Michele Hackshaw joined The New Century School at the beginning of the 2016–2017 school year as a Montessori Lead Teacher with Gloria Jimenez assisting. A native Spanish speaker from Caracas, Venezuela, she moved to Baltimore with her husband in 2000.
In her home country, she pursued a macroeconomics degree but decided to come to the United States to immerse herself in English while earning a Master’s in business. She spent a few years working in the business field, and then, Señora Hackshaw says, the recession of 2008 hit. She began volunteering in her children’s school and found to her surprise that she really enjoyed that type of work. She liked childhood education so much, in fact, that she went for Montessori training. Once certified as a Montessori teacher, she worked at Bridges Montessori School in Towson for about 5 years. “I definitely prefer teaching to business, to my initial surprise. Then, even after the economy got better I told my husband that business is something I don’t want to go back to. I really love what I’m doing right now. I really love to get up and go to my work. This [gesturing to her classroom] is my vocation.”
The switch in careers from business to teaching might seem like quite an about-face, but Sra. Hackshaw believes that the work has greater significance for society. “We have such a a big impact on these children. How they turn out depends on what we do for them, show them, expose them to.” Besides her humanitarian reasons, teaching is also a lot more fun for her than working in an office was, where interactions with irate clients were often less than pleasant. “Here, it’s not like that. Somebody might be crying because I asked him to do something he didn’t want to do, and 10 minutes later, he’s got a huge smile. There are no bad work days,” she says.
Her children, a girl and a boy, are now 9 and 10 years old, respectively and have the good fortune to be growing up bilingual. The same can be said of Sra. Hackshaw’s 10 3- to 5-year-old primary students who are in a Spanish-immersion Montessori classroom. “In the beginning, teaching in Spanish was a bit challenging because it was a new language for my students, who were all new to the school. But they learned so fast, and now it’s just great,” she smiles.
About being at TNCS now, she says it’s not only a wonderful experience, but she is learning a lot, professionally. “This is a different environment,” she explains, “because I never worked in a full Spanish immersion classroom, although it was Montessori. But I have never taught Montessori in Spanish or given a Montessori lesson in Spanish. And, unlike teaching Spanish, for example, at an after-school program, which is mostly teaching vocabulary, here it’s different. I speak Spanish the whole time. It has been a valuable process of learning and discovery.” (Please see Montessori Language Arts, Match, Science, and Global Studies at TNCS to learn more about how Sra. Hackshaw and other TNCS primary teachers give Montessori lessons.)
For now, Sra. Hackshaw’s “business” is nurturing her students within her warm and peace-loving classrom. “There’s so much that you can give to them, and they will learn from you. If you keep empowering them and model how to be good people, they learn that.”
Immersed is once again pleased to bring you thoughtful commentary from another perspective. This piece comes to you from The New Century School‘s Head of School Alicia Danyali (bio* at the end), who brings her vast experience to bear on the subject of multiple language learning. Read on!
Alicia Danyali on Bilingualism
In current-day Baltimore, Maryland, it is apparent that we live in a community where education choices are limitless, philosophies abound, and much of the focus is on the end product (student success). Whether your background is in Montessori or Waldorf or Traditional Public Education, one consistent theme that is agreed upon when registering your child at TNCS is the interest in bilingual language learning.
As language immersion practices become more commonplace, starting during the pre-school years (opposite to the trend of starting in middle or high school) students with these “advantages” are described as “cutting edge” or even “ahead of the game” as learners. Since I have spent the last 20 (or more, um hum) years within dual-language environments, I can agree with much of the research observing student bilingual success when starting at a younger age than middle school. The statistics are out. There is validity that bilingual students are most receptive to a second language from ages 0-7 years. It has been noted that children exposed to more than one language at a young age are capable of more sophisticated problem solving or demonstrate problem solving in multiple ways.
One of the books that I have recommended over the years is The Bilingual Edge: Why, When and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language, by Kendall, K. & Mackey, A. (2007). Many of the findings and advice within this book are true to supporting second language learning. I thought I would share some feedback regarding the publisher’s summary of the book, and invite the educated and dedicated TNCS community to have a think about your own child’s language journey.
