Sunday, August 14, 2011

Making Foreign Languages Not So Foreign

I am in a fantasy mode trying to be positive as to what my public school system should look like.  In recent months there have been many articles and opinion pieces written criticizing today's public education.  Most of the criticism has centered on teachers not doing their jobs and how we need to get rid of the teachers' unions.  Ever since the "No child left behind" era, the fault of public education has been laid at teacher's feet.  I have argued that other factors are in play but the overwhelming number of articles have been negative.  I am pleased that Diane Ravitch, an educational historian, has taken up the cause in argument and I am thankful for her presence as she is a far better writer then I am.

So instead of fighting the good fight, I decided that day dreaming about a more perfect world of education might be the way to go.  And the process was to work backwards from a perceived graduate of our fantasized school system.

At present I have concluded that an educational system that allows students to make mistakes and encourages an interest in learning is the way to go.  That is the environment for our educational system.  Furthermore we are using Leslie Briggs' three areas of study:  communications, the self, and the broad spectrum of the arts.  If I have read Briggs correctly he wanted an education system to start with communications.  Makes sense.

And we started with talking and listening.  It is difficult for some young pre-school children to listen--they want to speak all the time.  For some of these children speaking is a relatively new activity in their lives.  But if a child is excited about telling you something why not take advantage of the moment and help them improve on their speech.

In the past blog I also mentioned learning another language.  Of all my faults (and there are numerous that I hold) not speaking and understanding other languages is a prime fault with me.  And those that speak several languages appear to have a confidence that we who only speak English do not have.  So I would want my graduate to be able to speak and understand at least one language besides English.

While I suggested that Spanish might be a wise investment in our graduate I thought about the number of Asian people I know.  What If our graduate could speak in Chinese, or Korean, or Japanese?  What a thought.

During the years that I supervised student teachers I had one student teacher who was assigned my very favorite elementary school at that time to a fourth grade teacher that was exceptional.   Both got along  right from the beginning and the cooperating teacher felt secure enough to suggest to Megan, my student teacher, to plan a lesson on another culture for social studies.  Megan began by talking to me, then formulating a unit plan on China that would be interesting to these fourth graders.  I push Megan a bit by saying how could she teach all this without turning to a textbook for the students.

Megan was good.  She made arrangements with a local Chinese restaurant to host the class for lunch near the end of the project.  She also got some of the owners' family who were from China to come give talks about their native county.  Megan did the usual with maps on the wall and posters from the Chinese consulate in Seattle.  But i think the best part was bringing chop sticks to all the kids in class and making them practice using them by picking up pieces of paper and small objects,   I tried it and I wasn't as good as I thought I was.  Can you pick up a penny using chop-sticks?  A stamp?

After a number of Chinese visitors to the classroom, the class boarded a school bus with a number of parents and had lunch at the Chinese restaurant.  The owner was very proud of his place, explained the food to the kids as it was served and as they say on the travel brochure, everyone had a good time.  As I wandered about the classroom, I could hear kids saying Chinese words to each other or writing their names in Chinese characters.  I could not fault this lesson unit in any way.  And I believe it was a very positive learning experience for the children.  I've always wondered how many of the children went back to the restaurant with their parents and said "hello" in Chinese?  

My point to all this is that I believe we can expand the qualities of our educational system by including such experiences as learning another language.  I would want my school district to have language training for the students from the early grades through high school.   Just a year or two of a foreign language at the grade level or middle or high school is not enough.  We need to look at languages as a constant--another way to communicate to each other.

In the next blog we'll talk about reading and writing.  Should we be teaching penmanship?  Some school districts have eliminated it.   How should we teach keyboarding (typing for you oldsters)?  Are reading and writing connected or are they two distinct subjects?  Can we teach some of these subjects on the internet?  Interesting thought

This is fun.  Maybe this is why teachers like to teach.  A constant decision as to what and how to approach a child or young adult so that they see the value of knowledge.    Thanks to those teachers who have written me and made suggestions as to what should be in the requirements for our make believe graduate.  And thanks to all those teachers who are trying to make a difference in our young students.

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