--Tim & Kerry Conrad-Brethouwer

Clase BilingüeIt Was Like Kindergarten One Day, College the Next!
We had come to the final days of seventh period’s Dual Language Class, or Clase Bilingüe, as we called it on “Spanish Day.” Throughout the year, one day was Spanish Day, the next English Day, with 13 Utah middle-schoolers learning Spanish for the first time, and paired up as language-learning buddies with 13 Mexican newcomers to the U.S.

I reflected on the students’ own evaluations of the course. For Ron Rowling, the class intellectual, “It was like kindergarten one day, college the next!” Magdalena, the class quejona [complainer] writing partly in English, partly in Spanish, reported that the English speakers “ayudaban cuando querian no mas [helped only when they wanted to]. When they say no we have to do it alone.” Julio, nicknamed SP (Soccer Player), enjoyed sports, games, and making friends. For him, Clase Bilingüe “was fun and I learned more English.” Naomi wanted to learn Spanish so that she could talk to her Dad’s Peruvian side of the family. She said, “The class was a blast! I think we should have all of the same people in the same class again next year.” Amy dropped out of the class midyear saying, “On Spanish Day, I don’t know what’s going on! The Mexican students need to know more English. And both sides need to know more, be more bilingual where everybody is in the same place. Anyway, I have more friends in my other classes.”

Much like our students, my wife and I found team-teaching the dual language class a tough, yet intriguing experience. Kerry is an ESL and Spanish teacher, while just a few blocks away at Weber State University, I teach ESL/bilingual education courses for K-12 teachers. We have collaborated on a number of K-12 projects, both during and after school hours.

It may seem surprising, but Kerry and other Spanish teachers often have native speakers of Spanish in their beginning Spanish (as a foreign language) classes. One reason is that newcomer ESL students who are Spanish speakers are often placed in a Spanish class because they are not yet ready for elective classes taught only in English. In other cases, Spanish-speaking parents may hope a Spanish class will help their children maintain their home/heritage language. However, middle-school kids attempting to use Spanish for the first time may feel too embarrassed with native speakers in the class. On the other hand, native Spanish speakers can easily get bored.

In educating their children, many parents place a high value on experiential knowledge of other languages and cultures, trying to locate often very expensive study-abroad programs with special language-immersion and host-family opportunities. But largely overlooked in our own city and school were vibrant communities of native Spanish speakers and English speakers. So Kerry and I decided to convert one of the traditional Spanish classes at MOMS (Mount Ogden Middle School) into a dual-language Spanish/English class, with a carefully-balanced enrollment of English and Spanish speakers, and a curriculum focused on encouraging two-way language and social interaction.

As a teacher educator and applied linguist, I am interested in classroom discourse and intercultural communication. I wondered what ongoing adjustments Kerry and I and our students would need to make as we tried to meet everyone’s academic and social needs and expectations. Throughout the year I explored what the students themselves were thinking and doing. I’ve left unedited in this report their spoken and written comments (e.g. not correcting language usage in spelling, punctuation, or grammar), and students’ real names have been replaced with pseudonyms. From a much larger study, I’ve extracted seven aspects of the dual-language class: motivations for choosing the class, tests in a new language, peer teaching survey, language-learning partners, libretas [notebooks], home visits, and video projects.

MOTIVATIONS FOR CHOOSING THE CLASS: “I want to be a polotican (President) and it is important in that field of work to be multilingual,” wrote Ron about why he had taken the class. Tom’s motivations were family-oriented: “My mom wants me to speack Spanish because she wants me to speak her language. Also I wanted to speak to moms side of the family.” In contrast, the Mexican students had heard about the fun, social class activities. For example, Magdalena wrote, “I take this class because is fun, calabazas [pumpkins] and pinatas. Tambien por que hacemos fiestas [Also because we have parties].”

TESTS IN A NEW LANGUAGE: “The Spanish part was hard but interesting because I learned new Spanish words. It was different from any other test I’ve taken!” Alice, a beginning Spanish learner, had just finished taking diagnostic second-language proficiency tests in both English and Spanish in speaking, reading, and writing. For the first time, she understood what ESL students experience throughout the school day. Much like Alice, but in reaction to the English tests, Laura wrote, “Fue difficult porque no se bien el Ingles, interesante porque entendí algunas palabras [Ìt was difficult because I don’t know English well, interesting because I understood some words].”

PEER-TEACHING SURVEY: “Teaching is like a bus. When you ride it, it’s okay but not too fun.” Brandon’s metaphorical comments revealed a certain ambivalence students felt about being responsible for helping teach their classmates on English Day or Spanish Day. Kathryn, a very conscientious peer teacher, disclosed at the end of the year, “I didn’t really like helping all the time. I got bored sometimes.” Yessica wrote about how she taught better when she was more personally motivated: “A veces me nojo por que me ase ensenar...cuando yo en seno por mi propia voluntad me siento mas o menos. [Sometimes I get angry when someone makes me teach...when I teach because I want to, I feel more or less okay about it].” Fabio complained that teaching was hard because “Jack doesn’t know Spanish!”

