Language Immersion in Just One Day

I needed to expose my preservice teachers to a real, lasting experience with diversity. I had one day.

Growing up in South Dakota, where 86 percent of the population is white, my students come to college with few experiences interacting with culturally diverse students. The reality is that classrooms today are becoming increasingly diverse.  

For my lesson, I focused on language diversity and organized a structured day-long shadowing experience in a school with a high percentage of students who speak English as a New Language (ENL). Of course my students had read about English language learners. But I wanted to awaken an appreciation for the challenges that Limited English Proficient (LEP) students face in school. My desire was to showcase the challenges that educators face in trying to meet the needs of these language diverse students.

The majority of students enrolled in my human relations class come from a white, lower-middle class background. All are native English speakers. A handful have learned a foreign language in school.

We drove 90 minutes south to a school district that has, in the last decade, seen a dramatic increase in refugees and immigrants from Central and South America, Thailand and Myanmar. These are the most language diverse schools in our state. During the 2002-2003 school year, the district enrolled 30 ESL students. That has increased to 474 ESL students enrolled during the 2011-2012 school year. Approximately 1 in 4 high school students in this district speak English as a Second Language (ESL). 

Our students spent a full day one-on-one shadowing an English language learner (ELL) from class-to-class. In addition to getting to know the child and developing a relationship, the student shadowers were included in the daily lesson plan. The district instructed classroom teachers to involve our pre-service teachers as much as possible.

At first, my students questioned the value of spending a day away from their own classes.

Rather than merely observing the teacher-student relationship, our students became a part of instruction in an interactive way. For example, one of our prospective teachers helped construct a vocabulary word flip book. Another  assisted with reading a passage of text.

Lilia Sarmiento highlighted a similar mentoring program pairing bilingual educators with student teachers in the Fall 2008 issue of Teaching Tolerance. Like Sarmiento’s program, our ELL shadowing experience raised awareness of the value of bilingual education and ENL certification. 

After our field trip, one student said, “It’s one thing to learn about ELL/ESL in a book, but seeing it hands-on is a unique opportunity to see it in a different perspective.” 

Our prospective educators need experience working with diverse students.   Living in a region that provides little linguistic diversity presents challenges in providing that experience. But if we are creative, there are ways. For us, it was a community within reasonable driving distance. We offered an opportunity for our prospective teachers to immerse themselves in linguistic diversity, even if it was only for a single day.

Neville is an associate professor of education in South Dakota.