domingo, 27 de mayo de 2007

Final Report. 2.006-07. Language Assistant.

Observations and Suggestions Regarding Bilingualism

By Julia Halprin Jackson,

Auxiliar de Conversación

1) How does an Auxiliar de Conversación integrate into a Spanish primary school?

My name is Julia Halprin Jackson and I have worked as an Auxiliar de Conversación (Language and Culture Assistant) at CEPR El Chaparral in La Cala de Mijas, Spain, for the 200.6-200.7 school year. When I arrived here in October, I learned that although El Chaparral is a very international school with many multilingual students, it was only beginning its “year zero” with the Bilingualism program set forth by the Junta de Andalucía. This implied that our centre was in transition as a Spanish public school (with Spanish staff and curriculum) to a bilingual institution, where students will one day use English activities to complement their classes. My challenge was then to use both English and Spanish as an in-class aide, all the while helping my coordinator David González develop accessible bilingual educational materials for the following school year.

I must admit that I was initially confused by my multiple roles as an Auxiliar, mainly because the specific needs of our school demanded a different service than that originally described by the Junta de Andalucía, and also because I could never tell if I should be speaking in English or in Spanish. In order for an Auxiliar to integrate seamlessly into the educational environment, one must understand the demographics and background of one’s school. What I didn’t realize when I moved to La Cala from California was that El Chaparral is situated on the Mijas Coast, a beautiful and very international part of Málaga that is host to hundreds of different nationalities, the large majority of which speak English. We have 450 students at El Chaparral of 38 different nationalities, which means that although we have a very culturally rich student body, a large percentage of the students are not native Spanish speakers, and may arrive at any point of the school year without knowing a single word. It became immediately clear that my number one priority as an Auxiliar would be helping English-speaking students learn Spanish, even though the long-term objective was helping introduce English into Spanish classrooms.

Where did we start? David organized my schedule so I could rotate classes every hour, thus giving me the chance to work with students of all ages, and be exposed to a variety of different teaching styles and methods. I have worked mostly with the second-, third-, fifth-, and sixth-grade classes. My responsibilities vary depending on the teacher’s preference, the class subject, and individual student needs. Basically, I have three different functions:

1. Working individually with English-speaking children who are learning or improving their Spanish. We use worksheets or materials that are specifically written for non-native students learning Spanish.

2. Working with English-speakers in groups. We use worksheets that are based on the pertinent subject material (for example, science or math), and I help clarify the instructions and translate any technical terms the students may not know.

3. Translating class lecture alongside the teacher while he/she is teaching. I give an immediate English version of class, emphasizing its concept or theme, instead of only focusing on the acquisition of Spanish. Usually, teachers want direct translations for more specialized classes, such as science.

David and I agreed that the main priority for our school was to integrate the English-speaking children into the Spanish class environment. Many English-speaking children are in a state of language transition, and we can take advantage of their growing bilingualism by using them as examples of English pronunciation. However, in classes where the students are recent immigrants, or have had trouble learning Spanish, it is most important that they understand basic concepts while acquiring their second language. It is crucial that the class environment is established as a safe place for language exploration, all the while acknowledging that managing a multilingual class of primary schoolers is no easy task.

I think that as an Auxiliar, one can facilitate one’s own integration by identifying with the non-native Spanish speakers at a school like ours. I have been so focused on emphasizing the use of Spanish and helping international students feel more involved, that I have not had the opportunity to emphasize the use of proper English with the Spanish staff. In order for a school to function as a bilingual institution, it needs a bilingual staff that has been adequately prepared to give class in a second language. I will include some suggestions for staff members later.

2) Process of Elaborating Materials

So how does a school become bilingual? Not only does it need to provide a safe, comfortable environment for language acquisition and exchange, but it needs an appropriate educational curriculum to reinforce its second language. This year David has taught me how to research and write didactic units, creative classroom themes that help develop basic skills. We both agreed that as a foreigner, an Auxiliar can provide interesting cultural ideas that make language learning more hands-on. We wanted to inspire curiosity about other cultures while complementing the needs and goals of the Spanish curriculum.

We agreed on three different unit themes: Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food. Each theme was carefully chosen to reflect traditions specific to the United States, while emphasizing the concepts, attitudes and goals of the Spanish curriculum. I was a literature and Spanish degree and therefore had never learned how to plan an educational unit before. David showed me that didactic units are usually composed of the following:

1) Objetivos (objectives)

What are our goals? For example: “to learn vocabulary related to Thanksgiving”.

2) Contenidos conceptuales (concepts)

What main ideas are we expressing? For example: “respect for other cultures”.

3) Contenidos procedimientales (procedures)

What activities teach these ideas? Such as: “learning vocabulary flashcards”.

4) Contenidos actitudinales (attitudes)

What attitudes or morals would we like to reinforce? I.e.: “showing thanks for what we have”.

5) Programación (lesson sequence; programming)

How do we order the lessons? Example: “Session one: learn rhyme. Session two: Do crossword puzzle to review new words”.

