What World Language Instruction is Your Child Receiving this Year in Montclair?

World Language InstructionLast spring, Montclair residents mobilized to protest the district’s failure to provide the elementary school world language instruction mandated by NJ State Law.  Superintendent MacCormack quickly acknowledged the problem and made it a cornerstone of the new strategic plan that “By September 2013, a K-5 World Language program is offered in all Elementary schools.”  In a letter to parents she also acknowledged that “The district values a quality World Language program to prepare students for an increasingly growing global community. Please note that our district offers a variety of World Language instruction and will work to not only meet regulations, but to do so in a quality way.”

We are now three weeks into the semester.  Are your children receiving a “quality World Language program” taught in a “quality way?”  The NJ State Model Curriculum for World Languages is quite clear about what students should be receiving:

“All students should be given the opportunity to learn a world language in a program that offers appropriate time allocations and quality instruction.”

“A program that does not offer a sufficient amount of contact time and frequency of instruction assumes less student proficiency from the outset and denies district students access to excellence and equity in achieving the standards.”

Standard 7.1.A stipulates “interpersonal modes” of communication (ie direct communication with speakers of the target language) and authentic materials (ie produced in the country or countries where those languages are spoken).  It is not possible to achieve this with people who do not speak the target language and with materials written in English.

While Nishuane/Hillside have live language teachers, other elementary schools do not.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that this summer the district purchased tens of thousands of dollars of materials made in the USA (non-authentic videos, flashcards, workbooks), which they are handing out to non-Spanish speaking classroom teachers and telling them to “teach” Spanish (which they don’t speak).   In K-2 this is the Salsa program, where students sit in front of a television screen to watch 15-20 minute video clips of puppets chattering in Spanish.  Even where teachers speak Spanish or have Spanish-speaking assistants who could provide more interactive feedback, they have been mandated to let the videos run. This often takes place without any commentary or interpretation of the Spanish videos.

The Rosetta Stone program, which was licensed for grades 3-5, but did not work for several years, has been replaced by a new program called Spanish for Kids, which seems to be targeted more to the K-3 level than 3-5. Although the program’s web site strongly recommends its implementation by a certified teacher of Spanish (and all the video clips show activities run by Spanish teachers), third through fifth grade teachers are being asked to teach it whether they know Spanish or not.  At some schools these materials haven’t even arrived yet so teachers are unsure as to what and how they will be teaching.

So what’s happening in your classroom this fall?  Are your children receiving a “quality World Language program” taught in a “quality way?”  Have your children been “given the opportunity to learn a world language in a program that offers appropriate time allocations and quality instruction?”

E.N. Emery is a parent of children in Montclair Public Schools.

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25 COMMENTS

  1. My child is in her first year at Hillside after Nishuane. At Nishuane, Mandarin was mandatory 2x/week for 40 minutes. She said that the class was almost entirely in Mandarin, except maybe the last 10 minutes. I’ve yet to figure out what the plan is at Hillside. She tells me she has been to both Mandarin and Spanish classes with a live teacher. Both are using the same immersion style as Nishuane. She can select either in the aesthetics, but I’ve gotten no straight answer if/when she will need to select one or the other.

  2. That’s amazing, cnewlin1! Even if you don’t have details, at least you have had language teaching and lots of it.

    My child has never had language in the Montclair schools (third grader). Even though it’s a required subject only Nishuane/Hillside path seems to have teachers.

    I asked at back-to-school and my class teacher said materials were supposed to be coming, but she sure hoped they would provide assistance in teaching them because she doesn’t speak Spanish and doesn’t have the foggiest idea what she’ll do with the materials. We have only 20 min/week in the schedule for Spanish. I’m jealous.

  3. We’re getting nada* at Watchung. Nada nada nada*

    *”nada” means “nothing” in Spanish, which I’m explaining in case any elementary school kids happen to read this.