For example, as part of the summation of the book, the publisher’s state:
“In The Bilingual Edge, professors and parents King and Mackey wade through the hype and provide clear insights into what actually works. No matter what your language background is—whether you never passed Spanish in high school or you speak Mandarin fluently—King and Mackey will help you:
select the language that will give your child the most benefits
find materials and programs that will assist your child in achieving fluency
identify and use your family’s unique traits to maximize learning
Fancy private schools and expensive materials aren’t needed. Instead, The Bilingual Edge translates the latest research into interactive strategies and quick tips that even the busiest parents can use.”
These are some BIG claims that one book can do all this and support you and your family with second language instruction. Although it is a highly recommended read, please keep in mind, like all published material, one must make the claim that watching your own child absorb the environment offered at TNCS is within a natural setting, encourages curiosity and risk-taking (traits attributed to bilingualism) and includes individualized nurturing, human interaction, and a true understanding/respect of culture.
As the ideas from this book or any other claiming to ensure your child will become bilingual, the ingredients start with your child’s interest and enthusiasm, partnered with an authentic love of learning, parental support along the journey in a truly immersed setting. Please feel free to submit your feedback on other inspirational books read on the subject of bilingual education. “Let’s keep the conversation going.”
*Alicia Danyali: Throughout her professional career as an elementary educator, Mrs. Danyali has been committed to developing pedagogical strategies for a language immersion environment focused on critical thinking and cooperative learning both as a classroom teacher and an administrator. Immediately after graduating from Florida International University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education, she moved to The Netherlands to teach in the elementary school at the International School of Amsterdam and then at the Violenschool International School. After 8 years in The Netherlands, Mrs. Danyali moved to Washington, D.C., where she spent 5 years working at the Washington International School (WIS) as both the classroom teacher for 1st and 3rd grades as well as the head teacher and coordinator. She was later appointed School Wide Community Service Coordinator, developing curriculum focusing on service and giving back to the local and world community. In her final year at WIS, she was invited to attend a leadership and curriculum conference in New York City in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney Museum. The conference featured connections in the classroom that were shared within the areas of art, history, science, technology, and mathematics. Mrs. Danyali has completed the 90-hour childcare certificate for ages 2–5 years, the 45-hour administrator certificate, and the 45-hour infant/toddler certificate. Mrs. Danyali recently completed graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, specializing in Supervision and Administration.
Mrs. Danyali and her husband moved to Baltimore over 8 years ago, when their son was a toddler. During this stay-at-home-mom time with her son, she continued to keep her foot in education by working as a freelance writer for http://www.education.com, teaching Mommy and Me classes as well as classes for home-schooled children at The Painting Workshop, leading 2-year-old classes at Beth Tfiloh, and conducting The Summer Yoga Camp for Kids at The Bryn Mawr School.
Mrs. Danyali is fluent in Dutch, and her personal interests include yoga, swimming, visiting museums, travel, cooking, and spending time with her family. She completed the 200- and 500-hour Advanced Registered Yoga Teacher Certification through Charm City Yoga.
Combining games with Mandarin instruction. Hmmm—what does that carpet say?
There’s a lot of buzz currently circulating about bi- and multilingualism—people who speak more than one language are smarter, they tend to earn higher wages, and they have clear communication advantages amid increasing globalization, according to a recent NY Times article. Learning second and third (and beyond) languages is becoming an educational priority; in fact, the language instruction at The New Century School is a big factor in why some parents choose TNCS for their kids.
Those parents are even more on target with that choice than they might have initially known, as multiplying evidence shows. Turns out, how you acquire new languages is also important, according to preliminary research sponsored by the American Councils for International Education. Initial findings suggest that the more language kids get, the bigger their improvements in all sorts of metrics, from literacy to math to creativity to executive function . . . and the list goes on.
Why Learning Another Language Matters: The Benefits
But before we get deeper into the how, let’s look more closely at the whys and wherefores of multilingualism. Learning a foreign language is not easy for most adults, if the proliferation of Rosetta Stone–type products is any indication. For kids (the younger the better), it’s a heck of a lot easier, which begs the question, why do public school systems generally wait until high school to offer foreign language instruction? Experts at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages agree that starting a second language early in childhood has many benefits, including increased competence in that language. More importantly, “Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not.” Furthermore, they argue that language acquisition is fundamentally a cognitive, rather than a linguistic exercise. In other words, learning a new language requires and hones problem-solving skills, which children are actively developing. Their flexible brains are ideal for the mental calisthenics language acquisition demands.
