Being Black & Bilingual


Sibling School Pic 2013a

By Jamila Nightingale

My family’s road to Chinese immersion began just days after my husband and I walked down the aisle. While we were honeymooning overseas we came across a short article on raising bilingual children. The article posed a question: Which language would you choose, Spanish or Chinese? This sparked a five-minute conversation during which we briefly discussed the benefits of raising bilingual children, quickly agreed that we saw the benefits and decided on Chinese, specifically Mandarin.

Nine years later, both of our young daughters are enrolled in a full-time Chinese immersion school and I have started a parents’ association to support other African American families who have selected this route for their children. Following this nontraditional path hasn’t always been smooth, but like the Ashford and Simpson song that played when we took our first steps from the altar, “We built it up and built it up and now it’s solid–solid as a rock!” We are happily committed to Chinese immersion education.

In this essay I’ll elaborate on our experiences with Chinese immersion and connect it with those of several other African American families I have met through Parents of African American Students Studying Chinese (PAASSC). I hope I can give a sense of what motivates African Americans to pursue Chinese immersion education and how some of us have experienced it. I emphasize “some of us” due to both the small sample size–nine families–and the specific demographic that we represent: married, middle-class, San Francisco Bay area couples (several are interracial), all college educated (several have earned advanced degrees) and internationally traveled. Many of the parents mentioned in this article are themselves fluent in at least one language other than English; some speak two or three. As Chinese immersion takes off in communities throughout America, African American families from diverse geographic, economic, educational backgrounds and family structures will likely echo some of our experiences while adding other perspectives.

Why Immersion?

At the heart of the interest in language immersion is, of course, a family’s desire to raise a bilingual child. This desire is often rooted in the parents’ high aspirations for their child’s education and in their own values and exposure to other languages and cultures. As I mentioned above, our interest in bilingual education began with international travel and a magazine article. We agreed that our job as parents is to give our children better opportunities. In considering the opportunities we had as children one that didn’t come until later was learning another language.

Other parents were drawn to the many benefits that being bilingual offers their children. “Being a teacher, I know that language learning enhances cognition,” says Dawn Williams Ferreira. “We wholeheartedly support language learning and have always thought that our children would be multilingual.” Giving her son a global perspective attracted Tracey Helen to multilingual education. “We live in a big world,” she says. “The more languages you speak, the more you can learn and the more people you can have relationships with. I think Americans isolate themselves; the rest of the world, they speak multiple languages.” For Andie Acuna, language immersion was a way to help her son “understand how differences in culture are a strength instead of a barrier to understanding/appreciating.”

Once we decide to give our children the gift of a second language the next decision is which format works best for them. Whether the parents speak one or multiple languages themselves, they have to weigh the pros and cons of language immersion vs. traditional language education for their child. Heneliaka Jones chose immersion over a typical foreign language class because she wanted her daughter to understand another country’s culture as well as its language. “We want her to know how to tell and receive jokes in the language,” she notes. “That’s when you know that you understand the culture–when you understand the nuances/idiosyncrasies of the culture.” Jones’ emphasis on the cultural aspect of language learning is based in her own international travel, which began when she was still a student: “As much as I appreciated the cultures, the barrier was the language,” she says.

Like Jones, most African American parents weren’t raised by bilingual parents or in a bilingual home. So while articles and experts may inform us that dual language immersion programs are a great educational opportunity, those of us without direct experience of being bilingual are walking by faith. We can’t truly understand how those benefits will manifest until we see it happening in our own child. For example, I had to explain to my grandfather that my daughter might actually dream in Chinese to help him understand what this process may mean for her.

I wish I had had the benefit of Lia Barrow’s advice back then. She encourages parents to examine their own motivations for language immersion. “If you want it so that your child can access better jobs and for that reason alone, you will be undoubtedly be in for more work than you expect,” she cautions. That’s exactly what I discovered.

In my family’s case, we put our eldest daughter in a Saturday Chinese language class when she was three years old. By the end of the 12 week course, I had decided that the lure of raising a bilingual child was more time-intensive than we could manage, especially since she had only learned about three words and there was no way to support her language learning at home. Because of that, my husband and I decided to discontinue our pursuit to raise a bilingual child until a fortunate set of coincidences–not the least of which was our daughter’s insistence on returning to Chinese–drew us back.

Why Chinese?

In surveying PAASSC-affiliated parents, I learned that while bilingual education was a high priority for each couple, my husband and I were one of the few that specifically sought out Chinese as the language of choice. For instance, Helen actually started her daughter off in a French-language daycare before enrolling her in Chinese pre-school, and plans to reintroduce French at a later date.

Several factors influenced our family’s preference. Our early research indicated that once a child has a second language, additional languages are easier to pick up. Spanish is Latin-based and therefore easier to learn. Also, my husband understands and speaks enough Spanish to hold a conversation, or at least to understand one. By contrast, its unique script and syntax make Chinese the most inaccessible language to us, so it seemed to make sense to start with the most difficult language. And when you look at the globalization of the world, there are a billion Chinese who our daughters would be able to talk with.

The Barrows didn’t specifically decide to enroll in Chinese immersion. “We decided that our son needed more of a challenge in school. We were open to Spanish, French, Japanese, anything.” Jones also sought general bilingual education first and foremost. She says that “over time we began to see the benefits and necessity of learning Chinese.” In each case, it was the atmosphere and promise of the specific school, rather than the language itself, that appealed to these families.

As Barrow’s earlier advice implies, earning potential is another motivator for parents who select Chinese over other languages, even if it does require more work. “We looked at what we could do to prepare him for the future,” says Acuna, “and decided that based on the economic movement of the country, a brown boy with Mandarin language skills would be able to write his own ticket in various industries and be able to work anywhere in the world.” The age of the language and its character-based script attracted Ferreira. “The characters communicate language in a way similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics so thinking in terms of characters versus phonetics is also interesting,” she notes.

