Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Bringing Spanish to the schools

Tags: community, community engagement, coolican, elementary education, freeman, k-12, teacher education initiative

An innovative partnership with Ann Arbor Public Schools provides Spanish language instruction in elementary schools.

One day last fall, Maria Coolican’s son Liam asked “Mama, can you get my jacket? It’s hace fresco outside.”

“Hace fresco” is Spanish for “it’s cool.”

The reason Liam speaks a little Spanish is because twice each week, his fourth-grade class receives Spanish language instruction from a University of Michigan student.

What does Liam’s mother think of this fledgling multingualism? She loves it, of course. Not just because she wants to see her child learn and try new things; not just because she thinks multilingualism is advantageous; and not just because she appreciates it when her son remembers to wear a jacket in cool weather. Coolican is gratified to hear her son insert Spanish words and phrases into his everyday conversation because she is the director of the Ann Arbor Languages Project (A2LP) and her son’s use of Spanish is a fantastic indicator that the program works.

Coolican, who was a high school teacher, an assistant principal, and a principal before joining the faculty of the School of Education, is an expert in language acquisition. Of her son’s climate observation, she says “Were his words grammatically correct? No. Did I completely understand his meaning? Yes. And that’s what I want to see from all of the third and fourth graders—I want them to identify Spanish as a language that can be used in their everyday lives.”

Coolican is realistic. “Will children learn to be fluent Spanish speakers because of A2LP and its weekly classes? Absolutely not. Will they end up being enthusiastic and more capable language learners because of A2LP? Absolutely. And there is evidence that short chunks of time spent in the elementary grades in a world language does lead to language acquisition.”

The Desire (Where There’s a Will…)

The Ann Arbor Languages Project is an innovative partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education and Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS). Each week during the 2010-11 school year, A2LP brought language instruction to 103 third- and fourth-grade classrooms in AAPS’s 20 elementary schools.

Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley, interim deputy superintendent for instructional services for AAPS, said that she and other AAPS leaders believed teaching world languages was a priority.

“I have a foundational belief that our kids will engage globally throughout their lives, so it’s our job to give them the tools that they’ll need to understand and appreciate other cultures and global perspectives. World languages are one of these tools and will be somewhere down the line in the education of all of our children,” Dickinson-Kelley says. And the earlier the world-language instruction starts, the better.

The Partnership (…There’s a Way)

Associate Professor Donald Freeman began working with AAPS in 2007 to initiate the partnership. Freeman envisioned an educational exchange of services with AAPS in which the school district receives language instruction and the School of Education gets access to a teaching environment that serves as a professional learning laboratory. Both Freeman and AAPS leaders felt strongly that it not be a short-term program, but one that was dependable and long lasting. “In this era of shrinking resources,” says Freeman, “ the only way something like this partnership is going to achieve stability and durability is if each partner has something the other wants, and an exchange can be made.” And thus was born the Ann Arbor Languages Partnership.

“It’s truly a win-win situation for everyone,” says Freeman. “Children will learn Spanish from U-M apprentice teachers, as these new professionals are learning themselves.” And at a higher level, researchers in the school’s Teacher Education program can scrutinize the details of the entire endeavor to expand and fine-tune teacher education practices.

Coolican was brought in to direct the nascent partnership. Her expertise and interest in both second language acquisition theory and in preservice teacher education making her ideal for the role. She jumped into the work, collaborating with her AAPS partner, Dickinson-Kelley, who had become interim deputy superintendent for instructional services in the district.

The Spanish-Language Teachers

To teach Spanish to the children, A2LP needs about 50 apprentice teachers each year and recruits them from among the approximately 27,000 undergraduate students at the University of Michigan. In a program run by the School of Education, in which University of Michigan students are sent into classrooms to instruct young students, one might expect that education students would constitute the bulk of the teaching corps. Not so. About three-quarters of the student instructors, who are called ‘apprentice teachers,’ are from parts of the university other than the School of Education.

One reason for this is simply the essential requirement that the apprentice teacher speak Spanish. And, because it’s all volunteer, the people who express interest do so because they’re enthusiastic. Freeman notes “We get people who are close to the language, they’re passionate, and this goes back to the fact that they’re not necessarily studying to be teachers, but they’re drawn to teaching kids Spanish. Most of them either have Spanish in their backgrounds or they have experienced poor language instruction experiences in their own lives, and they want to show that it doesn’t have to be bad.”

The volunteers must pass a Spanish language assessment and then participate in an intense preparation program in the summer. Throughout the academic year, they attend and work in extensive weekly scaffolding sessions, through which they are prepared to deliver the next week’s instruction.

The Practice of Teaching

The use of non-teacher education students as primary deliverers of education creates a dynamic of great interest to the school’s A2LP-affiliated researchers as they study teaching and learning.

Freeman notes that A2LP exemplifies the school-wide interest in illuminating the practice of teaching. “In A2LP we showcase the notion that courses and credits aren’t what make effective teachers—it’s how you learn the practices that you need to do the work effectively. In the partnership, we don’t think of preparing and then teaching—it’s a bit like ‘just-in-time’—the apprentice teachers learn what they need to know in order to teach that week’s lessons. And that know-how accumulates over time.”

Whether the apprentice teachers should be taught solely what they need to know in order to deliver effective instruction, or whether they should be taught the pedagogical theories behind the actions, is a tension that they’re balancing. “We try to hit the sweet spot in the middle,” says Coolican. “I don’t want this to be a purely mechanical program in which we train people to respond in certain ways in classroom management situations, or to deliver instruction in a certain way. While they definitely need those skills, I want them to be mindful of what’s behind those techniques that they employ in classrooms.”

In the Classroom

In the schools, apprentice teachers visit third or fourth grade classrooms and deliver instruction. The children’s regular teacher monitors the instruction and provides feedback and some mentoring to the apprentice teacher. Molly Crankshaw, a third-grade teacher at Burns Park Elementary School, tries to incorporate parts of the Spanish instruction throughout the rest of the week. “While the apprentice teacher is giving his lesson, I’m observing and absorbing it all, so I know if they’re talking about clothing, or numbers, or school supplies, so that I can refer to these lessons at other times.

“Throughout the district, we’re moving towards integration of subjects,” says Crankshaw. “I bring some Spanish in throughout the day. Our birthday board is in Spanish and we have a Spanish bulletin board—we carry things over as much as we can.”

A powerful benefit of A2LP is the respect it affords to a group of students who are often marginalized—those students for whom Spanish is their first language. “For some of our Spanish-speaking students who might, in some other ways, not be academically successful, Spanish instruction gives them a chance to be shining stars in the classroom,” says Crankshaw.


Maria J. Coolican is Clinical Associate Professor

Donald Freeman is Professor

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