This is another story in KPCC's ongoing series, Classroom Core, that takes a close look at how the Common Core teaching standards are playing out in schools in Southern California.
When veteran teacher Matty Zamora first read the Common Core standards, she liked what she saw.
The standards aim to take students past simple memorization as they learn math and English language arts to more challenging cognitive and communication skills that are demanded today for college and career.
“Students are now being asked to demonstrate their thinking and the process that they went through to get to the answer, and that there are multiple ways to get to an answer,” said Zamora, assistant superintendent of the San Bernardino City Unified School District.
But imagine if you don’t spend your day learning in the English language. How do dual immersion students grasp the Common Core concepts?
It turns out that once educators had time to think about how Common Core could be taught in the classroom, they saw dual immersion learning as aligning surprisingly well with concepts like problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration.
While school administrators nationwide have expressed skepticism, confusion and even outright antipathy towards the new standards, Zamora for one realized that a good number of her students were already learning in the Common Core style.
In the classroom
Principal Maribel Lopez-Tyus of the district’s George Brown Elementary School said dual immersion teachers have always fostered peer interactions and peer-led learning because they had to.
“In the dual language program, the pedagogy was a lot of collaborative work and a lot of engagement,” Lopez-Tyus said.
When students are learning in another language, they need to hear it spoken and try, as frequently as possible, to speak it to each other, she said.
Dual language learning, like the Common Core, is language heavy. You talk about math, you talk about science, she said. But teachers serve more often as facilitators, with a heavy emphasis placed on small-group discussions rather than lectures, according to Lopez-Tyus.
“The teachers actually have to go around and listen to the kids speak,” she said. “They have to be able to ask them questions and they [students] have to be able to respond in the language of instruction.”
In one George Brown Elementary’s dual language class recently, first-graders formed in small groups debating in Spanish whether certain amphibians have legs.
One boy thinks caecilians don’t and his friend adds that some do. Now they have a problem to solve together.
Lorraine Perez, former principal of Foster Elementary in Baldwin Park, remembers wondering whether she would need to implement wholesale changes at her school when she first heard of Common Core. Then she read up on the standards and attended training.
“I started reflecting as I walked around my classrooms on my campus as a principal then, and just really thought, ‘You know what? A lot of this stuff is happening, and more so in my dual language classrooms.’”
But she did have some concerns.
First of all, she wondered if the standards would be translated so they could be applicable to dual language classrooms.
At the beginning
Silvia Dorta-Duque de Reyes, then biliteracy coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education, asked that question in 2009 when she first read about Common Core.
As with Zamora, she liked the standards for its emphasis on problem-solving and critical thinking. She wondered, though, if the standards would leave behind English language learners and students in dual language programs.
Reyes reached out to other bilingual educators to see what they thought about teaching the Common Core. “We said, ‘Well, if we want equity and access, we need to make sure that we translate and then linguistically augment the standards to represent the Spanish language,’” she recalled.
Reyes previously translated the state's education standards, so she asked her supervisor if she should just do it again for Common Core. Her question went all the way to the body that wrote the standards, and the answer was: “Yes, please do.”
So with two top Spanish-English linguists, Isabel Campoy and Pía Castilleja, she began work to translate the precise language of the Common Core and augment it to reflect what was needed in Spanish. The Common Core standards in Spanish went through many rounds of editing and an extensive peer-review before they were finally completed.
What will students read?
Perez was also not convinced that translating English-language textbooks and literature would help students’ learning in Spanish. The Common Core standards came with suggested English texts that illustrate the concepts which students need to learn for each standard.
“There are obviously lots of other stories in Spanish that could be used to teach those skills and would be a better fit,” she said.
In San Diego, veteran bilingual educator Silvia Dorta-Duque de Reyes was already on the case, searching for reading materials that would be more meaningful for students studying in Spanish.
“The Common Core was written with the mainstream English native student in mind,” she said. “I have no doubt about that.”
Reyes’ translation team also felt that the English language texts prescribed, even if translated, were not as worthwhile in Spanish as they would be for children mastering concepts in English.
“The consensus is that we want to be able to provide access to the same rigorous text,” Reyes said.
In English, the texts suggested for each standard are meant to demonstrate rigor and quality of language in literature, and exemplify the standard being taught. Why not make such a list of Spanish language books, she asked?
“Quality books in the authentic language carry the soul and culture of the people, and that is embedded in the language,” Reyes said.
Common Core in other languages
The effort to ensure Common Core worked for all raises a question: did the Common Core authors consider the needs of Spanish language learners, and those learning in Mandarin, German, Japanese and other languages?
Yes and no, said Kenji Hakuta, professor of education at Stanford University, and a member of the team that reviewed and edited the Common Core standards.
“[The] standards have always taken the [approach] that they are for all students,” he said. “The question has only been a question of implementation. What accommodations must be made for different subgroups of students so they can attain the standards?”
Hakuta said he felt confident that dual language and English language learners would adapt well to the new standards. “It’s not about learning by watching the teacher stand in front of the class. It’s about using language to learn content.”
Just how successful schools will be in helping dual immersion classes transition to the new standards may be told in part by results of Common Core-based tests, tests that students are currently taking across California.
While over 150,000 New York students have opted out of the Common Core exams out of a variety of reasons, California hasn’t seen a similar upwelling of concerns over how students will do when tested.
Principal Lopez-Tyus is not too concerned.
Her third-graders were engaged in tests last week and she feels they will do just fine. After all, they’ve always had to take tests in English.
Join us at KPCC's Crawford Family Forums on Sunday, May 31, 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., for a discussion on the search for good-quality Spanish children's books, with musical performances for the whole family. Register for this free event.