6) Criterio de evaluación (evaluation criteria)

How do we evaluate the students´ understanding of the material? Example: “Create a family tree”, “classify food groups”, etc.

So once I understood how to structure a didactic unit, David encouraged me to begin researching materials for each theme. Together we discovered a wealth of useful educational resources on the internet, where teachers can download flashcards, create their own worksheets, research background information, discover interactive learning games, and enter a world of virtual classrooms. Some of our favourite websites are:





This is just the beginning. Once at a website, one can refine searches by entering desired themes or units (Martin Luther King Jr., nutrition, etc), or even following holiday calendars. Many websites offer free monthly online newsletters that keep teachers updated with new ideas and methods, and offer places for educators to exchange advice and resources.

When writing a didactic unit designed for a bilingual classroom, there are a number of things to keep in mind. Although the main idea is to introduce English materials into a Spanish classroom, we do not want to simply replicate all the same information in another language. Nor do we want to overwhelm non-native teachers with an overload of complex English assignments that require lots of explanation. Not only that, but we still must follow the basic Spanish educational standards. We cannot sacrifice an effective Spanish education in favour of introducing English vocabulary.

Facing these challenges, I was again confused by my choice of language: while electing primary-level English activities that complemented their Spanish curriculum, I had to recognize that the Spanish teachers who would be giving these classes would most likely not be completely fluent in English. In addition, I had to comply with the educational standards defined by the Junta de Andalucía, and assumed that the programming needed to be clarified in Spanish. In the end, David and I created the didactic units in the following fashion:

1) We researched each unit and organized lists of possible class activities.

2) We clarified the objectives/attitudes/procedures/etc. for each intended class (English, Spanish, Art, Music, Science, etc.)

3) We translated any necessary background information or complex English materials, provided answer keys and other key links for further development.

4) After the lesson programming was completed, we divided each class into sessions, and wrote step-by-step suggestions in Spanish on how to integrate these English activities into the classroom.

After we finished our third didactic unit, we turned our focus to more generic educational materials. David had collected an abundance of English school resources off the web, and divided them by class subject and year. He wanted to find materials that complemented each theme or unit, used pertinent vocabulary and introduced related concepts in English. We made and bound photocopies of a wide variety of worksheets so teachers could choose how to develop their own bilingual class. Among our bound books we have: Activities for Young Learners, Maths for Third-, Fourth-, and Fifth-Grades, Festivities, Art for Third Grade, Science for Third Grade, and Songs for Young Learners (with an accompanying CD).

Our hope is that next year’s third-grade bilingual class will be able to complement their daily activities with interesting, cultural tidbits in English. Our idea is to add an additional class every year, so that the bilingual class will help create and further develop a fully bilingual centre. Poco a poco…

3) The Auxiliar´s Relationship with the School

In my experience, my role as Auxiliar means working alongside and learning from my coordinator, all of the teachers, especially those whose classes I help, the headmaster and administrative staff, the Interculturalidad teachers, and the students themselves. This has definitely been a year of learning for me. I’ve learned that every classroom has its own unique environment, because there is a distinct style for every teacher, for every subject, for every student, for every language. Because our school is in its “year zero”, I did not feel prepared to give classes in English to students who needed more than anything to improve their Spanish. Not only that, but my contract as an Auxiliar limits me to being an aide, not a professional teacher. At first I felt very shy and awkward in class, even though the teachers and staff did everything they could to make me feel comfortable. My nerves had little to do with the environment they created; rather it was my own inexperience with teaching, and my insecurity with Spanish, that limited me. On top of that, I had just moved thousands of miles away from home by myself, and arrived in La Cala with only one government letter informing me that I would be working “in Málaga”. I had to find a place to live, apply for a residential visa, buy a cell phone, and develop an Andaluz accent.

What helped me transition into life as an Auxiliar? The short answer is time and patience. The long answer is that I learned how to ask for help. It took me a few weeks, but I soon learned that I was surrounded by an entire school full of people eager to help me. I will never forget David pulling me aside one day, when I was feeling very intimidated and lost, and saying, “Julia, soy tu hermano español”. Within minutes he and Luis, one of the Interculturalidad teachers, had set me up with a stack of useful teaching materials and both seemed to really believe in me. I was surprised by their demonstration of faith and felt a renewed confidence in my job at school.

One cultural difference between a work environment in the United States and one in Spain is an ingrained sense of hierarchy. I was not expecting to be treated like an equal at school, not because I don´t value my own work, but because I am not a certified teacher, nor am I Spanish, and I was a fresh university graduate with limited work experience. In my experience in the United States, there is always a degree of cordial formality between boss and employee. I was surprised to find that at El Chaparral, not only did all of the teachers and staff treat me as an actual peer, but they truly valued my opinions and persuaded me to offer my own ideas and suggestions.

