In many school districts, especially in Greater Los Angeles, the discussion of bilingual education is a common, and in my opinion, extremely important one. I have taught at schools that have an incredible array of programs – from completely neglecting students’ home languages, to having a wonderful “half-and-half” program, and others that fully allow their students to integrate from their language to English when they are ready. I will not get into my personal philosophy now, however I have to preface this post by saying that I believe young children should learn in whichever ways they need in order to gain self-confidence and success. Once they feel that element of achievement and feel safe, they will learn what is necessary at an unprecedented pace, whether that is math, music, or an entirely different language.

One of my elementary schools has a phenomenal sequential language program in which all students in Kindergarten through grade 2 speak Spanish, grades 3 and 4 are part of transitional language classes, and then by approximately grade 5 (and so on), students speak and learn solely in English. Of course, we all know that the earlier a child learns a language, the better the success rate, however the fact of the matter is that these students do not have that option. With a this program, though, students are given the tools to be confident in achieving at a high level both linguistically and academically.

Moving along, I insert myself in this picture by being the music teacher for this school’s third grade classes. We have an curriculum and a great set of resources, so I felt good and was ready to go. Things had been going well, until last week when I experienced a slight set-back, that most teachers can empathize with – I had an influx of new students halfway through the year. The problem that it posed for me however, was that these new students just moved to Los Angeles and only spoke Spanish. This group of students had not been on the school track that would have brought their English to a proficient level, they were only on ground level. For a while, I continued to teach as I had been teaching, since the technique of full-inclusion is also useful, but I quickly realized that it only lead to the classroom teacher translating everything to the new students, or the students around them continuously talking in order to explain the concepts to the students in Spanish.

In that moment, I realized my mistake: I was expecting these students not only to learn everything that I was teaching in English (a language completely foreign to them in that moment), but I was also asking them to use this language to understand a completely new other language: music. So why not get rid of the handicap (English) and just teach them music? In this moment, I was fortunate to have several advantages – I can speak conversational Spanish, all of the old and new students could speak Spanish, and I could use the new language of music to level the playing field for all students.

As soon as I took this leap, my teaching changed drastically. I found that by teaching in what is a foreign language for me, the new students were able to learn with more comfort, and it forced me to reflect on the best way to communicate with them. I quickly found myself doing the following:

–       Talking less and slowing down my pace

–       Using more visual aids and cues

–       Integrating more terms and concepts related directly to the music

–       Giving examples both visually and aurally

–       Asking questions more frequently

–       Requiring the students to reflect and discuss with one another

In the end, despite my excitement of these new self-found tools, what I realized most importantly is that these are skills I should be using all of the time, whether teaching a bi-lingual class or not. When I reflected on this lesson, it was a turning point for me. And sure, the lesson went well because we were speaking in Spanish, it went well because the children love the manipulatives of a music lesson, but most importantly, it went well because I slowed down…and became a more thoughtful, concise, and conscious teacher. This experience forced me to think outside of the box, which in turn, took me right back to the basic teaching skills that I ‘learned’ from day one; I finally had an experience that forced me to use those tools. The new students felt fantastic, and their eyes sparkled with the fact that they were happy and successful in a new setting. Music became a constant and a saving grace for them, instead of one of the many concerns they were already facing.

What have you learned from bilingual teaching and learning? What tools do you use? Share your stories.

Happy Teaching!