Personal Experiences from a Dual-Language Classroom

  • Allison Ashley by Allison Ashley, 2017 Texas Teacher of the Year

    This column, published in the spring 2017 issue of INSIGHT, is part of a series called "Teacher Perspective."
    As adults, most of us can think back to recurring negotiations we navigated with our parents at a young age. As children, my siblings and I were often angling for ways to get more screen time in exchange for speaking Spanish. The rule was, if we spoke in my mother’s native language for the week, we could watch an episode of our favorite show. Countless weeks passed when I wasn’t able to watch “Anne of Green Gables,” and over the years, I slowly lost my Spanish-speaking skills. It wasn’t until college when I enrolled in Spanish literature courses that I began to reclaim my bilingualism.

    I have seen a similar struggle for language maintenance play out over the years as a bilingual educator. Though my story differs from those of my students in numerous ways, the challenge of language preservation is often a common thread. Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, in the 1980s, we didn’t have bilingual Spanish-English classes and, being inundated by environmental English likely affected my disposition toward a second language.

    Benefits of Dual Language

    After five years of teaching and a master’s degree in literacy coaching, I decided to return to the classroom. I sought to work in a place that valued students’ heritage language and found ways to develop, elevate and celebrate linguistic diversity in schools. Dual-language programs do just this. Specifically, they seek to build students’ proficiency in two languages simultaneously with the ultimate aim of students becoming bilingual, bi-literate, and developing strong multicultural competencies. With this goal in mind, I found my way back to Austin ISD as it was beginning its district-wide implementation of dual language.

    Knowing abundant research points to the positive long-term impact of students in dual-language programs, I was eager to dig in. In the early months of teaching dual language, I began to see some additional benefits of teaching through two languages. Schools that are inclusive of linguistic diversity provide a foundation for students developing positive self identities and an appreciation for diversity. Instead of transitional models that eventually replace instruction in the students’ native language with English, dual language upholds students’ mother tongues, helping them develop pride in themselves and their backgrounds. It goes without saying that language is power in our society, and it’s one of the necessary foundations for learning. Dual-language programs can challenge traditional power structures in our schools where English Language Learners were often seen as having a language deficit. Instead, a student’s home language is an asset that is leveraged by teachers and classmates in instructional and social settings.

    Supporting Teachers

    Over the years, the principals for whom I have worked have helped me develop as a dual-language teacher and, in turn, positively affected the achievement of my students. Among the many things these administrators do to support dual language in our schools, below are four key areas that stand out. These principals:

    Create a bold campus vision for dual language.
    The leadership teams at the schools where I have worked have created a strong vision for our dual-language programs and what’s possible for all students. They face challenges with an orientation toward solutions. Furthermore, discussions around best practices, setbacks and progress across grade levels are discussed with staff on a continual basis.

    Commit to school-wide dual language. There’s a commitment among administration to create a culture of bilingualism. All signs and home communication are available in both languages. “Language of the day” is used to balance school-wide announcements, morning assemblies and all informal interactions. In addition to providing effective communication and building students’ vocabulary in both languages, this sends the message to staff and students that both languages are valued. These actions also serve as a model, and are constant reminder of, expectations for teachers.

    Make cooperative learning a pedagogical cornerstone of the school. Students develop language through experience and interaction with others. In one of our first years as a dual-language campus, our principal set a campus-wide goal of increasing cooperative learning in classrooms. We attended trainings and were provided ongoing support. This strengthened our cooperative learning practices and got students building linguistic proficiency throughout the content areas and in both languages daily.

    Engage family members. Parents play an important role in the education of their child, and principals can develop among them an understanding of what dual language is and its benefits. In my experience, this has increased their investment in the program. Additionally, parents occasionally have misconceptions about learning two languages simultaneously, and administrators can help both clarify the intent and promise of dual language while also assuaging any concerns.

    Dual-language programs serve as powerful means of building students’ positive self-identities, appreciation for diversity, motivation to preserve their heritage language, and overall achievement in schools. By setting a strong vision, committing to campus-wide dual language, promoting cooperative learning, and engaging families, administrators enhance dual-language programs and learning for all students.