Some parents were not looking for immersion at all, but found it by happenstance. Tony Hines, a mother of four and fierce community advocate, was recruited to enroll in the Mandarin immersion option by the principal at her daughter’s school, Starr King Elementary School. Bernadette Jackson was attempting to enroll her daughter in the same school that her older children attended, but the general education program was full. She chose the Chinese immersion education option so that children could go to the same school.

However they come to it, most African American parents who pursue a Mandarin immersion education for their children come to realize that Chinese immersion programs provide their child with a strong math and science curriculum, teachers that have high expectations for their students regardless of ethnicity, and challenging, stimulating curricula and lesson plans.

Overcoming Resistance

When we first reached out to friends and parents for their advice, many were curious about our interest in a Chinese immersion program, but very few supported the idea. In fact, there were only two friends in our corner. Luckily, these two parents were the ones whose opinions we most valued. I also found an ally in our daughters’ godmother, who had enrolled her own children in an independent school. After I shared the doubt and dismissiveness of our family and friends with her, she encouraged me by saying, “If I had a chance to do it again I would choose a language immersion school for my children. You are a trailblazer and should not let this opportunity pass you by.”

Regardless of the source of resistance, the issues raised fall into two categories; academic and cultural. In the first category, our friends questioned how our children would learn to read and write English in an immersion classroom. How I would correct their homework? How would I support their Chinese language learning? These are valid concerns facing every monolingual parent of a bilingual learner. Helen addresses the reality of language acquisition in 100 percent immersion settings, especially at an early age: “My daughter’s program is all Mandarin until she gets to a certain grade, so it’s not surprising that English skills will be delayed. It catches up by the second or third grade.”

African American families are faced with additional hurdles based in historical and current stereotypes that some Blacks and Chinese hold about one another. These range from how Blacks are portrayed in the entertainment and news media to perceptions that Chinese (and Asian Americans in general) own all the stores in predominately Black neighborhoods and mistreat Black customers. “My mother was very concerned with how ‘they’ were going to treat her granddaughter,” says Jones. “We told family and friends, ‘You have to trust our judgment.’”

I had reservations as well, mostly about whether Chinese teachers would be able to provide a culturally supportive learning environment for my children. Both my husband and I had attended primarily white schools growing up. Unlike him, however, I had a lot of resentment about it, and I didn’t want my daughters to be isolated in their schooling or disconnected from a rich African American cultural experience. In today’s predominately white schools, especially in the Bay Area, diverse cultural heritages and traditions are celebrated. Chinese immersion schools, by their very definition, focus on Chinese heritage and culture.

As a social worker, I recognized the value of providing my daughters with a progressive education, which a number of Bay Area schools offer. Such schools are built around a curriculum that teaches students the benefits of using non-oppressive language and engaging with diverse communities in a manner that honors and respects their community structures. It is important for me that my children understand that there are diverse family structures and diverse family values. This is often conveyed in the classroom and through service learning projects.

I am a strong supporter of the learning opportunities that come through community service, but I find that too often, such projects are unidirectional; that is, they involve affluent students donating resources to underserved schools or communities. A non-Mandarin immersion school that ranked high on our list developed an innovative project that involved eighth graders in mentoring and tutoring students at a local underserved school, and fifth graders from that school providing reading and mentoring to the first school’s primary students. This creates a reciprocity of service that helps students to see that an “underserved” community has valuable gifts and talents to share as well as needs that must be met.

I felt discouraged by the lack of these progressive education elements in the local Mandarin immersion schools we were considering. However, I had the benefit of a husband without my concerns, fears and need to advocate for diversity. He consistently emphasized the benefits of the language immersion experience. When I wanted to back out he stayed firm and pointed out that it would be our job as parents to compensate in those areas where the school lacked culturally and progressively.

So far, my daughters don’t show any signs of feeling culturally isolated in their immersion programs but they are still very young. Forming PAASSC was in part, a way to prevent feelings of isolation. It allows them to regularly interact with up to a dozen other African American children who speak Chinese. PAASSC also gives us a vehicle to develop relationships with students from different cultural and socio-economic communities and create opportunities for reciprocal service learning outside of the classroom.

“Do” Diligence: Finding the Right Immersion Program

While the presence of a few immersion-friendly allies helped overcome my resistance, Acuna recommends “acknowledging your fears and facing them head on by asking questions.” She offers interested parents four ways to soothe concerns with actual information:

1)    Go to the school and spend time on campus to observe how the staff engages the students, peer-to-peer relationships, etc.;

2)    Talk to administrators, teachers and other parents to assess whether the school will be a good match for your child and your family;

3)    Be patient;

4)    Actively participate.

It’s also a good idea to identify what’s most important to you and find a school that most closely fits your goals and values, whether you opt for a public, private or parochial school. These proactive measures are a recurring theme in each of our families’ stories of how they fell in love with their particular school. My family’s case involved a good bit of trial and error, and serendipity as well.

Every new parent has many hopes, dreams and expectations for their first child. Education was one of my primary interests when my oldest daughter was born but I was shocked to learn that I was behind the curve when it came time to put her in day care. The best centers had waiting lists of parents who had signed up shortly after conception, while I had waited until my daughter was four months old – two months before I had to go back to work. After struggling to find day care, I was determined not to let a lack of awareness cause us to miss opportunities for a top-quality kindergarten. The search for kindergarten just happened to correlate with my daughter’s requests to return to “Chinese school.”

You see, after that 12-week introduction to Chinese in the Saturday program, my daughter was captivated. At the wise age of three she repeatedly informed me that she didn’t want to go to dance class on Saturday and wanted to return to Chinese class instead. While we were weighing the decision to pursue a Chinese immersion experience, Alameda County was in the process of confirming Yu Ming Charter School as the first Chinese immersion charter school in Oakland, Calif. (The only other public Chinese immersion school in the East Bay is in the Hayward Unified School District.)

At the time, I was teaching at California State University–Hayward, so I used the university’s research resources to educate myself on language and cultural immersion. I was dismayed to find that there wasn’t much literature on the benefits of bilingual education for African American youth. What little there was came primarily from doctoral students, covered a variety of immersion programs in the United States, Canada and Latin America and focused on several languages, including French, Spanish, German and even English.