There are other ways in which “the earlier the better” comes into play—increased fluency in both the foreign and the native languages, for instance, as well as more accurate pronunciation and intonation are more easily achieved by young learners. By no means does this suggest that older learners, including adults, should give up trying to learn a new language; it just means that gains will likely be more modest. The point is, the optimal window for language acquisition is during early childhood.
Not only are kids’ brains better suited to the mental workout, but the workout itself—just as physical exercise does to the body—actually reshapes their brains to function even better. Bilingual kids’ brains always have both languages active internally even when they are only speaking one at a time. This forces their brains to be constantly monitoring their surroundings for what utterance is appropriate in the given context, sort of like being continuously presented with a minor problem to solve (or, to continue the exercise metaphor, posing low-level chronic resistance to muscles). Far from confusing kids, as once thought, the internal conflict makes their brains more nimble; they think more clearly, not less. To test this, in one experiment, scientists presented a group of kids ages 4 and 5 years with the Dimensional Change Card Sort Task, which required them to sort the cards first by color, then by shape, even when the color didn’t match (this video shows how difficult this task is for preschoolers). To perform the task, the child needs to be able to manage conflicting stimuli, a marker of executive function (for which we’ll borrow this definition: “a set of processes that are responsible for the conscious control of thought and action”). The bilingual children consistently outperformed the monolinguals.
The student carries out instructions given in Spanish, successfully coordinating a progression of cognitive functions in order to assist the teacher with cleaning the chalkboard.
With evidence that bilingualism leads to “cognitive flexibility” accumulating in several studies in the early 2000s, researchers next investigated at what age the advantages begin to manifest and found through meta-analysis of existing studies that at age 2 years and even earlier, bilinguals exhibit better cognitive function than their single- language counterparts.
And, although it’s easier to learn other languages at younger ages, the benefits are lifelong. Bilingual patients stave off dementia in older adulthood better and longer, for example. (See below for links to the original research papers with loads more information and data.)
Now back to the “how,” for the latest development in this ongoing inquiry, it seems that immersion in another language facilitates its acquisition. So, with language, it’s not just the earlier the better, but also the deeper the better. Language immersion is just what it sounds like, except with an additional nuance in the scholastic environment: the student learns the language and is also learning other subjects in that second language. Thus, math, phys ed, or art instructions are presented in, for example, Spanish to native English speakers. Given the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is currently funding research on the efficacy of the immersion approach, with all indices pointing to favorable results. As stated above, the preliminary findings show better academic performance.
So, to wrap up, what does all this have to do with TNCS? Well, in several important ways, TNCS is getting it right.
First, TNCS provides both Spanish and Mandarin language instruction, arguably the two most relevant non-English languages in the changing U.S. demography.
Second, language instruction begins as early as possible—as soon as the student matriculates. For pre-primary–enrolled students, this is age 2 years.
Third, immersion is central to TNCS philosophy. Pre-primary students are fully immersed in either a Spanish or Mandarin classroom. Primary and elementary students get both formal instruction in Mandarin and Spanish and partial immersion in Spanish (e.g., phys ed at The Lingo Leap might be taught in Spanish, etc.).
Fourth, TNCS encourages parent participation in this important process. Print and post the Word of the Week in Spanish and Mandarin featured on TNCS’s website. Parents can learn right along with their kids!
Fifth, Montessori education inherently cultivates executive function; therefore, the pairing of Montessori-inspired and language curricula is synergistic—each component enhances the other.
It’s a beautiful thing.
Elementary students even learn Mandarin characters, recording them in practice books!
For more information:
Read the seminal 2004 article from Developmental Sciencehere.
Read the 2009 article from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of Americahere.
Read the 2010 article from Journal of Experimental Child Psychologyhere.
Ciao! ¡Adiós! Auf Wiedersehen! Au revoir! Zàijiàn! Ilalliqa! Shalom! Sayonara!
Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts in the Comments section.