Incomprehensible: Wisconsin history in Spanish

Elementary students in Waunakee, Wisconsin are learning social studies in Spanish — only parents say they’re learning neither the subject nor the foreign language, reports the Wisconsin State Journal.  Students don’t study Spanish on its own. They’re supposed to pick it up in context through three half-hour social studies classes  three days a week in first through fourth grades.

In the lower grades, there’s so little content in social studies classes — “community and family structure” are the themes —  that children’s lack of comprehension didn’t generate complaints.  But now the program has moved to fourth grade. Students are supposed to learn Wisconsin history in a language they don’t know.

(Parent Jean) Magnes said because of how the subject has been taught, students aren’t learning Spanish or history.

“They don’t enjoy (Spanish), don’t speak it,” she said.

Parents would support a Spanish class in elementary school, but officials say there’s not enough time in the school day.

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  1. You think you’ve seen every stupid idea that’s come down the pike. And then this comes along.

  2. Brandyjane says:

    As a history teacher, I already despise “social studies.” Teach the kids some real history, and teach it in the language they actually speak. All this experiment will do is create even more kids who think they dislike history because they’ve never been exposed to the real thing.

  3. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? For the folks who thought this was a good idea, I have some new ones:

    * Teach math through interpretive dance

    * Teach music using sign language

    * Teach physics via the postmodern deconstruction of fairy tales

    All of these seem to meet the goals of modern education: they are expensive and guaranteed not to actually educate any students.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Easier to fool people who don’t know much.
    Especially history.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oh, yeah. Try objecting to this. “chauvinist” “anti-immigrant” “nativist” “racist”, “hater”

  6. This is so completely bizarre that I can’t even figure out what to say.

  7. Interesting approach, and one that has some research to support it, apparently–according to the people quoted in the article. Reality is, we don’t know a whole lot about teaching a second language at the elementary level because we don’t go there. My district has two elementary immersion programs–and they consistently score at the top of the district and above state averages. I am not ready to credit the immersion program exclusively–although the programs are open to all students through a lottery, there is always the implement of selection bias.

    There is, however, based on the experiences of other countries, reason to believe that early learning of a second language is supportive of learning in one’s “mother-tongue.” We don’t use that term much here–we cling to the idea that English is the only universal, and the only language needed.

    I don’t know if the half hour three times weekly is sufficient to qualify as true immersion. My recommendation would be to intensify–rather than remove–the immersion experience.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Margo. The point is not learning “social studies”, not in whether that’s a good way to teach Spanish.

  9. Rob, hush! You’ll give them ideas.

    This program makes no sense. I would like to see a more precise listing of the studies which support this approach. I’ve seen enough in this world to know that school administrators can find a study to support anything they wish.

  10. Richard:

    I refer to my earlier observation that the two immersion schools in my district lead the district in test scores (that would include social studies) and score above the state mean.

  11. BTW–I didn’t see anything other than anecdotal evidence (reports from parents whose fourth graders are the first immersion student to arrive at that grade level) to indicate that the students WERE NOT learning social studies.

  12. My first grader is studying mandrin 130 minutes/week at his public elementary school. It’s not an immersion program and isn’t meant to be one. During the week he also has classes in music, art, science, and two other electives of his choice. The school day is about 30 minutes longer than the traditioanl elementary schools. The school has very high test scores. Selection is by lottery.

    My child’s school is able to offer these programs because it is a charter school. It doesn’t need to follow state dictates or teacher’s union work rules.

    Research into language aquistion shows that the human brain is best able to learn lagnuages before the age of 12. After 12 it becomes increasingly difficult. All elementary schools should offer language,
    but this won’t happen unless they all become charter’s or private schools, the teachers union will block it everytime.

  13. Interesting. I recently helped someone connect a DTV converter box, in preparation for the coming analog TV blackout. It seems the only channels that came in reliably (this was an apartment complex with a rooftop antenna system) were in either Spanish or Chinese. It looks as though a lot of low-income folks will soon have a chance to learn foriegn languages by immersion. This might explain all the Rosetta Stone® advertising. They even have mall kiosks. I’m just saying…

  14. …’e’ before ‘i’ something something…

  15. I don’t know Lynn–the immersion school my daughter attended was/is a public school. This district has also been toying with Mandarin (starting in kindergarten, with a desire to expand upward). The only real difficulties that I am aware of are 1) the shortage of bilingual elementary certified teachers (which affects charters as well) and 2) during a lay-off year, the union insisted that a non-French speaking teacher be placed at the French immersion school (I think that there was finally a concession on that one and in the end an inclusion in the contract that bilingual teachers had to actually be, you know, bilingual). Reality is, most public schools have way more freedom to do what makes sense than they let on.

  16. Richard Nieporent says:

    What’s next, teaching English in Spanish?

    My district has two elementary immersion programs–and they consistently score at the top of the district and above state averages.

    Margo/Mom, if you really believe that language immersion improves results in ALL subjects then I guess we should stop teaching in English in the public schools. Right?

  17. Richard: Language immersion provides an intensive SECOND language experience.

  18. Americans have a naive optimism about learning languages because so few of them actually master a language, or even come close.

    Children master their native language through absorption because they are surrounded by that language 24/7. 90 minutes a week of social studies in classroom Spanish is not even remotely like thousands of minutes a week of interaction with family and friends in many different contexts.

    Even if, for the sake of argument, it were possible for these kids to become fluent in social studies Spanish, that doesn’t mean they can successfully use Spanish outside the classroom. Certainly learning one subgenre of Spanish will help a student learn others, but few acknowledge these limitations.

