In the Classroom

Indiana may add honors for bilingual graduates

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The IPS board gave approval for the district to house a new dual-language immersion charter school next year.

Efforts to boost foreign language learning in Indiana are winning strong support at the Statehouse this year.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Education Committee today praised a bipartisan bill that would add a special seal of accomplishment to the diplomas of high school graduates who learned a second language well enough to qualify as fully bilingual.

Senate Bill 267 is co-authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee from Auburn, and the Senate’s Democratic leader, Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson.

The bill would award the graduation seal for what it calls “biliteracy” when a student takes a minimum number of credit hours in English and foreign language classes and passes a foreign language exam. The Indiana State Board of Education would specify how many credits are needed and choose the test if the bill becomes law.

Biliteracy is intended to require that students go beyond simply being able to converse in a second language.

“It’s the ability to speak, read, write and understand two different languages,” said Pamela Gemmer, a retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher who spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the Indiana Foreign Language Teachers Association and two other groups.

“It’s bipartisan,” Gemmer said, “and it doesn’t cost. We want our youngsters to be proud of their ability to function in a second language.”

Students learning English as a second language could also earn the seal if they can demonstrate proficiency in both their native language and English, Lanane said.

“It’s recognition for an individual who can show proficiency in two languages,” he said. “It is to encourage our students to be biliterate.”

The bill would recognize students who can show they are bilingual in “modern languages” but also in Latin, American Sign Language, Native American languages and other “native languages.”

But the bill could soon go further to encourage foreign language learning.

Committee Chairman Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he planned to amend Senate Bill 267 when the committee meets again on Thursday so it would also establish a dual language immersion pilot program. A vote is also expected on Thursday.

Behning authored House Bill 1635, which would create a pilot program to establish programs that would allow students to learn half the day in a foreign language like Chinese, Spanish or French.

He modeled the program after a similar effort in Utah, which he said has spurred widespread dual-language immersion, especially in Chinese languages.

Behning traveled to China last year said he returned believing more Hoosier children learning Chinese languages could give the state an advantage as that country becomes an increasingly important U.S. trading partner.

But House Bill 1635, he said, has been assigned to the budget-making Senate Appropriations Committee and he is unsure of its fate there. So instead he hopes to pair the immersion pilot idea with the graduation seal by creating a broader version of Senate Bill 267 to encourage language learning in two ways.

Both ideas have lots of support among legislators. Senate Bill 267 passed the Senate last month 50-0 and House Bill 1635 passed the House 95-0.

Representatives of the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana Federation of Teachers also both testified for the bill today.

The federation’s lobbyist, Sally Sloan, said she believed the graduation seal will have the impact its advocates are hoping for.

“I think it will be a huge motivator for students and helps fill a need for students with a passion for languages,” she said. “It will help the global economy too.”

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.

First Person

This Betsy DeVos-inspired Twitter thread recounts the ups and downs (but mostly ups) of one school’s Common Core shift

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Noah Mackert with one of his former students in 2015.

When U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proclaimed in a major speech Tuesday that “Common Core is a disaster” and “dead” at the federal education department, something stirred in Noah Mackert.

Mackert, a former New York City educator now living in Massachusetts, recalled that the standards had prompted anything but a disaster at his school after New York rolled them out in 2011. So he took to Twitter to share the story of what it was like when Democracy Prep, the charter network where he worked and now consults, made the transition.

“I know that many Americans on the right and the left have negative associations with the phrase ‘Common Core,’ even if they’ve never seen the standards,” Mackert told Chalkbeat. (He sits on our Reader Advisory Board.) “I have been carrying around quite an alternative narrative about the Common Core, and I felt moved to share it.”

In 17 tweets, Mackert describes how teachers at his school overhauled their assignments to fulfill the standards’ demand that students be able to identify, analyze, and cite evidence from their reading. After students bombed the first round of exams tied to the standards despite those efforts, he writes, teachers made their own tests even more challenging as well. More importantly, he says, they started putting ideas, not isolated reading or math skills, front and center in their lessons.

“In a real way, the Common Core tests were so difficult that they forced us to stop trying to prepare for them so directly,” Mackert writes. “It was terrifying, at first. Then liberating.”

Despite DeVos’s proclamation, the Common Core is still alive and well in many states, even if its name has changed. Mackert said that reality had inspired him, as well.

“I wanted to show that even if the term ‘common core’ is never used again, much of the standards themselves remain, especially in NY where the standards were only lightly revised and rebranded,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can read his whole thread below.