Immersion Style Learning

When a neighbor told me that her daughter was going to a dual-immersion (Spanish/English) elementary school, I experienced bewilderment (thinking “Why?”), followed by judgement (thinking “That doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me.”), followed by curiosity (thinking “They seem very pleased with their choice; I should find out more; maybe there is something to this.”)  I was unconvinced, but the experience created an opening and long story short, three years later my daughter started kindergarten at that same dual-immersion school.

Nothing in my 35 years had prepared me to comprehend immersion style learning.  It was actually a huge leap of faith fueled primarily by a single positive campus visit and the perception that the alternatives were worse (based on a single negative visit to each).  That was about 12 years ago and I now have an appreciation and respect for the immersion approach, mostly based on 8 years of having children in that school.

My education was systematic.  My education was a series of demonstrations.  Hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year.  My teachers showed me what they wanted me to do and then asked me to do it myself.  They encouraged, answered questions, and made corrections.  The chores I did at home were much the same.  “Do what I do.”  “Follow my directions.”  “Do it this way.”  I learned very quickly that there was one right way of doing things.  I had a vague knowledge that that “one right way” somehow depended on the teacher.  The more I did EXACTLY what I was shown, the more I got praised and rewarded.   I learned to look for patterns and search for understanding, not because that was suggested or taught, but because I needed a strategy; it was simply impossible to memorize everything.

So then, by the time I got into a college Spanish class, I was very analytical.  Identify the patterns; memorize the exceptions.  After completing my college language requirement, I could do everything that the teacher asked me to do, but I could not speak Spanish.  My daughter, on the other hand, shyly and proudly told everyone after a month in immersion kindergarten, “I speak English and Spanish.”

She had acclimated to the demands put on her.  She understood the simple directions that the teacher used everyday, and her vocabulary had grown significantly, through colors, counting, story time, and singing.  If the teacher ever got really stuck with a student, she would ask the child to explain in English what they thought she had said or she would ask in Spanish for a volunteer to explain in English what was happening.  The learning was not based on memorizing conjugations, but on using correct forms in daily classroom interactions.

Now I’m on Professional Development Leave, a math teacher looking for ways to connect with students and choosing Spanish Language Studies as one such connection.  As is frequently the case, I am realizing a second, unforeseen benefit.  Let me explain.

When I researched Spanish programs, I realized that the local colleges no longer distinguish between Spanish and Conversational Spanish.  There were 2 sequences of classes when I was young.  I think a person could have enrolled in both sequences concurrently, taking both a grammar and a conversation class.  In our local quarter schools (Foothill, DeAnza, CSU Eastbay) there is now 1 sequence, consisting of 6 courses:  3 classes in introductory Spanish and 3 classes in Intermediate Spanish.  When I signed up for the first class, I was surprised to find that it was so different from that grammar class I took 30 years ago.  It’s based on an immersion model!  Each week, I’m given resource pages with more vocabulary words than I can possibly memorize. (But I’m explicitly told I don’t have to memorize all of them.) Several short grammar exercises incrementally introduce some usage and the remaining exercises (video, audio, written, partnered work) provide opportunity to practice that usage.  I can’t always express my complicated ideas using the Spanish learned so far, but I can always at least partially express myself.  Before I went through this experience, I didn’t think that I could learn in an immersion environment.  But now I can actually speak and write in Spanish (and not just do trite little exercises).

The unforeseen benefit is the way in which this experience allows me to reframe mathematics education.  Mathematics education is systematic.  Mathematics education is a series of demonstrations.  Hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year.  We teachers show students what we want them to do and then ask them to do it.  We encourage, answer questions, and make corrections.  They learn very quickly that there is one right way of doing things.  (But wait, NO!  We don’t want them to learn that; it’s not true!)  They know, vaguely, that that “one right way” somehow depends on the teacher.  The more they do exactly what we’d do, the better their grade is.  (OK, on rare occasions we are charmed and dazzled by a student’s unique approach…)   The successful students look for patterns and search for understanding.  The students who haven’t developed these strategies think they have to memorize everything.

I recall how I couldn’t speak Spanish because I had very little practice and I was relying entirely on my head.  There was no internalization of the language.  This reminds me of students who can’t talk about their mathematical thinking because they’ve had very little practice.  This reminds me of students who can’t apply what they’ve learned because they’ve had very little practice.  This reminds me of students who are always in “recall” mode because they’ve had very little practice with “thinking” mode.  Their skills are in a box in their head, memorized facts and procedures.  There is no internalization of mathematical thinking.

Over the last several years I’ve worked with materials and pedagogies designed to provide students with experiences talking, applying, and thinking about mathematics.  I didn’t realize until I studied Spanish this year that those efforts are much like creating an “immersion style” of learning mathematics.  In my earlier years, “immersion” sounded scary, much like throwing someone in deep water to teach them to swim.  But now “immersion” sounds wonderful, conjuring up images of nurturing and support and “whole person” learning, where the learning is integrated and internalized and not based on memorization.

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