As I mentioned earlier, diversity was important to me, and my direct experiences with African American parents pursuing Chinese immersion schools for their children confirmed what the girls’ godmother said: that we were on the cusp of a new trend that should not be denied to our children. In working with Yu Ming to confirm their charter, I was impressed with the number of other African American families that had stepped into leadership positions to ensure that Yu Ming’s charter was approved.

Dawn Williams Ferreira and her husband were among them. They weren’t new to language immersion–their oldest child was already enrolled in a Spanish immersion school and Chinese lessons. So when they heard that Yu Ming was opening in their neighborhood, they enrolled their middle son and became part of the first group of parents to get the school off the ground. “Being a founding family meant that we were very involved in making sure that other Black children attended the school,” she says. “We did not want our child to feel isolated and we understood that we had a responsibility to make it the school that we wanted for our child.”

The presence or lack of diversity helped Helen decide between schools that weren’t very different in their academic structure. “I realize that’s a conscious choice to have diversity or not. And from my perspective, that didn’t seem important to them,” she says of one school that she crossed off the list.

Barrow and her husband were committed to the public school system and preferred one close to home. So while language immersion had been a latent interest for them they didn’t actively pursue it until they were accepted in the lottery at the first full-time immersion school in their district, where Chinese happened to be the target language. Acuna’s priorities included “identifying a school where the teachers were kind and loving to students” because it matches her belief that “kids who feel supported in learning learn better.” Barrow and Acuna are both the parents of children with special physiological and learning needs so it was extra important that they felt comfortable with the school’s capacity and willingness to be both responsive and sensitive, especially given the language difference.

The cultural aspect of immersion, teaching style and parent community helped Jones’ family fall in love with their daughter’s school: “When you walk into the school, it’s like walking into China. The landscape of the school, the classroom design, the learning tools, etc. It’s also a Montessori curriculum in the Pre-K, and our daughter is a hands-on learner.” She cautions against basing your total impression of the school on open houses and similar recruitment activities: “Admission tours can be scripted. We attended events prior to enrollment.” Those activities helped her family get a ‘backstage’ view of the parents, teachers and students, so to speak. “When we went to events outside of Admission events, we were well embraced by the community and felt connected,” she notes. “If we didn’t feel comfortable we would not send our child.”

Where the Rubber Meets the 道路*

However thorough one’s research process may be, the real “fitness” of immersion education – and a particular school or program–can only be gauged once your child is enrolled. We were amazed to witness that our oldest daughter’s natural talent for language and learning exceeded our expectations. A few parents have told us that she is “the best Chinese speaker in the classroom.”

Unfortunately, her report card did not reflect that level of proficiency at first. Her teacher initially stated that my daughter wasn’t interested in reading Chinese books, even though her English class marks were higher than those for math and social skills. Because she had been so persistently enthusiastic about Chinese we signed her up for a more intensive Chinese language class. She actually looked forward to the extra work. When I asked her about the class she stated that she really enjoyed it because “the homework is more challenging than her homework at school.”

Our youngest daughter’s affinity for Mandarin has been even more surprising. She looks to her older sister for guidance but displays much more confidence, grasps the language more naturally and earns higher marks on her report card. We believe this is the result of her exposure to Chinese for almost as long as she has had been speaking English; thus, when we enrolled her in the program she already knew many of the songs and was able to initiate fluent sentences.

All of the parents we interviewed found similar success in both their children’s classroom performance and enjoyment of the experience. Ferreira says that her six-year-old son’s teacher “joked that he speaks so well that he is beginning to argue with her in Chinese.” Helen’s daughter is doing well in her second year of pre-school. “She can’t really read the books but she’ll pretend read it,” she says. “She likes to speak Chinese at home, she likes to sing in Chinese. Sometimes she’ll try to teach momma Chinese.” Jones is thrilled to watch her normally shy three year old become more enthusiastic and participatory in classroom activities, though she admits that this blossoming could be due to normal development or the school’s teaching style, or perhaps both.

Likewise, Acuna has watched her six-year-old son improve in both Mandarin fluency and self-confidence in the three years that he has been enrolled. “Initially his proficiency in understanding was growing but not his willingness to speak it. Now he is so confident and gets great feedback from his teacher and while we are out in the community.” She credits the teacher’s style with this improvement along with the school’s willingness to support her son’s Individualized Education Plan (ADHD, Inattentive –one of three subtypes of ADHD, which specifies the low attention span vs. hyperactive-impulsive behavior) and his specific needs. She explains how his teacher worked within his limits by agreeing that he would only be required to speak in Mandarin until lunchtime. “The teacher has stated that he continues past lunch, although the other children don’t speak primarily in Mandarin,” she says. “The experience has been an excellent challenge for him.”

It almost goes without saying that whether traditional or immersion, not all schools or teachers are created equal. Add each child’s unique needs and personalities to the mix and challenges will inevitably arise. Teachers spend so much time influencing our children that a problematic relationship between them can be a deal breaker for the entire immersion experiment. It is easier to walk away than to remain committed, particularly with so many other educational options available.

In one instance, an African American mother consulted the classroom teacher, the teacher’s aide, and even another parent about a problem her child was having, but she was unsatisfied with their responses. She was ready to give up but gave it one last try and approached the principal who was so responsive that she was encouraged to persevere. The lesson here is that it may take multiple attempts to find an administrator or teacher who “gets it” and it may not be the person who is directly responsible for your child.

Barrow faced a situation that highlights the specific cross-cultural differences and expectations that can arise in an immersion setting. She has raised an eyebrow more than once at the dominant instructional style of her son’s teachers, all of whom are native Mandarin speakers from mainland China or Taiwan. “California is advanced in looking at what classroom environments are good and healthy for encouraging student growth,” she notes, “but most of his teachers have very little fluency in English and very little understanding of the American cultures/customs. They seem used to students being docile and obedient and are open to calling students ‘bad’ if they don’t seem to conform. On my son’s report card, the teacher actually wrote that he ‘is very often bad in class.’”