  4. Very disappointed to have zero language instruction at Bradford, which has served us well in other subjects. Nada, rien, nichts. (Laughing at the “nada” definition above!) This sends our kids to middle school at a serious disadvantage–and into the world unprepared as global citizens. Montclair, do better by our kids! and, you know, observe the state standards at a *minimum.*

  5. I have a daughter in 1st grade and a son in 4th grade at Northeast. I was asking my son what was going on in his Spanish class and whether his teacher spoke Spanish …. he responded that she had said, “We’re all learning together!” The poor woman. No one should be expected to teach in a field that is not his or her own. We can do better – we see it being done at Nishuane, with live teachers instead of videos, immersion classes instead of rote vocabulary lists. Why not at all the town’s elementary schools?

    It’s funny, my kids think they actually DO speak Spanish. But hopefully our goal is having our children be able to do more than spout lists of vocabulary words out of context….

  6. Someone has emailed me privately about an idea that he’s apparently pushing in town. It involves a more complete immersion, where some non-language classes are actually taught in the target language. This goes along well with a study someone else cited to me where 2 short classes a week – for a language not spoken at home – is simply not enough for one to learn.

    I see issues with this. We’ve enough difficulty just finding Mandarin teachers; imagine trying to find a larger number of people that can teach Mandarin and (for example) Math or Science.

    On the other hand, for languages more commonly found here this might work well. Or perhaps there is more we can do for recruiting with respect to Mandarin.

    Another issue is what happens to monolingual staff?

    Still, it does seem to be working elsewhere and therefore may be worthy of consideration, even if only as a slowly introduced and long term strategy.

    More about the model may be found at https://utahimmersion.org/ and elsewhere on the Internet if one searches for “utah immersion” and other related patterns. I’m still reading and digesting, but I’m wondering what others think.

    Whether we consider this model or not, though, I simply don’t see how one can call it “teaching the language” if the teacher doesn’t know the language in question.

    …Andrew

  7. It is the problem of teaching to a model curriculum that neither the Board of Education nor the School Superintendent understand from a true educational perspective.

    People who don’t know something teaching children who don’t know the same thing is of zero (or, more likely, negative) educational value. You cannot teach what you do not know.

    How languages are taught, through rote learning or immersion or computer programs is of significant importance. But more important is to set clear language learning objectives with clear pathways to achieve those. This is completely lacking in Montclair and much of the language instruction is, well, perfectly useless.

  8. They had the same option my daughter’s first year (K) at Nishuane where it was either a live Mandarin teacher or the classroom teacher TRYING to teach Spanish. That’s why I opted for Mandarin. The first grade year, every kid at Nishuane was automatically placed in Mandarin. The reason, I think, is that the Mandarin teacher funding apparently comes from the Chinese government rather than the typical bucket of funds.

    I’m not sure about the effectiveness of the teaching with only 40 mins twice a week, but it’s better than nothing. At least children get the gist of what another language is all about and some education about another culture. I’ve heard parents say various about the effectiveness of the Mandarin instruction from ‘they don’t think it’s worth it’ to ‘the kids learn a lot more than you realize’.

    Personally, given the difficulty of the language, it’s likely kids would learn a 2nd language faster with Spanish if that is the goal. The reason simply being that it’s closer to English and they have more ‘real life’ opportunity to practice.

    At any rate…I’m happy to have such a choice in the schools.

  9. @idratherbeat63 and agideon. Agreed. It’s ridiculous to throw money into buying useless materials just so the schools APPEAR to be satisfying state requirements.

    State of NJ: “Do you teach language in ALL Montclair schools?”
    Montclair: “Why yes, we have purchased materials for all schools and the students have Spanish in their schedule.”
    State of NJ: “But parents are complaining because the teachers aren’t using the materials because they don’t speak Spanish and haven’t been given instructions on how to use the materials.”
    Montclair: “Well classroom teachers have to spend the time pretending to do Spanish whether they understand or not. We bought the materials and it’s in the schedule!”

    Immersion is the way to go. I got an email about this, too, and there are many NJ schools going this route since students learn REAL language (vs. rote vocabulary lists @kloysen). If they can do it at the pre-K in Montclair why can’t they do it K-5, especially since it’s mostly cost-neutral? Definitely something for the BOE to consider.

