Immersion programs make kids better Americans
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Perhaps the best thing my parents ever did for me was to raise me as a Persian in America. I hated this at the time, not understanding why I needed to learn how to perform Persian dances, eat Persian food, or speak Farsi if we weren't actually in Iran. I now realize I was lucky not only to find a cultural identity but also to experience living in two cultures and with two languages at once.
Not all children have a built-in culture base at home, though. But they can have the next best thing if they're enrolled in language immersion programs, particularly if they start early.
"Language is a natural phenomenon within us, and the earlier we open it, the better," says David Fierberg, the events and communications manager of the French American International School. "It's an important tool in a child's development and opens up new pathways of thought, creating a stronger cultural awareness."
That's why schools around the Bay Area are increasingly embracing this method of schooling. Some are already established in the city, such as the FAIS, which was founded in 1962. Others are just getting started, such as Starr King Elementary School, where a Mandarin immersion program for kindergarten students just finished its first year.
And such programs are available at all levels. The Scandinavian School, for example, is a preschool that uses the educational techniques of its eponymous region, while the FAIS has extensive prekindergartentoeighth grade and high school programs. In most cases the experience isn't just about teaching a particular language or culture but also about presenting a different kind of education.
At the FAIS the demand for a rigorous education starts young, and admission is competitive. Those accepted are sent straight on the full-immersion pathway, with a curriculum developed by the French Ministry of Education. Grades K to three are taught 80 percent in French and 20 percent in English, while third grade through middle school is split 50-50. From then on French is a large part of the high school student's education, with certain classes taught only in French or only in English.
"There is sort of a natural flow," Fierberg says. "The students learn both French and English history and culture, government. Drama is taught in French, as is sports, while music classes are held in English. And French and English math is taught."
French and English math? But isn't math a universal language?
Yes, Fierberg says. But the methodologies are different. In France, math is more process oriented, focusing on formulas and word problems. American math is more answer oriented. In other subjects the FAIS places a French-method emphasis on oral presentation, memorization of poetry, and dictées, wherein teachers read a paragraph and students write what they hear.
Though the Scandinavian School only teaches preschool students, its educational methods are still clearly different from American and French traditions. In fact, director and teacher Mimmi Skoglund finds the Scandinavian method often challenges the expectations of her students' American parents, who ask questions like "Why doesn't my child come home with things done at school every day?"
"We try to clarify that it is not the product that is important, it's the process," Skoglund explains. "That, I think, is very Scandinavian. I have never had that question in Sweden. Another question that always comes up is discipline. [We] try to solve problems, figure out what happened, and come up with a solution and most of the time, the children are involved. Never do we use time-outs."
Another big difference, Skoglund says, is the emphasis Americans place on preparing kids for the next step in life, whereas Scandinavian education focuses on the here and now.
"It is important to just be and enjoy whatever you have. We try to create a place where children can be children," she says. "We believe we are academic, but through play and the children's own interests."
The practical implications of this type of schooling are varied, but most people agree that a bilingual education is an asset in the global economy. Furthermore, Bay Area immersion programs seek not to divide children from their American culture but to broaden their understanding of it.
"FAIS adheres to an educational methodology that has been around since the mid-1800s," Fierberg says. "Students are receiving a broad range of education that isn't held hostage to politics and societal conventions. But it is held in the US, so it does incorporate what is going on around the kids into the English curriculum so that they have an idea of the changes in society."
It's also important to note that the FAIS is accredited by the California Association of Independent Schools, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and the French Ministry of Education, allowing students to transition uninterrupted to other schools in the United States and in France.
But one of the greatest goals of the program is to help participants enhance a sense of self as they learn about fellow students, their teachers, and the families they meet during homestays in Normandy in their fifth-grade year.
While all this makes immersion education sound idyllic, it can also be overwhelming for young students. FAIS alumni profiles are open, candid, and complex, revealing such a program's potential drawbacks. Some drawbacks are merely annoying, as shown in 1974 FAIS alumna Karen Heisler's memory of adults incessantly asking her to "say something in French" when she was too shy even to say something in English. Others are more serious.
"I remember the solitary struggle with a curriculum that none of my 'at home' friends shared and the lonely uniqueness of going to a school nobody had heard of," she says.
Francis Tapon, a 1988 alumnus, agrees, adding that it was often hard to relate to other people. "We were in a cocoon, sheltered from the real world, where people are proud if they can say, 'Una cerveza, por favor.'<\!q>"
And for many, the value of bilingual education didn't sink in until much later, just one of the trade-offs parents and students are forced to make. The others? It can be frustrating for students new to a language to be in a class with those who are already fluent. Parents often have the extra job of carrying on language immersion through home activities. And teachers say building interest in a culture completely outside themselves is difficult with children, who are the center of their own worlds. But inherent in a commitment to an immersion program is the expectation of roadblocks and challenges.
And Fierberg says it's worth the result, the creation of well-rounded adults who understand their roles in a changing world, whether they use French in an international career or simply to order a bottle of wine at a restaurant. "We'd like for them to see difference as something that's attractive," he says.*