Helen had a similar experience during her daughter’s first year in Chinese immersion. Recognizing that the school’s administration did not have an effective structure for communicating with the parents, she says “the onus was on me to really get out there in the second year to do the work and make the relationship.”

These families’ approach to resolving their issues demonstrates how active parental involvement can create a solution-oriented climate. Neither of them removed their child from the school; in the Barrows’ case, they met with the teacher to explain why “bad” was insufficient to explain what their son was doing, to obtain clearer descriptions of the undesired behavior and to express their disappointment at the school’s lack of response to their requests for feedback prior to the report card distribution, especially given his medical history. “We have to provide the staff with space for a learning curve,” Barrow explains.

She’s been pleased they did. Despite their concerns, her son is flourishing in both his language facility and in his mastery of other subjects. “He was recently diagnosed with epilepsy and it has become increasingly difficult for him to read and write in English, but it doesn’t seem to affect his Mandarin. So development of his math skills have not been impacted (math is taught in Mandarin), and the continued development of his Mandarin language seems to have helped his English reading and writing.” The fact that he’s thriving is the most crucial part for her. Even if he were in a school that was more culturally competent, if her son wasn’t thriving she wouldn’t keep him there, she says.

And speaking of cultural competency…

Black History Month or Chinese New Year?

I’ve said that one of my reservations involved an immersion school’s ability to provide my daughters with a rich understanding of their own African American heritage. As much as Chinese immersion programs promote their focus on the whole child, it’s also clear that they offer a heritage-based education that is often devoid of the African American experience. Several of my fellow parents shared my husband’s view that we would have to assume primary responsibility for this at home.

The Ferreiras accomplished this by enrolling their son in an Afrocentric homeschool before he began attending Yu Ming. “Parents should reinforce home culture first,” says Dawn, who credits that experience with strengthening his sense of self, confidence and pride in his own heritage. “Children need to really love themselves before they can appreciate other cultures.”.

I also came to realize that “cultural competency” means different things to different people, even within my own race. Barrow applies this term to explain the school’s understanding of California’s educational expectations as well as broad American social customs. Jones, on the other hand, uses the phrase to describe the school’s ability to impart the subtle rules of Chinese culture. “Black History Month would be nice,” she says, “but for families who want a child to learn Chinese that’s not a deal breaker. We read the mission statement right away. They were very clear on what their focus is.” She went on to state that as her daughter’s first role model, it was her job as a mother to instill a sense of self-esteem and cultural pride. At the same time, she monitors her daughter for “any signs of disrespect or feeling inferior, use of pejorative terms on the playground, feelings of a child being targeted because of color or differences.”

Barrow echoes Jones’ emphasis on the family’s role in balancing Chinese culture with African American heritage: “I don’t expect the school to reach the level of what I am able to provide for my son as it relates to his cultural identity and history.” Because the staff at her son’s school is so new to America and our culture, she finds that they are learning about this nation’s history–including the history of African Americans, Latinos, women and gay and lesbian people–along with the students. Ferreira adds that “the responsibility is on us as parents of children of African descent to make our presence known.  We, as parents, have come together for Kwanzaa celebrations at the school and Black History Month presentations. We organize this on behalf of our children.”

For my part, I did not want my children to feel like they were “the only” Black students learning Chinese. This was a big factor in my decision to start Parents of African American Students Studying Chinese (PAASSC). Our earliest events were simple play dates where children could come together and practice their Mandarin skills. As our network of parents continues to grow, we will expand our efforts to educate families that may be interested in Mandarin immersion, assist administrators and teachers in building their capacity to deliver culturally competent and anti-oppressive education, and connect our mostly monolingual parents with resources that empower them to support their children’s academic development even though they don’t speak the target language.

The need is especially great in the third area: Of the parents I interviewed, only three were actively supplementing their children’s Mandarin education with extra-curricular activities.  Many do not have access to age-appropriate Mandarin resources beyond a few tapes and movies they find in Chinatown. I had the great fortune of traveling to Beijing at the end of 2012, where I was exposed to a wealth of educational materials that I intend to share back here in the Bay Area, and as Chinese immersion schools become more popular, throughout the United States.

Parent recommendations

In polling my fellow PAASSC parents for recommendations to families, specifically African Americans considering immersion, several emphasized that cultural sensitivity is a two-way street. Jones puts it bluntly: “If you can’t embrace another culture you are doomed before you start,” adding that she has actually found that there are more similarities than differences between Chinese and African American culture, including the importance of family and cultural history, reverence and respect for elders, and focus on community instead of the individual.

Lia Barrow adds that parents must seriously consider their own expectations for both the school and their children. For example, she says that no matter what race your family is “f you expect your child to attend a Mandarin immersion school because they will be the ‘only’ child with specific qualifications or to ensure that your child is ‘super’ or ‘special’, you are going to be in for an awakening. This is a booming trend and very competitive. Through this process you will find that there are numerous children that are just as focused, skilled, and bright as your child.”

I would add that both parents need to be on board, willing and able to support and encourage their child’s language development–in both the native and target languages. Language immersion cannot take place in a vacuum. Early childhood exposure is essential for success, from museum trips, music and movement to various sports, and interactions with other children. As Jones points out, “Your child has to be school-ready before even considering a program like this; eager, ready, and excited to learn.”

Helen emphasizes financial preparedness because a public school option for language immersion may not be available or practical for every family. At the same time, she recommends not stressing over the prospect of immersion itself: “It doesn’t have to be rocket science. The rest of the world teaches their kids language in their school systems.”

These first three years of our quest to raise bilingual children has taught us a lot about ourselves individually and as parents. We have learned that it is important to find ways to continue to discuss our goals and expectations of our children. We have discovered that nearly every parent – regardless of race, school type or other specific traits – shares a common, primary goal for their children: that they are able to be successful and content.

On a personal level, I have realized that my knowledge of the Chinese language and my ability to support my children’s learning are stronger than I anticipated. I am capable of helping them with their homework, providing a supportive home environment that encourages Chinese language learning, and creating a community that allows my children to feel supported an encouraged to speak Chinese outside of the classroom setting.