    In the meanwhile, I think the Bradford Principal has the right idea. She’s scrambling feverishly to get Spanish-speaking volunteers to help in as many classrooms as possible so that the kids may (hopefully) learn something during this period where teachers must follow the district’s mandate to present the materials they may or may not understand (or may or may not have received).

  10. @chewlin (“I’m happy to have such a choice in the schools).

    It’s fantastic that you have had the choice. Not everyone has. Montclair’s school system does not operate by choice: we put in our preferences, but the School Board chooses the school our children attend.

    Legally speaking, the school board is required to provide the same educational opportunities for ALL CHILDREN and language is a required subject.

  11. Skeptical
    I agree. You should have the option in your school. I wouldn’t think finding a Spanish-speaking teacher that difficult in this area. It seems a matter of priorities.

  12. Someone asked at PTA last night and there is no clue what’s going on for third to fifth grade. No materials yet and no sense of how they will be used. Great awkward silence when asked whether they were really asking non-Spanish speakers to “teach” Spanish and then bumbling about “maybe there would be something they could do at home.” Comments here are probably right. Materials are being thrown at the problem but there’s no teaching.

    How do we fix this? I thought we were getting live teachers this fall so this is really annoying. Another wasted year for the kids.

  13. If language is being offered to some elementary school children it should be offered to all. It’s not, and that’s really unjust. My daughter has gotten nothing this year thus far.

  14. We voted with our feet on this issue this year by submitting a Freedom of Choice application (or whatever it’s called now) and moving our child to Hillside for third grade. Obviously, this wasn’t the only reason we changed schools, but it was certainly a factor in our decision-making.

  15. “If they can do it at the pre-K in Montclair why can’t they do it K-5, especially since it’s mostly cost-neutral? ”

    I’ve been told this too. I’m a bit skeptical (I’ve heard “free!” shouted far too often {8^), but I think it worth getting more information. I’d like to understand, for example, why we’ve had such difficulty finding Mandarin teachers (that aren’t even required to be teachers of subject-matter such as Science or Math) while other districts appear to have no such difficulty. What are we missing?

    What other NJ schools are doing this?

    From the district’s perspective, it would be interesting to audit the staff and find out just what untapped linguistic skills we have hidden in the faculty.

    …Andrew

  16. Thank you for bringing awareness to this important issue. I agree with many of the previous comments, and most esp. with idratherbeat63.
    It is sadly evident that some of our schools are not meeting the bare minimum required by law, and this must change.
    We have 2 kids in the system, a 3rd grader and a middle schooler.
    Our eldest had 4 years of supposed Spanish instruction with a live teacher (K-3), prior to being switched to the Rosetta Stone tapes in grades 4 – 5. She always peformed well on tests and in terms of grades, but somehow managed to learn zero Spanish. Truly, not even “nada!” (This is a SAIL student who was reading independently at age 3.)
    She has progressed to intermediate level Spanish in her second year of middle school. At back-to-school night, her teacher complained that many students often have trouble retaining the material. This did not surprise me, after the pattern of disengaged “learning” these kids have grown accustomed to during their primary years. Foreign language instruction at the primary school level is not only subpar or nonexistent; it also appears to interfere with the students’ ability to engage in this sort of material over the longterm.
    Our youngest (3rd grader at Bradford) has had no World Language instruction this year, or ever, really. Spanish is on the schedule for a split related arts period (a mere 20 min./week, which is hardy enough to learn anything), but so far there hasn’t been any instruction of any kind. Bupkis!
    I grew up in a trilingual environment and my college background includes studying language acquisiton in young children. Elementary school children are at the most ideal age for language study. It is possible to learn another language later in life, yes, but this particular window of opportunity cannot be recaptured. The benefits include stronger native language skills, which are universally important.
    All this to say that this is not a trivial cause. We have a right to demand that the BOE fulfill the legal mandate, pronto. No more excuses, no more sham materials, no more putting the onus on teachers who simply do not have the required expertise to teach the material.

