In the Classroom

20 years of Spanish immersion make Lawrence Township a model for Indiana

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

The little boy’s lips were set in a hard line across his face, his head bent over his worksheet as he tightly grasped an orange crayon in his fist while his neighbor chatted freely.

“I already started coloring,” the other boy declared. “Crayons are more faster.”

But the problem wasn’t that the boys were talking, as it might be in other second grade classrooms. The problem was that they were talking in English.

In Mabel Ramos’ language immersion classroom at Forest Glen Elementary School, even socializing must happen in Spanish. That’s what immersion means — completely surrounding students by a new language until they become fluent.

“It’s going to help as they grow up, not only the academic piece but the personal social skills,” Ramos said. “You want them to be really prepared in every single area, not only academic.”

Forest Glen is Lawrence Township’s Spanish language immersion elementary magnet school. It’s an example of exactly the sort of idea touted by legislators this year as a way to expand career opportunities for students.

Senate Bill 267, passed and signed into law by the governor last month, set up a grant program schools and districts can apply for to create their own language immersion pilot programs, in Spanish or other languages, much like what they already have at Forest Glen.

The township is way ahead of the game: it’s been doing this at Forest Glen for 20 years.

Forest Glen’s assistant principal, Jerome Omar Lahlou, believes this is the best way to learn a new language.

“Research shows that bilingualism can truly and successfully be achieved by language immersion, which is the most effective way to teach a second language to students,” Lahlou said.

Grades K-6: building a strong foundation

It’s not like Spanish immersion at Forest Glen is a small speciality magnet for just a handful of students, as magnet programs sometimes are in other districts. The school is huge: more than 650 kids are enrolled.

But there is still a wait-list. Lahlou’s own children took years to get a spot.

The program is popular with both a fast-growing Spanish-speaking population in the township and families that want their kids to graduate high school fluent in Spanish.

Lahlou said immersion schools are especially helpful for Spanish-speaking students because picking up English is easier when they are learning in Spanish at the same time.

“You are coming to school to learn with the language that you are really learning at home,” Lahlou said. “And then as you learn English along the way, then you transfer all that knowledge to English.”

Three girls in Mabel Ramos' third grade class at Forest Glen Elementary School work on writing letters to students in Cuba. Immersion classes are primarily taught in Spanish.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Three girls in Mabel Ramos’ third grade class at Forest Glen Elementary School work on writing letters to students in Cuba. Immersion classes are primarily taught in Spanish.

Lahlou said English speakers get better at Spanish from talking with their Spanish-speaking peers.

“The source of the language became not only the teacher, but from the students around them,” Lahlou said.

Younger students spend more time speaking exclusively in Spanish. In third grade, that changes to 70 percent. By fourth grade, the day is split 50-50, Spanish and English.

The school has learned over the years that approach works best. Start them with too little Spanish, and by later grades they don’t have a strong foundation in either language. Those splits give kids enough work on English grammar and reading so they can pass ISTEP.

For a project in her third-grade immersion class, Mabel Ramos is having her students write letter about themselves to send to other students in Cuba.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
For a project in her third-grade immersion class, Mabel Ramos is having her students write letter about themselves to send to other students in Cuba.

Forest Glen has a 77.6 percent passing rate on ISTEP, higher than both the district and state passing rates. About 44 percent of the school’s students are Hispanic, and 46 percent are from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, earning an annual income below $43,500 for a family of four.

Lahlou said the opportunity to learn a new language and for Spanish speakers to continue learning in their native language is immeasurable. And he should know — he speaks five: Spanish, English, French, Arabic and Catalan, a Romance language spoken in parts of Spain and France.

“There is really no tool to measure the benefits because there are so many that we don’t even know,” Lahlou said. “You feel like you can achieve things that were not even possible, that you can achieve anything in life.”

Grades 7-8: Moving past social skills

Middle school can be a turning point for immersion students. Either they bolster what they know and approach fluency, or they begin to lose it.

“When they arrive here we can see huge changes in the language,” Fall Creek Valley Middle School language arts teacher Gema Camarasa said. “From seventh grade first day to the end of eighth grade, those two years, if they really work as we tell them to do, day by day, the language speeds up. It’s crazy.”