It has been a thrilling and often humbling journey, as my husband can attest. “If you choose to pursue a Chinese immersion education, accept that it is going to be something that you have no experience with–something that is going to be foreign to you – and you must get comfortable with not knowing,” he says. “If you have multiple children in Chinese immersion, the day will come when your children will have conversations with one another that you will have no ability to understand.”

His advice for surviving the uncertainty is simple: “Enjoy the ride.”

Jamila Nightingale is the founder of Parents of African American Students Studying Chinese. She and her family live in Berkeley, Calif. Her children attend the Chinese American International School in San Francisco.

Why It Takes A Leap of Faith to Enroll Your Child in a Language Immersion Program

Reposted from Spanglishbaby.com:

I thought I knew *a lot* about dual immersion schools because I’ve been researching them for both the blog and our book for almost four years now, but now that my daughter has been in one for almost four months I have a whole new understanding of them. I know the topic of bilingual education as a whole is so confusing for parents because there are so many different programs (ELL, ESL, full immersion, partial immersion, etc) and because, depending on where you live, there is so much controversy and misunderstanding as to how it really works.

The fact is that dual immersion programs are proving to be the most effective method to successfully teach children in two languages. The “problem” with the program right now is that it’s still relatively new and it’s sort of an outcast in most public education systems. What I mean by that is that as much as they have been proven to work in the sense that schools with language immersion programs ultimately outperform academically, they are still having to adapt and conform to a public education system that’s not meant for them.

Read More: Advice for Parents of Dual Immersion Students

My girl received her first report card ever…in Kindergarten! At age 5, these kids are already being tested on the California Standards. The problem is that kindergarteners in a dual language immersion program are focusing mostly on learning the language and not on the long list of standards set in place for English-only schools. This means that the teachers and principal have to make sure that all parents understand that even though our kids may be performing below the state average at this point, it’s perfectly normal and it won’t be this way once they’ve reached the 4th grade and have already transferred over to English all the concepts they learned in Spanish. The standard tests are just not created for our early language-learning kids.

As I sat there with my husband during our first parent/teacher conference listening to the fantastic teacher my daughter has, it became clear to me that we’re way ahead of the curve, if you may, and it does take a huge leap of faith from parents and administration to believe in the program and know that there’s more to learning than tests.

Read More: Dual Language Immersion Programs

It’s important to know that the current system is not intended for the gift of bilingualism we’ve all here committed to give our kids. You will search and research schools in your area that offer dual immersion programs and you’ll see the majority of them have a lower than average rating or are considered underperforming schools. But then you take a closer look and read the comments from parents and you’ll see they don’t match the rating. You’ll read success stories and praise for dual immersion classrooms, and that’s where  you need to focus. That’s where your leap of faith will be catapulted by other parents that can attest for the growth both academically and socially of their kids.

Yes, our children must pass the tests and teachers must still teach for the tests under our current system. However, if your child is in a dual immersion program, tests will be conducted in Spanish and the teachers will select which standards to test and at what pace. Trust them and trust the model. Talk to other parents. Talk to us. Meet the kids in upper grades. Visit or talk to principals in other schools that have already reached and surpassed their academic goals because they’ve been in this for a longer time. Be inspired and trust that your child will learn and in two languages. How beautiful is that?

Share with us: Is your child in a dual immersion program? What has been the most difficult and rewarding aspect for you? Do you agree it takes a leap of faith?

Reposted from: Spanglishbaby.com

5 Ways to Speak Chinese outside the Classroom.

As a monolingual parent raising bilingual children I am a strong advocate of supplementing their language learning experiences.

Create the Space:

It is not necessary that parents learn Chinese but it is very helpful if you continue to expose yourself to the language and share that experience with your child. One parent jokingly informed me that she mandated that her child only speak Chinese at home. To most all of her daughter’s responses she replied with a thoughtful “Dui” which means yes in Chinese. She laughed that she had no idea what her daughter was saying but that she learned to read her daughter’s body language and was easily able to interpret her general needs while encouraging her second language learning in the home.

I have been using the Pimsleur Approach and downloaded the files into my dropbox. I listen to the lessons during road trips and long commutes. The girls enjoy correcting my tones and reviewing the sentences I have learned. They enjoy teaching me and when native speakers overhear our exchanges they are more apt to engage the girls in conversation which is the perfect supplement to their language learning.

Flash Cards:

Last year I purchased the Tuttle Chinese For Kids Flash Cards. Right off the bat the girls knew almost 25% of the words and required only minimal prompting on a few. I cannot read Chinese and actually even struggle in reading pinyin but I have the Pleco app on my android phone. With Pleco I am able to type in the pinyin word, match it with the correct Chinese character and play an audio of the word for the girls. It’s amazing how smart they think I am even though I don’t speak Chinese. They are excited with the opportunities that I provide for us to speak the language with one another even if I am doing much more listening than speaking.

Enlist the Support of Native Speakers:

When it comes to learning site words it is not required to hire an overpriced tutor to review index cards, play matching / rhyming games with your child and identify or sound out words while taking walks or playing scavenger hunt games in the yard/home. The same can be true of learning non-native words with an experienced speaker. There are fun matching games that can be purchased on-line (asianparent.com, betterchinese.com, chinesebooksforchildren.com, ahachinese.com). If you are unable to read Chinese stories to your children purchase Chinese books with accompanying CDs. Reading Chinese to your child provides the same benefits as reading English. Reading to your child in Chinese (with a CD) increases your child’s exposure to the language, characters, improves comfort with the written language and supports what they are learning in the classroom.

Connect with the Teacher:

Develop a relationship with your child’s teacher so that you are provided with a weekly or monthly list of key vocabulary words. If the teacher emails these words to you print them out and create your own flashcards, encourage your child to read the words to you throughout the week or before your weekend starts. Your teacher is always the best resource to help you identify ways to support your child’s language learning.