David is my coordinator and our resident Bilingualism expert, and I always follow his instructions and take careful note of his suggestions. At the same time, every teacher I work with has taught me his/her own styles or preferences. I also communicate a lot with our headmaster Rafael Martin, our directive team, the Interculturalidad staff, the extracurricular teachers, the AMPA (Spanish equivalent of PTA; Parent-Teacher Association), the janitor Domingo, and any substitutes and specialists. And, to be perfectly honest, I have learned quite a lot from the students themselves: how to switch languages mid-sentence, how to really ask for help in Spain, how to communicate with someone who does not speak neither English nor Spanish, how to give a proper high-five…

4) Suggestions for Improvement

This year we have tried to establish a base from which to start next year’s third-grade bilingual class. In my opinion, in order for our school to become functionally bilingual, we need at least one fluent, bilingual teacher for this class. I have poured so much effort into helping English-speakers learn or improve Spanish that I have unknowingly missed what would have been a useful opportunity to help the Spanish staff with their English. I just recently began giving informal English classes to interested teachers in attempt to reinforce their meagre That’s English classes, but I think that another role of the Auxiliar should be to inspire informal, fun, everyday uses of English to help the teachers and staff feel more comfortable practicing pronunciation.

I think that the Bilingualism program has some great ideas and lofty plans, but what the Junta de Andalucía does not realize is that language acquisition takes years of practice and usage. I don´t think it is fair for the Spanish government to ask their already hard-working staff to suddenly master a complicated language in the middle of studying for the Oposiciones and developing their own careers. At the same time, I believe that bilingual education is becoming more necessary every year, especially here on the Costa del Sol. Our school is technically already multilingual, just by the mere fact that we have so many students from all over the world. Our students have the advantage that they are always hearing their peers speaking in other languages. Problems arise when these groups do not integrate, or when English-speaking students view teachers who speak English as their personal translators. At times it felt unnatural for me to speak Spanish with a British child, knowing full well that we could both express ourselves better in English. I have insisted on speaking in Spanish because I am their role model, and if they realize that even native English speakers must improve and use Spanish, maybe they will speak it too.

Overall, I have a few important suggestions for next year’s Bilingualism program:

1) The Auxiliar de Conversación needs to have a clear role at school from day one. Whether it is as an English pronunciation assistant, an in-class aide, a lecture translator, or a researcher of educational materials, he or she must have an explicit function at school that is understood by the entire staff. I wouldn’t have minded planning more activities, but I was never certain how far my responsibilities extended, or what kind of help a teacher wanted or needed.

2) The staff and teachers participating in the Bilingualism program need to have adequate English preparation and compensation for the energy and time they devote to the project. Two hours of That’s English classes a week are not enough to teach anyone English, much less create a bilingual educational staff. Next year’s Auxiliar should incorporate English into his/her daily conversations with the Spanish staff, and if possible, help discover a healthy balance between languages in class. Any teachers interested in participating in Bilingualism should be made aware of the time and energy commitment involved (i.e. the number of hours per week, any recommended courses or resources, etc.), and proportionally compensated. It is tiring to be a primary school teacher, and even more so when trying to navigate a second language that one is still learning.

3) The bilingual teachers and Auxiliar must be given, or develop, practical activities that incorporate English in class in a useful way. Bilingualism is an idealistic pursuit; without actual classroom resources, it is hard to accomplish our goals. David and I hope that the assignments, didactic units and resources that we have gathered this year will inspire similar projects to keep the curriculum current. It is crucial that the director, Auxiliar and bilingual teachers are flexible and can adapt resources to suit the needs of their classes.

4) The use of English should never eclipse the use of Spanish. While our goal is bilingual immersion, any English activities we introduce should be used as a complement to the just-as-important Spanish ones. As important as it is for the students to speak English, their mathematics or science classes should not suffer for lack of attention. Learning English vocabulary does not cancel out their need to learn the appropriate Spanish terminology, that all of the students (regardless of nationality) will need to know when going on to higher education in Spain.

5) Native English speakers, while good pronunciation models, must still study English. I have noticed that many English-speaking students do not read, write nor speak English properly, either because they see no need to study English, or because they are so young that they were never taught proper grammar and spelling. While our school offers extracurricular English as a Mother Tongue classes, the use of English at our school should ideally inspire a better use of the language all around, not just for foreign language learners.

Overall, my experience as an Auxiliar de Conversación at El Chaparral has been a very positive learning experience. I think any centre’s “year zero” as a bilingual school is one of experimentation and exploration. This year we have generated some practical ideas and inspired a community debate on the use of language in school. In my opinion, our school has a responsibility to its students to acknowledge the cultural and linguistic richness that we have at our fingertips. Our challenge now is to put these ideas into worksheets, concepts, songs, festivities, and activities; to introduce English as a fun and normal part of everyday life; and to emphasize that diversity is positive.

I hope that I have offered El Chaparral as much as the staff, students and teachers have offered me: an opportunity to live a different perspective and use another language as an educational tool. I am grateful to my coordinator David for his faith, hard work, and the hours he has spent teaching me to teach.

Os voy a echar de menos.

Julia Halprin Jackson

CEPR El Chaparral

La Cala de Mijas, Málaga


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