Center PM Looks at Languages
By Tom Limbert, Head Teacher
By late September of the school year, most of the children had settled into Center PM and could say good-bye to loved ones for the afternoon. But some children were still entering reluctantly, tears on their faces and adamantly opposing any attempts by their parents to leave their sight, let alone the classroom. As we teachers struggled for the words to help these children feel comfortable and secure, we realized that in most cases we and the children’s parents also faced a communication challenge because of a language barrier. For any child, learning to say good-bye is daunting enough; for these children that task was complicated by being left with teachers who did not speak the same words as their loved ones, words they had been surrounded with and taught from birth. Their fear and even rage were understandable.
The inspiration for a language project came from an experience Teacher Mary Munday had that caused us to reflect on the communication challenges faced by children adjusting to the program. In March, Mary attended a presentation on multicultural songs and activities at the annual conference of the California Association for the Education of Young Children. She returned to teach the Center PM children a song about saying “hello” in any language. The children responded to the song with noted attentiveness at story time. In the days that followed, children, parents, and teachers collaborated to form a list of greetings in different languages that we could learn together in the song. The children’s eager concentration and competence at learning new words, combined with Bing’s multicultural, multilingual community, encouraged us to extend the study of languages.
The project mostly took place in the classroom’s language/literacy area and then at story time. The class’s older children often take a special interest in writing, but this spring our study of languages significantly sharpened their focus. Many children spent extended time forming letters and, with the help of a teacher, worked hard at writing out each new greeting we learned and the names of the different languages. As they learned to count in different languages, they were also eager to write these new words down. One girl, whose family speaks mostly Korean at home, can now easily count to ten in French and took the time to write down the French words repeatedly. (We teachers were always excited about what the children could teach us about languages, but please do not ask me if I’m now biligual!) The children were also fascinated with Chinese characters and words they represent, using their growing fine motor skills to replicate the characters with pen and paper.
At story time each day, we sang songs in different languages and read several stories incorpo-rating different languages. But the most meaningful and treasured moments of story time and perhaps of our entire language study and school year were the many visits from parents who, with their children, taught us words and phrases, counting, and songs in a language familiar to them. Some of the songs were then repeated at successive story times, helping to keep the focus on language and to bind our classroom community through shared learning experiences. The significance of the visits for our study and our classroom showed in the face of the children who stood next to their mothers or fathers and helped to teach the language of their homes.
In the last few weeks of the school year, we rounded out our language project by focusing on sign language. Again, the children were visibly attentive to these lessons and were eager to mimic the signs with their own hands and fingers. This part of the project encouraged us all to think more deeply about language and its importance in our lives. Having looked at sign language for a few weeks, we asked children why we have languages. Andrew responded, “I think I know why we have languages because you need things to say. Because there’s lots to talk about.” Another boy, Aaron Peter, with younger siblings in his home, was aware of the pragmatic function of language: “It helps people know what you want.” Christopher was even more specific: “So they know if there’s a party, or if there’s a festival.”
This in-depth exploration of languages certainly taught words, phrases, and songs and more abstractly showed that our world is filled with different languages and that language is a fundamental part of the human experience. Most importantly, though, it helped us create an inclusive environment: instead of feeling self-conscious or wary of the languages that make up our classroom community, we learned to appreciate the differences and learn from each other. Last fall, a Korean-speaking woman was one of the parents struggling with her child’s reluctance to separate. This spring, the same woman, smiling ear to ear, sat on the floor with the children and joined in a song that was likely a part of her own childhood. Her face said how far we all had come.