For many Chinese language teachers English is not their native language. Make multiple attempts to engage the teacher. Their may be a few stumbling blocks during the first interaction but as you constantly work on developing a relationship with the teacher the language barriers and cultural differences will become less obvious. The teacher is your best aid in helping your child to succeed make every effort to develop this relationship.

Play Dates:

There is so much that happens for your child in the classroom. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic there are so many other things that are happening in the classroom. Play dates have been a great resource for my girls. My oldest can have an emotional response to her peers minor disagreements and there are some ways in which this disrupts her learning process. Play dates provide increased opportunities to enhance her social relationships in the classroom which allow for better learning opportunities.

Play dates do not have to take place in Chinese but we have really benefited from relationships with bilingual parents. Bilingual parents have been key in helping me to understand the Chinese culture, increase my exposure to the Chinese language and in providing me with great feedback regarding my daughter’s expressive and receptive Chinese language. On Chinese New Year our daughter played Pai Gow poker with her classmates grandparents and several other children. While I never thought my child would learn to gamble at such an early age we all enjoyed ourselves and viewed it as a great cultural experience.

If you find it difficult to incorporate the second language into your daily routine then rest assured that you are supporting your child by Reading to Them Every Night. Rest assured that the best gift you can provide your child is a strong grasp of their First Language (English). Read to your child every night. Support them in their phonetic and sight reading. The stronger your child is in their first language the better opportunities that they have to excel in their second language.



Tips to Teach Sight Words

At the end of the school year my kindergartner will be evaluated on her ability to read 100 sight words. When her teacher said it I was shocked. That seemed like an unrealistic expectation. But I was also frustrated. Frustrated that I had misplaced our DIY flash cards and had stopped focusing on sight word exercises. So I started reading about sight words to identify which words and how many words a child should really know by 1st Grade. I hope you find the following resources from www.k12reader.com helpful.

Why Learn Sight Words

Sight word acquisition is an important building block in the construction of a child’s ability to read. Once she is able to read all of the words on Dolch’s lists for example, she has access to up to 75% of what is printed in almost any piece of children’s literature. How exactly do teachers and parents help children develop their stores of sight words? There are several proven techniques that any adult can use to teach sight words. Whichever strategies are employed, the best success is seen when a child has more one-on-one time learning and practicing sight words with an adult, the greater his chances to integrating them into his long-term memory.

Fry’s Lists

The Fry word list or “instant words” are widely accepted to contain the most used words in reading and writing. The list is divided into ten levels and then divided into groups of twenty-five words, based on frequency of use and difficulty.

It is important for young readers to instantly recognize these words by sight in order to build up their reading fluency. It is also important for readers to practice words in meaningful context through phrase and sentence reading practice. As a follow up activity, students can practice writing short sentences including Fry words.

As you individually meet with the student, you’ll quickly be able to identify words that they are having trouble with. Also, as students write in their journals and read aloud, regular misspellings and misuse can provide you with a target list of words to teach first or spend more time on.

The first 100 words of Fry’s words are expected to begin in the 1st grade. Click here for a list of Fry Word List Worksheets Grade 1 – 10.

Dolch’s Word Lists:

The Dolch word list includes the most common 220 words and 95 nouns encountered in children’s books. Dolch words, or sight words, are critical in early reading development because they represent high-frequency words and are difficult to sound out or to illustrate. Dolch’s list offers sight words from PreK-3rd grade. Click here for Dolch Word List Worksheets – word puzzles, flash cards, and fill in the blanks/story worksheets.

Listening to and Saying Sight Words

Sight words are not only frequently used in writing, they are also essential to conversational English. Because most sight words are already in children’s verbal vocabularies, learning to read them is simply a matter of connecting the print word to the oral version in their prior knowledge banks. Parents and teachers should make explicit connections between the print version of a word and its sound. Pointing to a word while repeating it is one way to do this. Also, adults should have children say the sight words to help them become actively involved in their learning. This can be as simple as asking them to repeat a sight word while writing it or as involved as having the child search through a pile of sight words written on index cards or sentence strips to find a word that best completes a sentence you have written.

Teaching Sight Words Through Repetition

Children do not learn new words by being exposed to them only once. Repetition is key to sight word acquisition. Young readers should be given opportunities to read and write a new sight word multiple times. Repetitive reading of texts featuring certain sight words is one strategy for helping children commit these words to memory. Also, to practice spelling sight words, parents and teachers can have children write and say aloud words several times. When a child writes and says the word at least five times in a row, she is more likely to commit it to memory. To subtly help children mentally repeat sight words, parents or teachers can create Dolch word walls. As a new sight word is learned it is written in large print on a sentence strip or piece of paper and hung up on the wall in a location where the child is likely to see it often. Not only will repetitive glancing at the word reinforce it in the child’s memory, it is also easily accessible for the parent or teacher to refer to when talking with the child about it.

Sight Words in Context

When children see words used in natural ways rather than in isolation they are more likely to remember them because they develop an understanding of the word’s significance and meaning. Literature based instruction is an extremely effective method for helping children learn sight words. There are many leveled texts that are designed to highlight certain age-appropriate sight words. Beyond this parents and teachers can present sight words in short sentences or help them write their own sentences incorporating sight words.

Teaching Sight Words Through Music

Music is a wonderful medium for presenting and reinforcing information especially for young children. Think of how much easier it is to remember the lyrics to a song you haven’t heard for years than to remember what you had for dinner last night. Creating songs that incorporate sight words and practicing them frequently with children gives them the opportunity to use multiple modalities to learn the new words. A teacher has created a series of “replacement lyrics” for common songs including “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”and “Old McDonald Had a Farm”that feature a number of sight words. Fortunately for us, she has posted her creations on the Internet

Teaching Sight Words With Games

Once children have had the opportunity to study new sight words, games are a fun, hands on way to help strengthen their retention. These games are easy to create at home or at school and can be modified based on the particular sight words a child is learning at the time.

