The Bilingual Secret

The Bilingual Secret

WFISD Foreign Language Director turns to technology to meet District’s bilingual needs

 

Greta B  

Greta Benavides, WFISD’s Foreign Language Director, has worked hard to have a bilingual family. When her family lived in Monterrey, Mexico, she insisted her children speak English at home, since they got Spanish everywhere else. But when they moved to Giddings, Texas, in 2004, and then to Wichita Falls in 2015, she insisted they speak only Spanish at home, since they were speaking English everywhere else.

“My kids were not happy,” she said. “They said, ‘Mom, make up your mind!’”

Today, Greta oversees WFISD’s foreign language program that serves children in Wichita Falls who speak 40 different languages. You probably aren’t surprised to learn that, after English, Spanish is the No. 1 language, but what’s your guess as to No. 2 and No. 3? Would you believe Arabic and Vietnamese?

WFISD now uses an online program for its English Language Learners called i-Lit, which scaffolds learning for children at all ability levels. The program has been so successful in WFISD’s elementary grades that this is the first year it has been promoted for use in the high schools. “And we’re getting very, very good results,” she said.

At last, technology is saving teachers the herculean burden of creating a flurry of different 45-minute daily lesson plans to match the needs of several students in a classroom with different languages or with the same language but speaking at different grade levels.

But some things never change. In the world of language learning, technology can only do so much.  You have to want to learn and believe you can learn, she said.

Ann Work Goodrich talked to Greta Benavides, who is also the author of two books, about her atypical life in Mexico, the very specific reason she and her husband moved to the United States, and what she prioritizes now after 34 years in education and nearly three years with WFISD.

Q: You grew up in Mexico. But your experience was not what we typically picture of life in Mexico.

A: My father was the Director of the Library at the Technological Institute in Monterrey, Mexico, a university that was founded on the MIT model and was the most prestigious university in Latin America. He spoke five languages. He was a historian and a journalist. He wrote seven books. My father earned his master’s degree in Paris, France. At our dining table, he didn’t ask, “How was your day?” He asked, “What did you learn today?” To the day my father passed away, when he would call, he didn’t greet me with, “How are you?” but he said, “‘Turn around, look at your night table, and tell me what book you are reading.” And I better have had a good answer for that.

 

I grew up reading the classics: I learned English with Chaucer. Byron. Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll. That’s where I got fascinated with language.

Q: You came from a very literary family!

A: Yes. My mother was an English high school teacher. She spoke three languages. I attended bilingual school from the age of 4. It was 90 percent English. In Mexico, basic education goes to 9th grade. High school is private –it’s not part of the basic education model.

I earned my bachelor’s degree from the Technological Institute, where my dad worked. Then I earned a master’s degree in 1999 in educational leadership from Trinity College in Vermont. Trinity College partnered with the Technological Institute, so some of our teachers came from Vermont and, during the summers, we would take classes in Vermont.

Q: You’ve been in education 34 years. That includes running your own school and writing two books.

A: Yes, I began teaching in 1984 at a bilingual school in Mexico. I taught there intermittently because I had four children. In private schools in Mexico, if you’re pregnant, you can’t work. You can’t teach. So in 2000, I opened my own school in Monterrey. It was a trilingual school. We taught English, French and Spanish. The youngest child at the school was 18 months, and we offered up through fifth grade. The children would come up to you and say, “Gracias. Thank you. Merci.” They didn’t know what language you wanted, and they learned all three. It was small. Private. I really enjoyed it, especially the curriculum part.

I have written and published two books. One is a young adult novel titled Zyanya:  Always and Forever and  the other is a book about attention deficit and hyperactivity for parents.

 

Q: Then you left Mexico. Why?

A: We left Mexico because of the insecurity and violence. I have three girls and a boy – the oldest was 17 at the time. As an adult, you keep to yourself. You stay home. But what are you going to tell your teenagers? Don’t go to parties? Don’t go to the movies? Don’t meet with your friends anywhere? So we made an educated decision to come to the States and moved here in 2004.

The first place we moved to was Giddings, a teeny weeny town 15 miles east of Austin. When we came, my kids said, “Mom, where’s Giddings?” I’d say, “This is Giddings.” They’d say, “No, seriously, Mom, where is Giddings?” We came from Monterrey that had over 3 million people, 80 movie theaters, over 15 malls and over 25 universities. If you went down one of the main highways, you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were in Dallas, Houston or Monterrey. So for them it was quite a shock. But they grew to love it.

After a long plight with immigration and paperwork, I moved to teach at Richardson ISD in Dallas, and from there I came here.

 

Q: What is new in WFISD’s foreign language program?

A: The language services in WFISD are:  English as a Second Language (ESL) and Bilingual.  In ESL program, ESL certified teachers provide the scaffolding, support and instruction the students need to learn a new language (English).  From third grade on up, we have an online program by Pearson called iLit – Inspire Literature. The program is scaffolded specifically for English Language Learners. This is the second year we are using it in elementary grades. It’s the first semester we are implementing it in the high schools. We’re getting very, very good results.

An ESL teacher has one of the hardest jobs in the District. Sometimes a teacher will be dealing with nine kids with seven different languages at eight different levels, and they’re in high school, and they have to learn the language well enough to pass their End of Course exams. This new online program is tailored to each student. They take an entry assessment to pinpoint their level, then everything after that is given to them at their level. Everybody learns the same concepts but they will have different readings or different complexity levels according to what they can do. I’m excited about the program.

Every single campus in WFISD has a certified ESL teacher to serve their English language learners.

Q: Why did we bring this program to the high schools? Was the program used before not working?

