Excerpt from Spotlight on Young Children: Teaching and Learning in the Primary Grades
Community Explorers: Critical Thinking Strategies for Supporting Dual Language Learners
by Tamara Spencer and Lisa Hertzog
“¿Como ayuda a la gente?” (How do you help people?), first-grader Alexa asks a pharmacist and then attentively records the pharmacist’s response. Huddling around the interviewee with clipboards in hand, young reporters inquisitively probe as to the nature of her work, the skills required for this work, and the benefit in helping those who are ill. Much preparation has gone into this field trip. These young reporters ask thick questions—questions that require the speaker to extend beyond a yes-or-no response. The pharmacist fluidly switches between Spanish and English—much like the children do. She enthusiastically answers each question, taking time from her busy workday to share her knowledge and enthusiasm with children from her community.
This article showcases Lisa’s first grade classroom that supported the development of dual language learners (DLLs). Lisa taught at a dual language school in an urban northeastern city, where instruction alternated between English one day and Spanish the next. The majority of students were from families with low incomes. Most of the children were DLLs, coming from bilingual or Spanish-speaking homes, with various levels of English fluency. Located in a part of the city known for its racial and linguistic diversity, the school’s administrators, teachers, students, and families viewed bilingualism as a linguistic asset and necessity in today’s global society.
Community Explorers/Los exploradoros de nuestra comunidad
In early spring, Lisa and the class embarked on a two-month study of the people in the school’s neighborhood by visiting and interviewing the employees at the local bike shop/la tienda de bicicletas, post office/la oficina de correos, food pantry/la despensa de alimentos, and drugstore/la farmacía. Focusing on the children’s own community offered them an opportunity to step into a familiar adult world, experience the life of their neighborhood, and think about the roles of reading and writing in two languages in everyday interactions. From the time the unit was announced, the children drew on their funds of knowledge to locate themselves and their stories within the context of their community. For example, the children were eager to contribute to a discussion on the school’s broader community. By seeking and valuing the children’s ideas as an important part of the curriculum, Lisa emphasized the depth of their knowledge and the contributions they made to the group’s learning while also fostering their dual language learning.
Field trips provided real-world applications of ideas and created authentic opportunities for children to generate questions and write regularly. To prepare for the trips, the students listed all the questions they wanted to ask the workers. They discussed questioning techniques and using thick questions, as illustrated in the opening vignette. These students were learning how to compare questions to distinguish basic ones from those that required inferential and higher-order processing skills. For example, they recognized that questions like “Is your job fun?” provided less detail from the respondent than asking “Why do you like your job?”
The following day, they translated their questions into English (as the previous day was taught in Spanish) so they could communicate with all the community members, many of whom were bilingual. Lisa created a two-sided handout with the questions—one side in Spanish and the other English—and the children used the template throughout the unit. The handouts provided a model for asking questions and promoting thinking and inquiry skills.
Building on the Children’s and the Community’s Funds of Knowledge
As they took on the role of researchers, the first-graders built on their cultural and linguistic knowledge—as well as the community’s—as they had authentic purposes for speaking, listening, reading, and writing. To practice interviewing, children selected family members to interview in the language of their choice. Posing the questions to an adult with whom they had a warm relationship helped the children comfortably practice the tone, fluency, and demeanor needed to later engage in a more formal interview.
In the next part of the study, Lisa and the class ventured out to visit local businesses and witness the expertise of the community members. The investigation began with a visit to Julio’s Bike Shop. As they interviewed Manuel, one of Julio’s employees, the children were surprised to learn that the bike shop was not only a place to buy a new bike but also where they could bring a bike that needed repair. They were fascinated as Manuel showed them a bike chain he was replacing during the visit.
This curriculum honored the children’s and the community’s bilingualism. The first-graders observed that many people in the community were bilingual. In the community, the children easily switched to the language most comfortable to the person they were interviewing. As a result, their bilingualism emerged through authentic interactions, providing an opportunity to pick up on linguistic cues when communicating with new people. Their bilingualism became a source of pride, a resource they relied on to represent new and evolving ideas about the community and the people in it.
From Spotlight on Young Children: Teaching and Learning in the Primary Grades, edited by H. Bohart, H.B. Collick, & K. Charner. Copyright © 2016 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.