Isla Vista: many tongues foster learning, not confusion

Step into any classroom at Isla Vista Elementary School and you'll see the predictable: plump little faces with wide eyes and smiles, stunted chairs, printed name tags, and artwork pasted on the walls.

But listen for a moment, and you'll hear the unexpected: French, Lao, German, Swedish, Turkish, Hebrew, Spanish, Swahili, Bemba (spoken in northern Zambia), and Italian, to name a few.

Teachers here often can't even pronounce the names of their students, and vice versa. But when a national news magazine gushed over the unique school, calling it ''Isla Vista's Tower of Babel,'' some were miffed by the biblical implication of confusion.

The profusion of language and culture is not to be mistaken for confusion, they say. While more than half of the 600 children here speak foreign languages - a total of 24 different tongues - districtwide test scores show that they are learning as well as their counterparts in other schools.

A quirk of time and circumstance has distinguished the school within its largely white, middle-class American school district. Like most southern California communities now, Isla Vista has an enclave of Southeast Asian refugees and Mexican immigrants. But the little community shares the bluffs over the Pacific here with the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) - a magnet for foreign scholars. The elementary school then, situated under giant eucalyptus trees, attracts the children of these foreign people and has become the focal point of all the challenges - and joys - of mixing cultures and languages that are worlds apart.

It is a unique setting on several different levels:

1. Instructional focus. Administrators and academics suggest that the school could provide the groundwork for a new approach to teaching. It is suspected that this cultural amalgam is just the start of a demographic wave educators must prepare for. More than 40 percent of the students in this year's kindergarten classes in California are from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Educators, administrators, parents, and media hover around the school like scientists over a new discovery. And situated in a quiet corner of the university, the school has become a working laboratory where academics scrutinize the teaching techniques that have evolved out of necessity rather than theory.

2. Student mix. There may be no other place in the world where fourth-grader Robert, the son of a German math professor, could study alongside Xong, a wisp of a child who didn't even know her Hmong language could be written until she came to the US. Nor might he have met young Chou, a Thai whose father teaches German at UCSB.

3. Approach to teaching. Whether it's Johnny, Juan, Johann, Jean, or Giovanni , teachers have to come up with a universal way of putting across as simple a concept as ''2 plus 2.'' The challenge has been so invigorating for teachers that it prompted one to postpone retirement. Once considered the ''Siberia of district assignments,'' the school now has no problem attracting teachers.

Mai Lee, a tiny Hmong refugee, sits with her hand hooked over Brazilian Luciana's shoulder as Ellen, from Sweden, recites an English phrase. There appears to be an understanding among the three who, as yet, have no common language. No fewer than seven languages are spoken in their class of 11 students.

In one assignment, the children are asked to identify the English word for the popcorn the teacher shows to them. Amid squeals of delight and a shower of overaspirated ''p's,'' teacher Jo Maschke gets various pronunciations of ''popcorn.''

Mrs. Maschke then asks them if the popcorn is a vegetable. ''No!'' is the emphatic chorus, ''It's food!'' Like this linguistic nuance, the unusualness of the classroom appears beyond the interest of the children, who exhibit no problems playing and learning together.

The diversity of backgrounds may seem complicated to an adult observer, but the children appear to accept and regard this diversity as no barrier to their learning. Asked if they notice anything unusual about their school, most English-speaking students come up with answers like, ''Yes, I'm learning to talk Mexican. You know - 'uno, dos, tres.' '' Or, another student says, referring to all the Asians on campus, it's interesting to know all the ''Chinese'' children. Foreign students may be less aware of the diversity of language because when they speak no language but their own, others are perceived as one foreign tongue.

Little Southeast Asian refugee children are the most reserved. For the Hmongs - children of Lao hill tribesmen who were guerrilla fighters before they fled the communist invasion of that country - learning English is hard enough. But most of the Hmong children arrive on US shores with no concept of what education is. For these children, who have grown up with memories of war and refugee camps , the cultural adjustment is as challenging as the language.

The school has 100 non-English speakers, 145 limited-English speakers, and 53 who have become fluent English speakers. Those still learning English spend small amounts of time in the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and reading lab. (Students must learn to read and write in their own language first to grasp reading and writing concepts in the foreign, English language.) But largely they sit side by side in classes being taught in English. And, as gauged by Goleta Union School District test scores, the children are scoring on a par with students in other schools, says Barbara Patterson, assistant superintendent of the district.

''In the past, the prospect of going to IV was considered a fate worse than death. Every school district has 'that school,' '' said John Rodriguez on a break from an animated storytelling session with 20 kindergartners.

Further, say district administrators, two years ago even parents hesitated at the prospect of having their children here. They were concerned that native English-speaking students would be held back in favor of a slower learning pace for foreign students. But now, after two years of special attention to Isla Vista's situation and the creation of a cooperative project with the nearby university, there is no problem attracting teachers. There hasn't been a parent complaint during this school year, says Ms. Patterson.

''I taught in one WASP school for 18 years,'' says Stan Wheeler, a fourth-grade teacher. He had been considering retirement, but, ''Now I'm having such a good time I might stay longer. It's more stimulating here and I get a lot of support from the staff.''

''I love the way she's learning,'' says Dula Espinosa about her daughter's kindergarten experience. ''It's more disciplined, and they focus more on positive renforcement. There are a number of aides that give the kind of attention she wouldn't get somewhere else. Plus, she'll learn Vietnamese words, she'll tell me she met black people from Africa, and she's learning Spanish.''

Teachers, too, note that students' attitudes here make them easy to work with.

''I find these children, especially the foreign ones, are more interested in learning. There's pressure at home to succeed. They are polite and there's not a lot of hassle,'' says Mr. Wheeler.

