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CSUF staff, students pitch in at Summer Language Academy for newcomers to the U.S.

Cal State Fullerton associate professor Fernando Rodríguez-Valls is training a new generation of bilingual teachers in CSUF’s College of Education, but even bilingualism can only get him and his four student teachers so far in the Summer Language Academy, an English-learners program run by the university and Anaheim Union High School District.

“We have students from 15 different countries, speaking 12 different languages,” Rodríguez-Valls said. “When you don’t speak the student’s first language, that is a challenge, but we try to work around that.”

The Summer Language Academy is held at Savanna High School in Anaheim. Seventy-three ninth- and 10th-graders from across the district participate in the program, which runs for four weeks. Most participants immigrated to the United States in the past three years, but some arrived as recently as six months ago.

The students are divided into three classes, each led by four teachers. This ensures a 1:6 or 1:7 teacher-to-student ratio that Rodríguez-Valls said is crucial to building a rapport between instructors and new English learners.

The program is spearheaded by Rodríguez-Valls and Cynthia Vasquez Petitt, director of English Learner and Multilingual Services at AUHSD. Classes are taught by a combination of full-time teachers from AUHSD and student teachers from CSUF’s College of Education.

Two of the student teachers, Jacqueline Rodarte, 24, and Daniel Miranda, 27, completed their single subject credential program offered by the College of Education this past semester.

Miranda also worked with Rodríguez-Valls last summer as an instructor for the Migrant Summer Leadership Program hosted at CSUF. Sandra Vidal, 26, is on track to earn her credential at the end of next semester, and Veronica Gomez, 33, will begin the program this fall.

The student teachers went through a three-day training period before the start of the program in which they met the AUHSD teachers they’d be working alongside.

“I was so nervous before the program started,” Vidal said, “but the connection with the students was instant.”

AUHSD staff were impressed by the poise and know-how of the student teachers.

“They’re bringing in a lot of the recent research for teaching students who are learning a second language,” teacher Valentin Salazar said. “Definitely they’d be able to teach their own class.”

AUHSD teachers serve as mentors to the CSUF students, but the information exchange flows both ways. While AUHSD teachers can offer insight gleaned from years of classroom experience, the student teachers can offer the latest developments in English-learner research.

“There’s been so much learning from each other – the students learning from each other, the teachers learning from each other, the teachers learning from the students, and vice versa,” Vasquez Petitt said. “It’s very much a learning community.”

In the classroom

Many English-learner programs simply try to replace a student’s native language with English, but participants at the Summer Language Academy are encouraged to incorporate words and phrases from their first languages into their classwork. Learning English shouldn’t mean forgetting your native tongue, Rodríguez-Valls said.

“It’s not that you have to stop being who you are – it’s just adding a new layer, being here in America, being here in Orange County,” he said.

Four books form the backbone of Rodríguez-Valls’ program: “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros, “A Fire in My Hands” by Gary Soto, “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang and “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” a collection of poems from rapper Tupac Shakur.

The four texts deal with the same issues confronting Summer Language Academy students – how to form a sense of identity in a new country, and how to communicate that identity in a foreign tongue.

High school is a difficult time for anyone, much less a newly-arrived student with limited English skills. At the start of the program, participants were very shy and kept to themselves.

But later, Rodríguez-Valls said, they talked “nonstop.”

On a sweltering Tuesday morning at Savanna High School, families of the Summer Language Academy’s participants crowded into an auditorium for the program’s open house. It’s the first year for the program, and the open house drew a number of curious administrators from across the district.

On a tour of the classrooms, evidence of Rodríguez-Valls’ commitment to maintaining the students’ native tongues was on display. Vocabulary translated into the 12 languages spoken by program participants dotted the walls. Music played softly in the background – students are allowed to play songs from their home countries over the classrooms’ sound systems, Vasquez Petitt explained, and they rotate music privileges on a daily basis.

Thumbtacks marked home countries of students on the classroom map: Syria, Myanmar, Honduras, Korea and Somalia, for instance.

Five CSUF students attended the open house, candidates in the bilingual authorization program offered by the College of Education. Asked whether he would like to work at the Summer Language Academy in the future, Eduardo Lopez, 26, said, “Definitely.”

Lopez hopes to teach in Garden Grove, where many of the students speak Spanish or Vietnamese as their first language. The methods on display at the Summer Language Academy are not just useful for teaching newly-immigrated students; they’re useful for teaching any student learning English as a second language.

A growing need

A census conducted by the California Department of Education for the 2014-15 school year found that nearly 1.4 million students – 22 percent of total enrollment in California public schools – were classified as English-language learners. Forty-three percent of California public school students speak a language other than English at home.

This is a challenge for educators, particularly those who have never experienced the trials of learning a new language. The four CSUF student teachers grew up speaking Spanish at home, and their own experiences learning and struggling with English helped establish a sense of trust with their students.

“Learning a new language is very difficult, so when they knew that we had very similar experiences, they were willing to go deeper with this,” Vidal said.

AUHSD has a strong history of promoting bilingual and dual-immersion teaching strategies. The district was the first in Orange County to award the Seal of Biliteracy to students who demonstrate speaking, writing and reading proficiency in English and a second language.

The district is a frequent collaborator with CSUF, and the Summer Language Academy is just the latest chapter in a “strong, productive and comprehensive partnership” between the two, Rodríguez-Valls said.

The students have come a long way from their first day at Savanna. They chat amongst themselves and show each other pictures on their phones and listen to each other’s music. They’re more comfortable with the language, and more comfortable with living in America and Orange County.

But the real test will come this month, when the school year begins. During the regular school year, there is no 1:6 or 1:7 teacher-to-student ratio. More like 1:30. They will again compete with native English speakers for As and Bs.

It will be difficult, but Rodríguez-Valls is hopeful that the program has set them on a new trajectory, one that leads to high school graduation and, beyond that, college.

“I think most of them are going towards that path,” he said. “We don’t want to create a summer bubble. Now that they know how to speak, how to write, we don’t want them to go back to school and be quiet.”

Original Article by: Matthew Ormseth, OC Register

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