LANGUAGE-LEARNING PARTNERS: “In the dual-language class the whole point is to have a partner so that you can help each other. In other classes you have to do it by yourself more. It’s not like your personal partner thing.” Tasha explained further that having partners was a popular, helpful aspect of the class. For the majority of class time, students worked in pairs and small groups in interaction with native speakers of the new language they were learning. Many students self-selected permanent partners and became good friends. However, the interpersonal aspects were not always so smooth, as revealed by Yessica’s comments, “Ron, ese pregunton! [that questioner!] He always go I got a question, I got a question! Tasha’s sometimes fun to help but she’s always talking and talking. I dont like Kathryn because she doesnt let me write in her notebook.” According to Jack, “Mona is most helpful with Spanish. The mouthiest one, the loudest one is Yessica obviously. Yappy, Yappy, Yappy!”

LIBRETAS: “Soccer Rules!” declared Julio on the cover of his libreta [class notebook]. A meteor soccer ball shot over a rectangular soccer field with the goals and center line carefully marked. Strutting his famous number 8 was Alberto García, Mexico's star midfielder of the Copa America Games. Like a mirror image, Brandon’s cover extolled his favorite sport: “Baseball Rules!” A flaming baseball zipped out of a diamond-shaped stadium, slugged by number 10 Chipper Jones, clutch-hitting 3rd Baseman of the Atlanta Braves. Julio and Brandon were dual-language partners and buddies. In old-English calligraphy style, so popular among the Mexican students, a page from Julio's libreta declared: "Brandon is my best friend." On a rough map of Mexico and the Southwest U.S., Brandon had traced Julio’s journey to Utah from his two former homes in Michoacán and Tijuana. Students used their libretas to communicate interpersonally and interculturally, filling them with multicolored drawings, notes about goings-on inside and outside class, and identity slogans such as “1000% Mexicano,” or “Trekkie Forever!” (a Star Trek fan).

HOME VISITS: “Me dan pena!” Our beloved quejona, Magdalena, explained she couldn’t wear her glasses to school because they bothered her, made her look ugly. Kerry and I were doing follow ups of our students’ SEOPS. Student Educational and Occupational Plan Surveys involved personal visits with parents to discuss the results of their children’s course grades and occupational/career goals, then work out an individually-tailored class schedule for the coming year. We learned so much from these home visits with Magdalena and other students. Tina’s father, Emmanuel, a temporary Manpower worker, was anxious about what he called trabajo forzado y descanso forzado [forced labor and forced rest], haphazardly having to deal with all-night shifts and overtime on the one hand, and the loss of wages because of extended layoffs on the other. Another of our students, Heidi, had recently moved to Ogden from Flagstaff, Arizona, her tenth move in her young life, and her mother had recently been divorced for the third time. Selena’s father decided the family needed to sell off her extensive, much-loved CD collection of Tejana and other varieties of Spanish and English popular music. Because of a progressively debilitating illness, Kathryn’s mother had to resign her position as an anthropology professor.

STUDENT VIDEO PROJECTS: “Our house would be very boring!” Ron said after class. Earlier, both English and Spanish speakers had been fascinated by a videotape of Lidia’s rocking quinceañera birthday party in the back yard of her home, with many relatives and friends enjoying the brassy banda beat of Radio La Mexicana AM 730 while slivers of pork carnitas bubbled in two huge casos [cauldrons] of boiling water. The Mexican and mostly Anglo students and their families lived in different worlds geographically and culturally, even within our small city of Ogden. But we noticed that for most of our students, camcorders were a popular means of preserving special family events and experiences. We encouraged students to videotape a home or family episode, so that they could bring their unique worlds into view for all their classmates, both Spanish speakers and English speakers.

Ron lived in a beautiful home at the foot of Mount Ogden next to a quiet pond surrounded by aspen. However, convinced his home would be too boring, he chose to videotape a family camping trip exploring the weird rock formations and hoodoos of Goblin Valley in Southern Utah. Yessica was embarrassed about her small inner-city rental, almost bare of furniture, an old TV sitting on the floor. But she loved babies and decided to videotape her little drooling five-month-old nephew in her married sister’s more spacious home. Yessica asked the class to decide on Spanish Day: “¿Es interesante o no es interesante: la vida de un bebé? [Is it interesting or is it not interesting: the life of a baby?]. Class projects by other students included an intricately enacted episode with toy soldiers called “GI Joe Vs. the Evil Cobra,” “Turkey Day with Grandma & Grandpa,” “Hanukkah at my Home,” and “Equipo Mexico” (Soccer Team Mexico).

Like Brandon’s bumpy bus ride with his new classmate from Mexico, our dual-language Spanish/English explorations at MOMS revealed how challenging, sometimes even uncomfortable such learning environments can be. Educational ethnographer Frederick Erickson speaks of the possibilities for both “affiliation as well as conflict across cultural differences” as children and teenagers from different backgrounds interact at school. He also warns, “Schools are collection sites for diversity of voice and identity. Schools ask of students that they try on new discourses, new ways of speaking and thinking, new ways of being a self, and to appropriate them as their own…that is personally risky business, both for students and teachers” (p. 55). Obviously, students can’t simply be grouped interculturally or crosslinguistically with the expectations that meaningful interaction and learning will automatically occur. However, I think that the personally risky business of trying on new discourses, new ways of speaking, thinking, and being a self is what deeper learning is all about, and keeps students from feeling class is “like kindergarten” every day.


Conrad, T. Bilingualism & dual language education: Let the kids share. The Journal of Communication & Education 2.6, February 2003: 26-27.

Erickson, F., Culture in Society and in Educational Practices. In J.A. Banks & C. A. M. Banks (Eds.), Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives, 3rd Ed. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1997: 32-60.

*Tim Conrad is Associate Professor of English and the ESL/Bilingual Endorsement Program for pre-service and in-service teachers at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.