by Johnny Hagerman
photography by Echelle Avelar
What Luisa Lopez’s bilingual second grade class does for appreciating language and culture is what Shakespeare did for appreciating great literature. This is not just a class that provides knowledge in English and Spanish, but one that utilizes language as a tool.
This classroom is not like many; these children have certain advantages over the grown-ups they so readily look up to. They learn weekday lessons in addition to drawing, writing, adding and subtracting that will provide a foundation for survival in a multicultural world when they graduate into “big people.”
These students are learning how to appreciate each other on a level that makes the word “tolerance” seem unnecessary. They are assembled to learn about one another through similarities and common ground as a means for appreciating the unique characteristics that make them different. The learning strategy these students follow is known as “cooperative learning.”
Dr. Anita Flemington, vice principal of Roynon Elementary School in La Verne, practices cooperative learning to make the instruction of bilingual education more effective and successful. “I like to think of La Verne as a microcosm of society,” says Dr. Flemington. “I think La Verne represents what the United States is built up of culturally.”
Dr. Flemington and Lopez work together in teaching cooperative learning and bilingual education techniques to other teachers. On Feb. 26, both attended and spoke at the 22nd annual CABE (California Association for Bilingual Education) Conference. The conference combined workshops, exhibits, and career fairs for teachers throughout California who teach bilingual education. Flemington and Lopez were featured, along with chancellors and deans from the nation’s top universities.
Bilingual education is an integral part of the cooperative learning process because students who are limited in their English proficiency are sitting alongside children who are in varying degrees bilingual, as well as children who are only English speakers.
In this sense, Dr. Flemington’s perception of La Verne being a microcosm of society seems to be accurate, at least within the walls of Mrs. Lopez’s second grade classroom. A floating mix of bilingual and fluently English speaking students makes for a learning environment that is diverse in its dynamics.
According to Dr. Flemington and Lopez, diversity is the defining element that makes their program successful. For the limited English proficient student, there is a unique challenge to learn all of the fundamentals of language, math and science while doing so in a language that is not comfortable or familiar.
Lopez makes a comparison. “Imagine you are living in China and have no idea how to speak the language and know nothing of the customs. You are enrolled in a school to learn how to fix a car. You know nothing about cars, and the instruction is completely in Japanese. The challenge is the same for these students.”
Dr. Flemington believes that the integration of limited English proficiency students and fluent English students makes the language and cultural transition smoother.
Lopez has been teaching bilingual education at Roynon Elementary School for six years. A Claremont Graduate School alumna with extensive courses and certification in cooperative learning, she sets the foundation for her second grade classroom to gain a unique learning atmosphere.
Combining a structured and fulfilling curriculum for 20 students is a difficult chore in itself. But Lopez gets invaluable help from volunteer parents, as well as help from students of the University of La Verne who are in varying capacities studying for careers in education. Roynon participates in a partnership with the Education Department at ULV where students from the University are able to observe the classroom atmosphere and do hands-on work with the children.
The added help from parents, aides and college students helps Lopez manage a classroom of ambitious children who, in this unique setting, are in a constant transition in their learning.
The room itself is eclectic in style and bright in its presentation. Chaos is an appropriate way to describe the collage of shapes and colors that wallpaper the room. Upon first glance, it would appear that the forest of words and crafts holds no significance to each other, as if someone had arbitrarily pinned pieces of art and crayon written prose to the walls with no rhyme or reason.
But if one looks closer, the mismatched colors and works of art all come together in an intricate design for a specific purpose. All of the projects and designs on the walls are products of the second graders’ imaginations. All of the children are heavily influenced by the cooperative learning philosophies.
Quilted on the walls of the cupboards in the back of the room are Venn diagrams, an exercise in helping students understand the differences between each other while putting a strong focus on similarities. The wall adjacent to the cupboards has a section devoted to a self esteem building exercise.
“In this exercise, students get a turn to prepare pictures and things about themselves, their favorite colors, favorite foods, etc., and they give a little presentation. Students get to ask them questions,” says Lopez, as she points to the pictures that have been placed carefully of a little girl and her family. The pictures surround a brief biography of the little girl. “It’s a tremendous confidence building exercise.”
These exercises are particularly important for the bilingual students who are not as proficient as the rest of the students in English. The challenge to learn new academics, along with the added burden of doing so in a foreign language can take its toll on the students’ confidence. For this reason, community, self esteem and tolerance building activities are crucial in this class and are made priority.
Ultimately, the goal in bilingual education at Roynon is to instill academic proficiency, to learn English and to build positive self esteem.
In order to effectively prepare the students for what lies ahead in the world, the fundamentals of tolerance have an equal weight as learning to spell. “Instead of talking about what our differences are,”says Dr. Flemington, “we talk about our similarities and what brings us together. Tolerance is our emphasis.”
Activities that force students to interact are a method Lopez uses to reinforce this idea. Students participate in a variety of “active listening” exercises, in which the student listens to another student carefully and, in return, reiterates what was just said.
“While building listening skills, the students bond with each other when they are encouraged to take an active interest in what the other has to say,” says Lopez.
Living in the multicultural society that inhabits La Verne, the need for education that appreciates differences and bonds similarities is a lesson as vital as math and science. It is an educational vision that celebrates diversity instead of crushing it.