A: I needed something more engaging. Something more differentiated. Something built for each student. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but it’s an uphill, titanic job for a teacher to plan nine different lessons for kids who speak nine different languages and who might be in four different grade levels, and they only have them for 30 to 45 minutes a day. The kids are worried about their homework, and the teachers want ESL teachers to help with that; but who is going to teach the newcomer child basic English, like their colors or numbers? The days of the week? Someone has to do it. This new program gives our teachers a skeleton to follow. It can be tailored from beginners to advanced high learners.   The program itself adapts to each child. The teacher doesn’t need to prepare seven different lessons every single day.  However, it is not a babysitting program,  it requires the teacher’s interaction; and it is not a translating program.  English is scaffolded (and it does have embedded support in different languages) and used in all of the readings.

It's something the child can access from home, too. And, it’s reading! Reading! Our kids need to be reading! It’s online – appealing and exciting. Students are using their devices. They love to click on things. The teacher can sit at her desk assigning and monitoring seven different assignments on the same concept with the click of a button.

Q: When did our bilingual program start in WFISD?

A: It began in 2016-2017. We hadn’t done it before because we didn’t have enough students in a certain school to have a full bilingual class. In 2016-2017, administration made four bilingual hubs at the schools with the biggest population of Spanish speakers.

Why Spanish?  The law in Texas states that if you have 20 or more speakers of a language that’s not English in the same grade level across the District, you must implement a bilingual program. It’s law. Houston has several different bilingual programs. Because of our population, we only have English/Spanish.

We want Spanish speakers to be good English speakers. Our objective for them is to learn English well enough to pass state assessments,  graduate from high school and get a postsecondary education. Research shows that the stronger your native language is, the better your English is.  Without bilingual education, we end up with a generation of kids that have no native language. At home, they listen to Spanish. At school, they learn English. They speak English to their parents. Parents speak Spanish to them. They can’t write or read Spanish because nobody taught them. They read and write English because they learned at school. So they grow up, they don’t know enough  Spanish, and they may not know enough English to be comparable to a native speaker.

 

Q: Do we encourage all students to speak many languages?

A: In this moment, WFISD offers only Spanish and, if they are part of the International Baccalaureate program at Kirby or Hirschi, French. Finding teachers has been a challenge.

Q: What advice would you give to me if I said I wanted to learn another language?

A: I would first say that you must be willing to make it your goal.  That you are able and want to learn another language.  As far as a program, I would recommend Rosetta Stone. I’ve seen it work. My son learned French in a month before he went to Paris. He probably cannot write a doctoral essay in French, but he traveled to France and had no issues understanding or being understood.  And I am not saying other programs do not work, but it’s this one I have had experience with.

We have to remember that language is not about perfection. Now, our bilingual kids have to pass all these state assessments. But if you’re learning a language because you want to, perfection isn’t a primary goal. If I go to United Market Street and talk to a clerk and say, “Banana?” will she understand that I’m looking for a banana? That’s language. We have to know we shouldn’t  be ashamed or embarrassed and stop the “perfection or nothing” notion. Language is about communication, whether you dance, sing, draw, or signal. Just get the message through. Language is for communication. Getting information. It does not have to be perfect.  Perfection or specialization (if you want to learn a language for a specific reason) come later.

Learning a language is an enlightening experience. A language is not just words or signs but it’s people. Food. Customs. A way of living. The more you understand the way people speak, the more you understand them. I think the world right now needs kindness, acceptance, understanding and tolerance.

Q: They say children learn a second language faster than adults. Do you agree?

A: No! It’s easier for an adult to learn a language. You already have the concepts, and you already know what a noun, adjective and sentence is. I can show you these keys (she jangles her car keys) and tell you the Spanish word for key is llaves. I don’t need to teach you what keys are. All you have to do is learn a new word. When you’re 3, and I’m talking about a beach, a child may never have been to a beach, and I will have to teach the concept first. In English, you say, “the red car.” In Spanish, the order is different: the article, noun, then the adjective. You will understand that. A 4-year-old may not understand.

The difference is: A child acquires a language.  Children are born with the ability to acquire a language.  What does a child have to do all day? Nothing. Just go to school and learn. He needs language to survive. When I was a Spanish teacher, I didn’t let students go to the restroom until they learned to ask me in Spanish. Guess how long it took them to be able to ask in Spanish? About 1.27 seconds! They knew it because they needed it.  

As an adult, you do not acquire a language, because you already have one.  You learn a language. Usually, as an adult, you don’t NEED it (for survival). Also, as an adult, if you are taking a class (online or face to face), you’re sitting there trying to learn Spanish or Vietnamese or Chinese and you’re thinking, “Did I turn off the stove? Did I put the laundry in the dryer? What am I going to cook for dinner? Did I pay that bill?” Your mind has a lot of things to think about.

 

Q: What would you tell a high school student with a whole life ahead of them about learning a language?

A: I’d tell them to learn a second language, whatever it is, and do the very best you can through it. Don’t just pass it. Do your best. Not because of the language per se but because of the brain connections and brain exercise it represents.

Learning a language makes connections in your brain. Once you learn a second language – I don’t care which one – the next one is so easy. You’re used to being flexible in your grammatical structure. Once you know a second language, you already know two sets of grammar rules. A third and fourth one will come easy.

I would like every WFISD high school graduate who leaves our classes and one day decides to get a master’s degree in Germany or to visit Holland or Finland, and is confronted with the need of learning the language, to say, “Hey, I had Spanish classes in Wichita Falls, and I learned it and it was not that hard. I can do it.”

Just that attitude will get them wherever they want to go! Be open to it. I would give the kids the same advice I gave my own kids: Life is a book. Don’t stare at the cover. Get out there. Go. The world is such a wonderful place. There are so many things out there. Go and learn. Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you will live forever.