    We need qualified World Language teachers and more class time to create meaningful change. What can we do to help advance the issue?

  17. Thank you, ceci. There is one more point to be added here. If young children are exposed to poor language instruction, they will develop patterns of thinking and learning that actually inhibit language learning later on.

    So these sham language courses implemented by Superintendent MacCormack not only do not provide for a genuine learning experience, but they will actually inhibit children from future learning, even when exposed to correct language learning systems.

    It is important to bear in mind that Superintendent MacCormack promised world language learning for all students at the beginning of this school year. She did not deliver, and she cannot deliver because she does not understand how to educate children in second or third languages.

  18. “What other NJ schools are doing this?”

    We’ve been studying Montclair’s world language issue for over a year. New Jersey is way behind other states in using the immersion model, but there are towns doing it: Englewood Cliffs started this year (Italian, French and Spanish). Hoboken has a public Spanish immersion school. Englewood has a very old Spanish immersion program.

    I’m not sure why the Northeast region is slow to adopting the model. There seems to be a bias against learning a second language among veteran educators. Maybe because the old, traditional once-a-week learning models don’t get good results? Connecticut is behind New Jersey in immersion programs. There are over 500 public immersion programs nationwide. Utah is the most aggressive. They want immersion in every public elementary school. Delaware is starting to get aggressive.

    I can tell you that I’ve met a second-grade immersion student. He was fluent in Spanish after starting in kindergarten. He could easily read, write and converse in Spanish.

  19. Also, I was told Trenton, Princeton and West Windsor are starting immersion programs.

    Princeton offered to share the teacher training cost with Montclair. I passed that offer to the Montclair’s Central Services.

  20. “I’ve been told this too. I’m a bit skeptical (I’ve heard “free!” shouted far too often {8^), but I think it worth getting more information.”

    It is true that the immersion model is at least cost neutral. There are ways it can actually save the district money. It is certainly less expensive than the way we teach k-5 languages at Nishuan and Hillside.

    This is the simplest way to explain cost neutral using estimates:
    School No. 1
    2 first grade classes with 2 regular elementary teachers and 50 students = $200,000
    School No. 2
    2 first grade immersion classes with 1 regular elementary teacher and 1 immersion elementary teacher, and 50 students = $200,000. Students learn 50 percent of day in immersion language. Teachers trade students half way through the day

  21. If you are interested in Montclair’s world language issue, you can join our updates list by email at mtclanguages[at]gmail[dot]com. We have more than 2,000 residents making use of these updates.

  22. I am so frustrated (but happy for Holly Korus and cnewlin1!). I really don’t understand why they can do it so well at one school and pretty much ignore the others when it’s a state-mandated topic. That can’t be legal.

    @agideon and mtlrlanguages I know kids who have been successful in an immersion program in Englewood and it’s VERY popular to set up immersion programs in NYC right now.

  23. Skeptical- We came from Englewood where my daughter was in an immersion program from pre- k to Kindergarten. So when she entered Nishuane in first grade she was fluent in Spanish. That was gone within the year.

    Maybe you already know this but, the reason the immersion program works in Englewood is because about 50% of the children entering the schools do not speak English.

    It is hard to have true immersion programs unless many of the students speak another language.

  24. Language learning is not so much different from learning mathematics or how to read and write. It requires careful planning that includes a process which is sequential, cumulative, continuous and proficiency-oriented. Many immersion programs have been highly successful where none of the students are native speakers or have had familiarity with the target language.

    Of course, if the leadership in the school district have no idea about what it means to learn or speak a second language, one can expect second language programs to fail completely. Giving students corporate developed language materials and then asking a teacher who has no idea about the language to teach it will fail.

    This is a problem with attempting to meet state requirements for education goals without understanding those requirements or embracing them.

    The atmosphere at home is also important. Students who fail or lose what they learn may not be sufficiently supported at home, or their parents may not adequately understand foreign language learning. This is another reason why dialogue and discussion with the community are needed when new goals and strategies are introduced in an education system.

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