But sometimes, pride gets in the way, the school’s science immersion teacher, Giselle Andolz-Duron, said.

“Sometimes because of where they’re at in their developmental stage they will resist using the target language, in this case Spanish,” she said. “But when friends come around, all of a sudden they know all the Spanish in the world.”

Middle and high school students have fewer immersion classes than they did in the elementary school program. At Fall Creek Valley, they take science, social studies and language arts in Spanish, as well as an English language arts class and other electives.

Students in Gema Camarasa's English class at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township drew comics during their unit on the book Don Quixote.
Students in Gema Camarasa’s English class at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township drew comics during their unit on the book Don Quixote.

Andolz-Duron said it’s the upper grades where students start to gain the “academic language” that allows them to truly discuss subjects like science, social studies, literature and math in another language, rather than just social topics.

But the social connections are at the heart of the program, too. For many students, they’ve been learning with the same kids since Kindergarten. Introducing new kids into the mix in middle school can be difficult because in the beginning, the immersion program primarily served native-English speakers who were being taught primarily in Spanish.

Six years ago that changed at Forest Glen. Fueled by an influx of children who spoke Spanish as their first language, a second approach was used: the dual-language program put both kids who speak English at home and those who spoke Spanish first in class together.

That’s been well-received, but those students are just now approaching middle school age. Current middle and high school students are mostly native-English speakers, with a few native-Spanish speakers joining along the way.

But in two years, the first group of dual-language immersion students will reach seventh grade. Fall Creek Valley Principal Kathy Luessow is excited for how the change will help the school better connect to its increasingly diverse student body.

“I can see where that is going to help us reach more of our families and communicate better with them and invite them to be part of the schooling in ways we have not done before,”  Luessow said.

The program as a whole helps open students up to the wider world. They learn from teachers who are bilingual, and many of them grew up in other Spanish-speaking countries. Andolz-Duron is from Puerto Rico, and Camarasa is from Spain. The kids sometimes don’t realize the value of those opportunities, Andolz-Duron said.

“In the U.S., our Spanish speaking population continues to grow and will continue to grow,” she said. “It’s important that we continue to integrate both the language and culture into our mainstream society. It’s everywhere and yet we don’t understand it.”

Grades 9-12: Putting on the finishing touches

By the time immersion students reach Manual Vega’s world cultures class at Lawrence North High School, many are very close to fluency.

“They leave high school really proficient, just some problems with verbs or articles,” Vega said. “They need to polish a little bit more, but they understand everything.”

It was a warm Tuesday afternoon in early May, and Vega had a class of freshmen who he was lecturing about imperialism and colonialism. He lectured some, and the students also read from the textbook.

Rows of students methodically took notes as their classmates read, competently if unenthusiastically, about colonial trade. It was entirely in Spanish, but otherwise it felt like a typical high school class.

Vega, a native Spanish speaker, spoke normally. It was just expected that his students understood. And they did.

Vega has seen the immersion program grow from its infancy. A 32-year teaching veteran from Puerto Rico, 20 of those years have been in immersion classes. Vega started out teaching second grade at Forest Glen in 1995, moved on with his students to fifth grade, and then on to high school. That group of students graduated in 2006.

“I wanted to follow how they are working in the immersion program, improving and seeing that,” Vega said.

Vega helped design the immersion curriculum, especially in the upper grades. In high school, social studies classes are in Spanish, and students can choose Spanish language electives, such as Advanced Placement Spanish Literature or film studies.

By graduation, many native English speakers who have stuck with immersion have no trace of an accent when they speak Spanish. Some go on to study Spanish in college, Vega said, and others even take on other languages, which is a much easier feat when you’ve explored one already.

That decision is still a little far off for Gigi Rowland, a 15-year-old freshman in Vega’s class. She’s not sure yet what she wants to study — maybe medicine, maybe teaching or even business.

But she knows she’ll at least minor in Spanish.

Rowland has been in immersion classes in the district for 10 years, and she knows she’s gotten the chance to be part of something special. The cultural experiences, close relationships she’s built with other immersion students and job opportunities being bilingual will open up to her were worth the years of hard work.

“In a way, I feel bad for everyone else because it’s such a great opportunity, and not enough people are given this,” she said. “It is important to me to take advantage of it.”

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

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 the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.