Thursday, August 13, 2009

What kind of elementary program do we have?

I read an article in this month's MiWLA publication from a woman named Stacy Witkowski, who teaches elementary education on the other side of the state. At last year's MiWLA conference, she presented a session on how to teach elementary education, and was asked (elected?) to repeat the session at the regional conference. I attended her presentation in Michigan; I did not attend the Central States conference. She was a little self-deprecating, but she's probably further along the learning curve than she realizes. I took a number of REALLY good ideas from her presentation, and have some thoughts about the Q-and-A session afterwards. (The idea of giving all elementary students a T-shirt with their name on it, to be worn in school during the first week, during specials classes, and when there's an itinerant educator in the room, is one that's never quite left me.)

In the article, she mentions some of the different models of elementary Spanish programs, and all the different schedules a school can develop to implement these models. She lists among them FLEX, FLES, and Immersion programs, and goes on to define them. (I've read all of these definitions and numbers somewhere before, but I don't know where. I'm just saying that Stacy didn't just make them up. Although, if she did, I'd still believe her.)

FLEX stands for "foreign language exploration." Stacy suggests that if your students get an average of less than 60 minutes of world languages a day, you probably have a FLEX program. The students will learn a few words, get familiar with the sounds, maybe remember from one year to the next the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" in Spanish. (I was mega-excited that last year's 1st graders still remember the "Coquí" song from kindergarten. Then I found out that it was on Dora the Explorer. From a learning standpoint, still exciting, but...) A suitable expectation is to get students excited about the language. An unsuitable expectation is fluency.

FLES stands for (I think) "foreign language in elementary schools." There's a website: . Stacy suggests that programs of this kind have at least 75 minutes of language instruction a week (15 min / day minimum). This kind of time dedication can lead to strong lingustic skill development, if not true fluency.

Immersion stands for--well, immersion. All target language, all the time. It's not a word I like very much, because if you immerse a human in something as fluid as language, they'll drown. That's just nomenclature, though. We don't have this kind of program.

These definitions are never very far from my mind, because once my principal asked me, "Why can't our elementary students speak Spanish?" He didn't mean it as a criticism of me, but the answer that leapt to my mind was, "Because the elementary Spanish program has been poorly served by the last 3 people to hold this position, and I'm not doing such a bang-up job yet." I don't remember if I actually said this out loud or not.

But it did set me to wondering--after 5 years of elementary school Spanish, how much should a student know? She should certainly have a pretty solid grasp of some basic stuff--how to ask for things, use manners, colors, numbers, etc. She should probably be able to differentiate spoken Spanish from other spoken languages, but that's not a content expectation.

I meet with the elementary students once a week for an hour, or twice a week for 30 minutes, whenever I can manage it. This year, I may or may not meet with the students of one class for an hour a day for 3 weeks straight, then not again for 12 weeks. So how much Spanish can you learn in that time?

I think we have a FLEX program, strictly from the numbers. But I think we have the potential for a pretty good FLEX. Our elementary students should be learning more than they are, but I don't think we can realistically expect them to speak Spanish after elementary school.

After middle school, though....

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