I was there. I currently have the funds available to continue to teach but also pursue my master’s degree in education. I am well aware that many of these opportunities have been given to me because of how I look and how much money my parents make.

However, if bilingual education has so much to offer just one small-town boy from New Hampshire, shouldn’t we at least try to offer these kind of experiences to those across our great land? The answer clearly should be yes; however, it will ultimately be met with much resistance. In today’s educational setting where funds for education are dissipating, can we really afford to add bilingual educational programs? And do our students really need to speak another language? Let’s be honest, English is the lingua franca. You can go to pretty much anywhere in the world and find someone who speaks English. If it’s something that is not even needed to be competitive at the global level, should it really be stressed at this point in time in our schools?

The answer in my opinion is a resounding yes. We need to somehow, some way figure out how to implement bilingual programs into our schools. At a time and place where the world is becoming more interconnected each and every day, it is becoming a necessity to speak a second language. The majority of students I traveled abroad with were pre-med. They knew that in order to get the best jobs at the best hospitals they would need that additional feather in their cap. Finding a teaching job in California in 2010 is difficult enough. I can’t imagine trying to go at it and not be bilingual. I have heard firsthand stories of teachers whose jobs were saved due to their bilingual abilities.

Lastly, I will leave with this point: Don’t we as a country want to better ourselves? We can become better people by studying and learning about other cultures. We can be better informed about world events and understand how and why certain events are unfolding the way they are. It’s time for Americans to realize that English can only get you so far in this day and age. We as a society need to embrace the interconnectedness of the world today and use it as a vehicle to better ourselves. We have the ability to learn so much about ourselves and our neighbors and all we have to talk is learn their language. I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems like a worthwhile investment to me.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

RIP Jaime Escalante (December 31, 1930 - March 30, 2010)

The man who inspired the 1988 film Stand and Deliver passed away earlier tonight at the age of 79. Thank you for giving me ganas, Mr. Escalante. The education world will miss you.