  • Wordo—Played just like the game Bingo, but this version uses sight words instead of numbers on a grid card.
  • Concentration—Sight word concentration cards can easily be made using index cards. Simply write each word on two cards, shuffle and lay face down to play.
  • Word Searches—Create word searches featuring sight words or use one of the many available on the Internet.
  • Go Fish—Go fish cards can easily be made using index cards. Simply write each word on two cards, shuffle and deal to play.
  • Letter Magnet Spelling—To reinforce sight word spelling, provide the child with a set of letter magnets and a metal surface. Call out sight words and ask the child to use the magnets to spell the word.

I hope you find these worksheets helpful to assist your child’s overall reading skills.

Resource: www.k12reader.com




What Parents Want to Know About Foreign Language Immersion Programs

Tara W. Fortune, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota
Diane J. Tedick, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Minnesota

Modeled after the pioneering French immersion programs developed in Canada in the 1960s, foreign language immersion programs in the United States are designed to enrich the education of native-English-speaking students by teaching them all of their academic subjects in a second language. The goal is for students to become proficient in the second language and develop increased cultural awareness while reaching a high level of academic achievement. Students develop proficiency in the second language by hearing and using it to learn all of their school subjects rather than by studying the language itself.

Parents who are considering an immersion program for their child usually have many questions. This digest provides introductory responses to some of the questions most commonly posed by parents.

What is a foreign language immersion program and how does it work?

In foreign language immersion programs, the regular school curriculum is taught in the immersion language for at least half of the school day. In partial immersion programs, instructional time is divided equally between English and the immersion language throughout the elementary grades. In full immersion programs, teachers use no English at all in the early grades. In Grade 2, 3, or 4, teachers introduce English language arts and reading for one period per day and gradually move toward an even distribution of English and the immersion language by Grade 5 or 6. In the secondary school grades, immersion students typically have access to at least two course offerings in the immersion language, most often in social studies and language arts.

In U.S. programs, the immersion language is most often a world language spoken by large numbers of people, such as Spanish, French, or Cantonese. In some cases, it is a heritage language being revitalized, as in the Hawaiian and Yup’ik (an Alaska native language) immersion programs that serve indigenous communities. The goal of immersion is to provide educational experiences, beginning in kindergarten and ideally sustained through Grade 12, that support academic and linguistic development in two languages and that develop students’ appreciation of their own and other cultures.

One of the key principles of immersion education is that linguistic and cultural knowledge is a resource—the more you know, the better off you are. Immersion education adds knowledge about a new language and culture while building on a child’s English language skills and knowledge of U.S. culture.

In order to make academic lessons comprehensible to learners and to support their second language learning, immersion teachers—who are highly proficient in English and the immersion language—use a vast repertoire of instructional strategies as they cover the school district’s curriculum (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000; Snow, 1987). Many of these strategies appear on the Immersion Teaching Strategies Observation Checklist (Fortune, 2000) developed by immersion teachers and researchers at a summer institute at the University of Minnesota.

In the early years, immersion teachers realize that their students will not understand everything they say. They use body language, visuals, manipulatives, exaggerated facial expressions, and expressive intonation to communicate their meaning. In kindergarten it is common for students to speak English with their peers and when responding to their teacher. As the years progress, students naturally use more of the immersion language. To draw students into using the language, teachers often use songs, useful phrases, chants, and rhymes and carefully structure the day with familiar routines.

Why should I consider enrolling my child in an immersion program?

Immersion programs are the fastest growing and most effective type of foreign language program currently available in U.S. schools. Most immersion students can be expected to reach higher levels of second language proficiency than students in other school-based language programs (Met, 1998). Becoming bilingual opens the door to communication with more people in more places, and many parents want to provide their children with skills to interact competently in an increasingly interdependent world community.

In addition to reaping the social and economic advantages of bilingualism, immersion learners benefit cognitively, exhibiting greater nonverbal problem-solving abilities and more flexible thinking (see reviews in Met, 1998). It has been suggested that the very processes learners need to use to make sense of the teacher’s meaning make them pay closer attention and think harder. These processes, in turn, appear to have a positive effect on cognitive development. However, a high level of second language proficiency is needed in order to experience the positive cognitive benefits that come with bilingualism (Cummins, 1981). From the standpoint of academic achievement, over three decades of studies consistently show that immersion students achieve as well as or better than non-immersion peers on standardized measures of verbal and mathematics skills administered in English (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000; Genesee, 1987).

How will learning everything in a second language affect my child’s English language and literacy development?

Many parents are initially fearful that immersion may have a negative impact on their child’s English language development. But research consistently finds that the immersion experience actually enhances English language development (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000). It should be noted that full immersion students’ English development may lag temporarily in reading, word knowledge, and spelling while instruction is occurring exclusively in the immersion language. However, after a year or two of instruction in English language arts, this discrepancy disappears (Genesee, 1987). It is important for parents to understand that this lag is temporary and to be expected.

In full immersion programs, children develop initial literacy in the immersion language. Many cognitive processes that underlie the ability to read, such as understanding the relationship between the spoken language and the written word, transfer from one language to another (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000). But when the immersion language differs significantly from English (e.g., languages that don’t use our alphabet) literacy skills developed in one language will not necessarily transfer to the other language. Immersion students who learn to read first in a language that is markedly different from English, such as Arabic or Japanese, will need to learn and practice literacy skills that are specific to each language (Kanagy, 2001).

It is assumed that immersion students will have consistent exposure to and support for English at home and in the community. Parents need to provide their children with experiences that will enhance their English language and literacy development. For example, they should read to their children every day and involve them in games and activities that complement their classroom learning. Research shows that the stronger the development of the native language, the greater the proficiency in the immersion language, so children who enter an immersion program with a strong base in English will succeed more easily than those whose English skills are not as strong.

Will my child become proficient in the second language? How long will that take?

After only 2 or 3 years in an immersion program, students demonstrate fluency and confidence when using the immersion language, and their listening and reading skills are comparable to those of native speakers of the same age. While these skills remain native-like, students’ speaking and writing skills lag behind those of native speakers (Johnson & Swain, 1997). Research finds that immersion students’ second language lacks grammatical accuracy and does not display the variety and complexity produced by native speakers of the language. Achieving high levels of oral and written proficiency in a second language is a long-term process. A long-term commitment is essential, and parents need to understand that native-like proficiency in every skill area is unlikely. Still, immersion students will have a strong second language base upon which to continue moving toward full proficiency and to develop proficiency in subsequent languages.

