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    Ulises Travels

    One of the frustrations in working in a Sheltered Immersion first grade is reaching the student that entered your program with no English.

    Not even enough to ask you for a drink, or as the kids say here, "Can I drink water, teacher?"

    It would seem that times have changed enough, politics and votes clearly cast so that on the small shoulders of the little ones we have decided to let fall the weight of a state that votes for dominant language now, over dominant language later.

    Our Unz Initiative passed to throw our work with bilingual classes back to darker ages and now in instantaneous programmatic invention of "new approaches" to put the policy in effect, the clutch and grab solutions arrive to take children from zero to 180 language-wise in as fast a time as possible.

    I suppose the only problem is we forgot to get them into some kind of safe car to do it and sometimes they get pretty clobbered in the event of a wipe-out. . . but just the same my position is to teach a group of students in English using "Sheltering Language" strategies, the same materials, the same Standards and prepare them to do as well as everyone else.

    And in my room about four can't yet express to me too much in English, not if they have a sick stomach, or if someone is manipulating them, or if they need to have extra time on "homeworks" in English without an intermediary. They are in no small way learning at age 6 that they are in a place that allows 6-year-olds to sink or swim--no matter how benign I am, how loving, how well I support the experience. The biggest lesson they are learning is language is power; it's everything.

    They know they lack it and this classroom was created to minute-by-minute reinforce to them they need to try hard and to get, if I can paraphrase King, "Some big English words." Or if I can borrow from Gaby, "Teacher he don't have the English but he wants to say that the big kids at the recess took his glasses that the Preencipal gots to him for the Red Ribbon and he needs to be getting the glasses because he was trying to be careful."

    And so Ulises has his shiny new sunglasses (given to celebrate a drug free program in all schools) disappear on the field and with the advocate that is my Gabby La La he has some help to restore another pair. If I am listening very hard and hearing what is needed. A lot depends on the quality of my character. A lot depends on "teacher." Which earns me the biggest, boldest smile he has. . . as I go grumbling down the corridor taking the group to the library and thinking about the journey Ulises is on. . . the journey I've seen many immigrant children take. The journey into American citizenship.

    My husband and I have a close friend, a teacher, currently an Assistant Principal at a nearby high school that has the ability to tell the story of the opportunity and the value he places on his journey into American citizenship. He came to the country in high school. . . attended a year or so of school. Somehow I think in a Frierean way because he was determined to learn and "make it" and focused on survival and success, carrying a unique set of survival and family skills from Mexico, he was able to get his High School diploma. He saw education as the greatest privilege ever given him, almost in Holy terms. . .and his part in that process one requiring almost super human determination and effort. I suppose his work ethic spoke to the work ethics of my husband who hired him. They have been closer than close ever since, dedicated to school, children, community, and the desire to create schools that matter. I met another guy like him working part time at our community pool, but really studying electronics in college and he described a similar story. Through the same high school newcomer teacher at Hueneme High both began to unlock grammar and writing, vocabulary and their new language aided by, as both have stated and shown tremendous amounts of personal fortitude and personal desire to get the power. . . to possess the ability to enter into the societal mix above the level of field laboring, but willing to labor in any way to achieve their goal of making a good life in this nation. Given a friend, opportunity, given a way to do it, they showed what they could do, and the world is far better for their lives. It's daunting to meet individuals like this and then look at your own life. . . you feel so inadequate. Our friend, Oscar, has certainly met many of his goals, college, teaching career working now on PHD, with exemplary work with students just like mine, and into administration where I think it fair to say he isn't a 9 to 5 kind of guy. He's a 4 to 9 kind of guy. . . AM to PM and his energy and determination are undeniably focused on doing well by being able to use the language of English and the core constructs of our country to achieve a life. . . he stands for me a kind of iconographic figure of the way I wish it would go. . . for all the students I am teaching. Ah, if only….