Teachers readily admit there is frustration and uncertainty in teaching foreign students. But they heap praise on the university's cooperative program, which provides student teachers to take over classes, freeing full-time teachers to meet and discuss teaching methods.

How is teaching different here?

While the teaching may not look any different, it is the practical knowledge developing here that is valued. A student may be able to multiply and divide, but he may not understand such simple concepts as ''least'' or ''most,'' says principal Ed Armstrong. A teacher has to know to look for this kind of information, and that's where getting teachers to meet helps clue teachers in.

''Teachers get isolated and think they're the only ones with a particular problem. Everyone here is relaxing . . . starting to share solutions,'' he says.

Further, explains Ms. Patterson, certain teaching policies have been thought out from different perspectives. For example, ''We sometimes teach grammar and usage without thinking if it works,'' she says. ''It really only works for those who know it [a language] already,'' she says. Hmong children, unaware of linguistic concepts, might not be helped by learning what nouns and verbs are.

Kindergarten teachers Ann Carlyle and Elinor Bertram couldn't pronounce their students' names for roll call and had no hope of getting students to respond to name cards if they couldn't read. The solution they developed was to hold up a student's picture for roll call. This was shared with other teachers who now use the idea.

Linda Hinton says she tends to ''make more of an effort for one-to-one contact,'' now that she teaches students who don't speak English.

Cultural education is needed as much as language skills. It becomes the school's responsibility to teach survival skills, explains Ms. Patterson. For instance, they found that parents from primitive countries were feeding their children only Twinkies for lunch, thinking that because they were on the market shelves and packaged nicely ''they must be good for you.''

In a different context, Dr. Ray Bauer, who is charged with sending his sixth-grade students off to the social rigors of junior high, says he believes it's his responsibility to point certain things out. ''They may not be putting their clothing together well, and often they don't know what they're signaling with that (inappropriate clothing like mixing plaids with stripes),'' he says. ''If that happens at the junior-high level it's going to get them laughed at. And losing face [especially for Asians] is traumatic.'' Further, teachers are having to educate parents through their children. ''Parents have had to learn that if a school contacts you it's not a reason to beat your kids,'' says Ms. Patterson. In some cultures, the only time a school calls a parent is when there is a problem. Then ''the home loses face,'' she explains, noting the delicate situation involved in calling a parent-teacher conference. French parents have to be taught that, in American schools, students start at grade one and move to higher grades. In the French system, ''first grade'' is the highest level.

Mr. Armstrong takes a practical approach to funding. He says he doesn't want the teaching style developed here to be dependent on special monies. The extra student aides the school is alloted by the university are the core of the program, but he says there have been grants and federal funding that will likely be cut in the future. He concludes that ''the problem is going to be with us long after funding is gone. So we try to keep the children in the classroom as much as we can,'' rather than in the more expensive language and reading labs. Besides, he adds, ''the more you separate them (into labs), the more they feel different.''

''What do you do when two Poles who don't speak a word of English show up for school?'' asks one administrator. Most teachers aren't prepared for this kind of a situation, and the Isla Vista school magnifies a situation teachers can expect to face more frequently.

Traditional teaching methods, even the newer bilingual Spanish programs, haven't prepared teachers for the Isla Vista phenomenon. Those who teach the teachers at UCSB have embraced the school on their back porch as an opportunity to develop new teaching styles.

''We're looking at this as an opportunity instead of a problem,'' says Carolyn Cogan, UCSB coordinator for the demonstration school project, which is designed to siphon off and teach what teachers at the elementary school have learned firsthand.

''Teachers are oriented toward the middle class. And now we see that our teachers haven't been prepared and won't be (for the new multilingual setting), '' says Dr. Richard Jamgochian, head of teacher education at UCSB. ''How do you teach linguistically different children?'' he asks, adding that he wants to document and develop Isla Vista teaching methods.

The cooperative project provides eight student teachers to take over classes two hours a week, releasing teachers for brainstorming sessions to discuss what problems they have faced in the classroom.

''This is one of the few times teachers become students of their own teaching . . . normally there's no time to really think about what they're doing,'' explains Dr. Jamgochian. Usually, teachers are classroombound, often completing a full career in isolation.

''Teachers are students of a unique environment, and we're going to be redefining the role of teacher as an action researcher,'' he continues. ''We want to tease out the successes they've had in a multilingual setting . . . so that when something new is learned it doesn't stay with them [the individuals], but it becomes part of a school's conventional knowledge.''

Release time for teachers is more than just chatting in the teacher's lounge, says Ms. Cogan. The learning Jamgochian and Cogan talk about encompasses everything from learning the intricacies of a couple dozen different cultures to speaking in complete, simple sentences.

''It's considered a breakthrough to learn that you shouldn't push a fragile Oriental to talk before she's ready,'' says Dr. Jamgochian.

''Forcing it too soon can be damaging,'' explains Ms. Cogan. The teacher is the authority in Asian cultures, ''and it is considered disrespectful to look at the teacher. So sometimes a teacher might get frustrated and think, 'Well, the dumb kid won't even look me in the eye,' but he's been trained this way.'' As one teacher learns to deal with this, his or her success can be shared with others.

Further, says Dr. Jamgochian, part of the program is aimed at making teachers aware of the public school's responsibility to help assimilate people. He advocates a ''critical analysis'' before students of different cultural values. Without saying it is wrong for a girl to marry when she is 12 years old, as Hmong custom has it, a teacher can pose the situation for a ''value-free'' discussion in class. Students could explore what the consequences might be, and what future a girl that age might have after dropping out of school.

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