Why Is Curriculum Development for Bilingual Classes Such an Undertaking?
In my post dated July 12, 2014, I referred to a study by Karsenti et al. (2008) on teacher retention. The researchers brought up a major challenge faced by French immersion teachers (and all immersion teachers for that matter): curriculum development.
I chose the name Creative Bilingual Solutions for my consulting company because from the very beginning of founding the French dual language program at PS 58 The Carroll School, I had to come up with solutions to adapt a balanced literacy program to our needs. With a 50%-50% student population and the goal of developing biliteracy by the end of fifth grade, we had to build a literacy curriculum that integrated academic language from the ground up. Not only that, but it had to be equally rigorous as the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) curriculum. Reaching our goal was no small feat.
I hope that retelling the story of how we developed our literacy program will help capture the difficulty of curriculum development for bilingual settings.
When the dual language program was created in 2007, TCRWP strongly advocated for student choice in writing. Teachers College recommended that all students write within one genre. However, they should have a choice as to what they write about within that genre. A strong supporter of the TCRWP approach, I tried that in my first year of kindergarten. What I noticed was that when students write on a topic of their choice, teachers of language learners have to somehow help 26 students learn the language skills necessary to write on their 26 different topics. This just wasn’t feasible. The strategy lessons developed by Teachers College were absolutely amazing. Now, I needed to apply them to a reduced range of choice if I wanted my students to acquire language skills in addition to content skills.
The dual language team believed in having students read and write within a common theme aligned to the social studies and/or science curricula so that we could also develop academic language. Thematic planning is extremely beneficial to language learners. Students dig deeper into a content area instead of barely scratching the surface. Students get multiple opportunities to use and re-use the language they are learning. In fact, by integrating a literacy unit with social studies or science, students also perfect their reading and writing skills within a contextualized learning experience.
Limited or Lack of Resources
For all its benefits, perhaps the greatest challenge of adapting a literacy curriculum to an immersion setting is also the need to integrate thematically. When our states develop social studies and science curricula, they don’t care to see if books in a foreign language are available on subjects like the 13 Colonies, the American Revolution, Independence, Westward Expansion, the Civil Rights Movement… This is how many books are available in French on the 13 Colonies, the American Revolution and Independence: ZERO. Bilingual teachers end up spending hundreds of hours each year simply creating or piecing together reading materials. You probably do that yourself!
Curricular shifts are really difficult for bilingual teachers. At my school, we could never keep up with the curricular upgrades and changes made by the curriculum provider. Whether it was in response to the Common Core or a new unit they wanted to try, we simply didn’t have the capacity to build matching curricula. We needed several full-time curriculum developers to match their printing speed. Julie Sugarman from the Center for Applied Linguistics visited PS 58 and reminded us that really all we needed were the standards, the social studies and science themes and then our own imagination. We didn’t need to follow a particular language arts curriculum. I couldn’t agree more. Julie was right in pointing out that our focus shouldn’t be on adapting new curriculum, but on creating a stand-alone curriculum that meets the needs of our students.
It’s not always ideal or easy, but there are ways to overcome these curricular challenges. See my next post on How School, District and State Leaders Can Support Curriculum Development.
Karsenti, T., Collin, S., Villeneuve, S., Dumouchel, G., & Roy, N. (2008). Why are new French immersion and French as a second language teachers leaving the profession? Results of a Canada-wide survey. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers.