What really happens in a two-way bilingual classroom

Usually, when I tell people I'm a bilingual teacher, their eyes glaze over. Given the negative attention bilingual education has received lately, this doesn't surprise me. Tales of Spanish-only instruction and high Latino dropout rates pepper the news.

But what really happens in a bilingual classroom?

As my 28 second-graders enter our two-way bilingual classroom each morning, they go to their tables. At each table sits a mix of English-dominant students, Spanish-dominant students, and students who are bilingual. For their first task of the day, they pool their linguistic resources to choose their table leader.

Next, the calendar helper announces the date in both Spanish and English. Today, instruction in the morning will be primarily in Spanish, in the afternoon English. Next week I'll switch - English instruction in the morning and Spanish in the afternoon.

After silent reading we begin our math lesson in Spanish. I remind students to help others at their table who may not be fluent in Spanish yet. While they are working, students take turns doing a similar activity in pairs on the computer. I put an English-dominant student with one who is Spanish-dominant. The English-dominant student helps his or her partner by reading and translating computer menus and instructions when needed.

Language-arts centers follow math. Students rotate among the centers in mixed-language groups and are pulled aside for single-language reading groups. Today, Martin's group first reads independently, then students respond in their journals to the book they've read. Martin reads above grade level in Spanish and comprehends and speaks English well. He is beginning to alternate Spanish books with English books. Today he is reading "The Three Little Pigs" in English.

After lunch I begin the social studies lesson, taught in English, with a brief overview of the key concepts in Spanish. This helps developing English speakers. Next comes Art. Last week I taught a similar lesson in Spanish so this one, taught in English, will also be easier for developing English speakers.

After physical education, students spend the last half hour of the day listening to a book. We have almost finished reading "Charlotte's Web." I have copies of the book in both Spanish and English, which I read from alternately by chapter. As my students leave class, they have taken steps forward both academically and linguistically.

Like other second-grade teachers, I want them to experience academic success. The goals for bilingual ed are the same as the goals for any sound education program. Bilingual educators employ practices that conform to current research. The difference is we also want our students to learn and succeed in two languages - and they do.

Ironically, the most challenging aspect of teaching a two-way bilingual class - the multiple levels of proficiency students have in their second language - is also its greatest resource. My classroom is a beginning, intermediate, and advanced English and Spanish class all rolled into one.

Meeting students' needs at all of these levels plus advancing them academically is a daunting task to say the least. But each day they have meaningful opportunities to increase their second-language abilities through interactions with their peers who are also fluent role models.

* Cathy Amanti is a second-grade bilingual teacher in Arizona's Tucson Unified School District.

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