    If you are lucky enough to find a few minutes within a classroom at year's start one of the interesting things to do is try to find out why each child bears the name they have. This becomes layered in a bit more complexity in a Sheltered Immersion room as I have some parents fearful of why I 'm asking what I'm asking (with just reason to wonder now a days about the whiteness I carry and what I might be about). And also I'm sure it's rather unusual in that I lack conversational Spanish to contextualize in dialogs at the door. But eventually we are able to get the families sharing who children were named for, what the name means looking it up on our Internet, where it connects to literature which is always my part of the dialogs as they continue through the year in school and that connects in part for me into my main mission with children. . . finding out who you are, really, and who you come from and how you connect to the greatest story ever told. . . the story of the human race within our "American version."

    The children had 12 names of 18 that related to God this year by the way. I was astonished by this. And they had one name from the Inca for "Princess" and one name that means essentially "lost one," and that would be my little Ulises named after the Greek who angered the gods and found himself set out on the voyage that seemed to have no ending. I can only hope that for the moment he has set down in my little island and is enjoying the breezes and calypso music. . . but I do fundamentally worry about the journey he has to take. He will say goodbye one day and journey on . . . they all do. It is a journey full of obstacles and hidden medusas and currents that can take him farther from home, farther from the shores of safety. And it is the stuff of self discovery.

    Watching kids over my career in schools where I spent most of my time as a transition teacher. . . a teacher helping students go from bilingual education into English at 4th grade. . . watching the children in my rooms and in the rooms of my husband and colleagues I have had lots of moments of insight into 2nd language acquisition, lots of training, lots of successes and lots of concerns. When I see a little one so happy as Ulises and so charming, working so hard and producing such good copies and such beautiful artwork and silently absorbing all we do with bright intelligent lights beaming out, I'm aware that he is aware the journey is his for the making. I am responsible to him to see that the room works in ways slightly different than just up the road in an area of affluence and English dominance. In my domain I have to unfold how the language develops, the vocabulary to exist in a day-to-day way. I have to teach where we are, why we are here, what we are about with strategies and patterns that make sense to a 2nd language learner. I have to motivate and encourage, dance the dance of school and Standard , sing us to the end of our days in first grade pulling tricks out of my hat to make content visible, to connect our experiences to real things they know, to figure out bridges and to build them and scaffold meaning onto the head of a pin if necessary. . . plus we have a room full of each other for support and connection. It's rather daunting some days.

    I read a very funny Halloween book the other day. . . did you know I have to explain Halloween? I read a book called Witch, Witch Come to my Party. In it a series of lifelike creatures invite each other to a party revealing at the end they are all in masks. Well, what was especially funny was several of the characters reference storybook characters like the unicorn and the "big Bad Wolf" of Little Red Riding Hood fame.

    Not a child in my room recognized this wolf as Big, bad as not a single one knew the Red Riding Hood story. And so we had to stop the day, stop the standard of the DI day--oh no--and read a few tales. I could have heard a pin drop in the class during the telling of Little Red Riding Hood.

    Later at recess I gave out puppets to reenact that fairy tale and several others I told, like the 3 Pigs. And I sat and watched, suffering a growing flu, as they reenacted their "versions" of the stories. I saw what meaning they had gathered and how they put together the "morals." Gaby and her small group liked a cleaner tale, one in which Little Red bossed the others into submission and had them, "Get me some wood and get out of that bed or I'll gets you an axe and chops you up." But Ulises and his equally silent friend Giovanni acted out an even more wonderful version. They put on wolf puppets really fast, scoring them ahead of the others and growled and devoured with classic beauty. There was a part essential to every table group story and though largely unspoken--dangerous--and they were always a star. And so I watched as pigs built "bad houses" and Little Red struggled with her role as meek and mild and "innocent" and I laughed outloud to hear Gabby tell her group, "Red is not going to be sos stupid to lets that wolf get her basket or her grandmum okays, we are going to trick that wolf when he gets hisself in our cottages."

    And so it goes. . . you teach the days away and find yourself in November with an "adopted" curriculum that forgets to mention a word about the Mayflower, or Native Americans or Little Red or any of the pieces of dominant culture that weave us together as a people for right or wrong. . . a curriculum that had a phonics story last week called "A Hut For Zig Bug" which was about short u and a bug that goes out and recycles things into a small box to create a home. Incredibly, the follow-up comprehension and curricular pieces failed to notice the recycling or the notions of home as created from nothing. . . . So I read Something From Nothing, that wonderful story of a child saving pieces of a blanket by having a resourceful family make the pieces into clothing over the life of the child until the child is left with the story and all the blanket has gone (from blanket to pants, to scarf, tie, button). We are so often left to teach with a story.

    It's harder to do that when you get "Zig Bug," but I try. Through this I have an eye on Ulises in his travels into English, watching how he is expressing meaning. He raised his hand in twenty questions three times this week to say "pumpkin." It was actually not pumpkin at all, but we celebrated his answers so much I forget what it was, so it might as well be pumpkin. He struggles with the phonics; he reads it, but he reads it as if he were me reading the side of the ingredient list for shampoo, a question after every syllable. It kind of comes out like "What? Are you asking me to figure this out? Why is that bug dragging that around? What is a hut? What does that stamp have to do with the floor? Why does she keep saying hut, mat, Zig. . . what's going on?" But that's unvoiced of course. So I keep smiling at Ulises and Ulises keeps smiling back.

    Ulises is a fast learner. He has made good strides with color vocabulary, things in the room, naming of parts (which just reminds me of the poem "Naming of Parts") and he has enough language now to protest a seat stolen away on the carpet or ask for "a few minutes"; he knows our routines, he can monitor the jobs and he can give a blank look with the best of them--if a visitor decides to visit from the District Office to see what we are doing and asks, "What are you doing?" He can give the "We don't know" faster than Gaby can voice the "We don't know she makes us" so at least we are progressing. We can find a scapegoat and that would be me. . . and that's a fairly good dominant culture idiom of late. It's the fault of instruction for sure.

    I'm worried of course about turning the years of listening necessary to learn a language into a shortened and speed-filled span for Ulises, worried about the bumps in the road, worried that while he is naming colors, peers in other rooms are discussing author intent and making connections like my 6-year-old nephew who sagely noted to me recently, "Well, if your class is struggling with English, Aunt Sarah, they probably will have a great deal of trouble acquiring enough language to really appreciate a good story like my new one on Peter Pan. But you know you have to be sure to teach as much science as you can because it's a world we kids really need to understand and learn both the flora and the fauna."

    So I followed that observation with a story of how I'm hauling in dragonflies, snake skins, getting a bird. He suggested I "get a preying mantis and a walking stick" and "teach about nocturnal animals and the food chain." All of which is fair advice. After listening to what he is doing I increased tenfold the content I am doing in the room. And I oriented around science and math again. . . because I developed an incredible sense of reality in just having a conversation with a six-year-old who will score very well on the tests that mean everything.

    Ulises is on a journey towards his education. The pitfalls that lie in his way are quite different than those for Joseph. Both face the unknown however and we just don't know which boat will go the distance or indeed if both won't float very well. For my student, I am aware that language, stepping into a new culture, poverty, school and present day realities are out there in the seas he has to navigate, along with good intentions and beasts of racism and ignorance that are ringing their bells louder everyday . He's on an incredible journey, a life struggle, one glorious and meaning filled and I hope he has heroic fortitude, a few friends along the way and the ability to learn from mistakes, to try in the face of defeat. . . but he's shown that kind of strength to me already.

    He seems so small to take on this journey. You think of the writer casting this little Harry Potter into the role of fighting injustice and the dark forces and actually I realize onto the young we have often, at least in our great literature, projected our greatest battles and injustices. My hope is he goes forth from my port in this storm better for the experience, sheltered, immersed in the things that are America, the values of individualism, freedom, wisdom, courage. . . It is my job to see him able to take his place in the world. And so like the story of old I hope he sails well and finds his path both back to home and out in the wide world. Journey on little one.

    "If you want to build a ship don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

    —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    "But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?"

    —James 2:20, King James Bible

    2006-11-28 01:14:20


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