Language learning is influenced by many factors, including students’ personality and motivation, teacher expectations, parental support, program leadership, and support at both the school and district level. Student success requires the active involvement of all of these stakeholders.

Is immersion an appropriate choice for all children?

The vast majority of immersion programs are open to all students. There is no admission test or pre-screening process. Research findings on the effectiveness of immersion education hold true for a wide range of students, including those from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds (Genesee, 1992). As is sometimes purported, these programs are not intended exclusively for middle- and upper-class Anglo families. In fact, some recent research indicates that immersion may be an effective program model for children who speak a language other than English or the immersion language at home (deCourcy, Warren, & Burston, 2002). It is hypothesized that these learners may benefit from a leveling-of-the-playing-field effect that occurs when all of the students in the class are functioning in a second language. Students who are not native speakers of English are able to be on par with their native-English-speaking peers and enjoy the same kinds of success with learning.

There are, however, many unanswered questions concerning the suitability of language immersion for children with language-based learning disabilities. Research on this topic is scant. Some researchers and immersion practitioners argue that children whose first language acquisition is seriously delayed or who struggle with auditory discrimination skills may be overtaxed in a language immersion program (see review in Genesee, 1992). Previously identified language-processing challenges should be considered prior to enrolling a child in an immersion program. Still, many children with mild learning disabilities, knowledgeable teachers, and supportive families can and do achieve well in immersion programs and develop proficiency in a second language. Parents and educators need not assume that learning in two languages will overtax these children. In fact, many instructional techniques used in immersion are similar to techniques recommended for struggling learners. Understanding how to make language immersion classrooms more inclusive for a broader spectrum of learners is one of many topics of interest to immersion educators.

What can I do to support my child’s immersion experience if I don’t speak the second language?

Like all parents, parents of children in immersion programs should maintain an active role in their children’s education by providing experiences that help develop their English language skills and enhance their cognitive and affective development. They should read to them daily and engage them in activities where they need to apply what they are learning in class. For example, third-grade students studying measurement can do activities at home that involve measuring, such as hanging a picture or baking cookies. Parents should also communicate with the teachers on a regular basis about their children’s academic, social, and language development. They should become well informed about immersion education, make a commitment to keep their child in the immersion program, and support their children’s use of the immersion language outside the school context, for example, by providing reading materials in the immersion language at home and encouraging a pen/keypal friendship.

While volunteering in classrooms is often a good way for parents to be involved in their child’s education, parents need to be careful that their volunteering efforts don’t compromise children’s use of the immersion language. Some programs designate one afternoon per week for parent volunteers, encourage volunteering during periods when English is used, or have parents volunteer their time for activities that don’t involve classroom interaction.


Immersion education offers an exciting opportunity for students to reach high levels of academic achievement and to acquire strong proficiency in English and another language. Parents who are interested in immersion for their children should become as well informed as possible about this program model. It is hoped that this digest will serve as a useful starting point.

Click here for PDF version.

Five Myths of Talking About Race With Your Child

PAASSC is excited to highlight the work at RIISE and include a re-post of their work featuring the work of Border Crossers.

I get a lot of mixed feedback when I say that adults need to learn to speak openly about race with young children. They are afraid of spoiling their childhood or crushing their natural curiosities. However, when we look at the root causes of racial inequity in this country, we see that they grow out of the lessons we learn in our earliest years. In fact, honest conversations about race have a positive impact on children, honoring their observations and lived experiences, and better preparing them to recognize and undo social injustice in their lives. Then, why don’t we do it more?

The truth is that most of us adults have incomplete and competing ideas about the role of race in our own lives. Young children’s comments often illuminate the uncomfortable gap between our good intentions and the thorny truths of the world.

In my experience over the past two years facilitating  Border Crossers‘  ”Talking About Race With K-5″ workshops and seminars, I have had the opportunity to share struggles, dissect scenarios, analyze the institutions around us, and offer support in developing and implementing concrete tools and strategies with over 400 educators, activists and parents. I have learned a tremendous amount from each of them.

Over and over, I hear the same excuses for why adults don’t have conversations about race with children. In this article, I dissect five common myths of talking about race with children and offer a few simple sentence starters that help reframe the approach.

1. “Children don’t see race.”

Research shows us that children do, in fact, see race. They are never “colorblind.” One study revealed that infants recognize racial differences between three and six months of age. Dr. Phyllis Katz’s research (as cited in “See Baby Discriminate” ) shows that by three years white children exhibit an overwhelming preference for same-race friends. By age five, 68% of children sort decks of cards of people’s faces by race over any other indicator. The infamous doll test originally performed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark and repeated most recently by CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 shows that pre-k and kindergarten-aged children express racial biases that remain with them through adulthood.

To be clear, the purpose of this research is not to figure out if your child is a racist or not. The intention is to debunk the colorblind myth and frame an approach to interrupting these troubling patterns.

Here’s something you can try:

Instead of saying, “We are all the same.”

Try making connections saying, “Race is one of the beautiful things that makes us different, but I know that the color of our skin does not mean someone is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘nice’ or ‘mean.’”

2. “Talking about race creates racist thinking.”

Our country still has a race problem that permeates our culture (resource), plagues our institutions (resource), and affects individuals (resource). We know that children absorb these messages without our help. Not talking about race actually allows stereotypes and generalizations to go unchecked.

Here’s something you can try if a child brings up a comment about race:

Instead of saying, “Race isn’t something we talk about.”

Try getting more information by asking, “That’s a good comment. What makes you say that? This is something that I’m interested in talking about with you.”

3. “Exposure to diversity is enough.”

Dr. Birgitte Vittrup performed a study with 100 families in Texas (also in “See Baby Discriminate” ) that found that mere exposure to peers of other races or reading multicultural books is not enough to counter the development of bias in children;

Click here to learn more.

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