    I doubt the kids are becoming fluent, or anything close to it. The article says “The students also were to listen for words they recognized.” This is a very low standard. Recognizing, say, “inauguración” does not entail understanding whole sentences, much less entire Spanish-language telecasts aimed at adults. In fact, that particular example entails no Spanish skill at all, since the word is almost identical to its English translation.

    There are many countries which successfully teach foreign languages to children. But I don’t think any of them do so solely through 90 minutes of a nonlanguage subject a week.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    The point, I keep saying, is learning social studies.
    You learn language by immersion. I worked with American Field Service students for over twenty-five years. I know how it works. I scored pretty high on the Defense Language Aptitude Test and I know how intense language teaching works. I studied Latin and French in the conventional method.
    I’ve had three kids age twelve from Mexico in my home for a year. My kids spent a summer with a Mexican family.
    I have an idea, okay?
    Now, let me repeat, as many times as is necessary. (Wait. Considering the number of times you dodged the point about armed teachers, I may want to rethink that).
    The point is learning or not learning social studies.
    Didn’t think so.

  20. Richard:

    And how would you know that they had learned social studies? I would think that the ability to outscore your peers on a social studies test would be a reasonable indicator. I am being as clear and direct on this point as I possibly can. What standard would you prefer to use? And would you then be asserting that learning in any other content areas is irrelevant? Is there any possibility that one is capable of learning two things at one time (say Spanish and social studies? or math and science? or reading and writing?) Or must we continue to think of school as 30 minutes of social studies followed by 30 minutes of (totally unrelated) language experience followed by 30 minutes of mathematics with no application within the following 30 minutes in which science is taught?

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    You forget that there are other factors in doing well or poorly in school.
    See McWhorter on his experience in Shaker Heights. Also further studies in the differences in the results between ethnic groups there, or elsewhere, for that matter.
    Superior schools are going to to well, if they have kids with supportive parents. Our AFS kids always did very well, although all their classes were in a language foreign to them. That’s not because they were learning in a second language, but because they were really bright kids. I know. I helped ours with their homework. It was tough, but they worked hard and were bright. But it was easier for our own kids who didn’t have a language barrier.

    Mixing language is not, then, shown to make a difference.

    Vocab in initial language learning is for commonly-used words. Subject learning provides specialized vocabulary not useful elsewhere in place of more commonly used words. I learned a whole bunch of Vietnamese, for example, which would have been useless for shopping or construction or getting from the airport by public transportation or understanding Buddhism, or local art, or farming…. You see my point.
    I’ll make another. Social studies, if they’re lucky, might use the term “loess”. Or “extinct”. Or “slash&burn”. Or “prussian” (von Steuben). Or “musket”. Or “epidemic”.
    Nice to know, but you wouldn’t want to get in the way of knowing how to ask where the bathroom is, is this water potable, what is the word for ticket, how to ask for directions, how to order in a restaurant. And you can’t do both, unless your social studies lesson for the day is how to ask for a bus ticket to Austin in Spanish to illustrate how hard it is to…somethingsomething politically correct. Which is not social studies, especially the social studies which is impostering as history.

  22. “I would think that the ability to outscore your peers on a social studies test would be a reasonable indicator.”

    If you’re talking about tests on the same material they were presented in their particular school, that would be a reasonable indicator. If you’re talking about the state-mandated multple-guess tests that may or may not contain the information studied by all students in every school in America, probably not. You can’t measure what a child really knows by these tests. The tests are for the monetary benefit of the schools, not the educational benefit of the children.

  23. Immersion schools are very popular with the educated middle and upper-middle class. Those parents will make certain that their children do not fall behind. For many children of a certain class, school is not the only avenue to education. The enrichment begins when the school day has finished.

    You cannot assume that, because two total immersion model schools of choice in your area do well on state mandated test, presenting academic topics in foreign languages increases students’ performance. For one thing, the parents who choose an immersion model are likely to be of a higher socioeconomic status, on average, than those parents who don’t jump through the necessary hoops to get their children into the program. Any difference in scores is much more likely to be due to the difference in family SES.

    If your argument were true, then every ELL child in the country would be outperforming their English-speaking peers. Yet, they aren’t.

    In addition, the Wisconsin program began with the first grade, and then added a grade level each year. This is the first year they have required fourth grade social studies to be taught in Spanish.

  24. Richard Aubrey says:

    At our church youth group, our third-graders were rattling off the Preamble to each other. Pretty neat. They’re required to memorize it.
    However, if they were to learn it in Spanish,they’d be picking up words not often needed elsewhere and spending too much time learning it at all. Bad for Spanish ed, bad for learning the subject.

  25. Margo

    As a legal immigrant , let me tell you something . If you want kids to learn a second and third language , don’t shove it down their throats . And btw , social studies is not a place to do language immersion because language immersion implies that you interact with native born speakers of the language you want to learn constantly . That language immersion in Waunakee, Wisconsin is just an expensive way of telling the American people that many teachers , school officials , education experts and politicians have no business in educating American children .

  26. Hunter McDaniel says:

    I’m one of those middle-class parents who put their kid in a 50% (Spanish) immersion program in early elementary school.
    But his program had the good sense to concentrate second-language instruction in concrete subjects like math and science, which have a strong “look, see” component at that age. Starting with abstract subjects like social studies is insane, IMHO.

    With continued non-immersion classes after fourth grade he now speaks Spanish fluently as an adult, with a slight Cuban accent (or so I am told).

  27. Richard Aubrey says:

    There seems to be a strong push in the direction of formless mush as superior to actually knowing stuff.

  28. Andy Freeman says:

    > There seems to be a strong push in the direction of formless mush as superior to actually knowing stuff.

    The basic idea is called Gresham’s Law, and it isn’t due to the guy who writes legal novels. (Gresham didn’t “discover” it, but does get credit for a particular way of phrasing it.)


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