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Language Comes Alive : Unique School District Program Uses Songs, Cooking Lessons and Field Trips to Help Teach English to Immigrant Students


Several immigrant students in a Gardena High School classroom are working on an English lesson. Their assignment: assemble a cardboard castle.

While the students follow English instructions to fashion turrets and piece together walls, the conversation strays from how peculiar sounding are words such as moat and turret to talk of their own countries--Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador--and the difficulty of adjusting to the United States.

It is Esmi De Leon's) turn to talk. Speaking in Spanish, he describes how in the Guatemalan night sky, the full moon shines so clear and close that stargazers can make out the sketch of a huge tree spreading out its branches from the moon's center to its edge.

"I know it sounds funny, but it's true," said De Leon, a 14-year-old who moved to Gardena last November. "And with the tree in the middle there, it looks almost like a coin shining in the sky."

"Here," he says, with an air of disappointment, "it is just white."

No one makes fun of De Leon's description of the moon. The other students agree with the larger point: that everything is different from what they are used to--not just the language or the food or the way people dress. But everything.

And the biggest hurdle is learning to speak English.

Toward that end, De Leon and 80 other immigrant students at Gardena High School are spending the summer in a type of English summer camp where they sing songs, bake cakes and even go to McDonald's--activities that are anything but traditional when it comes to learning foreign languages.

The students are there to practice speaking English, but the program's scope is more than just holding creative vocabulary lessons. The directors and teachers hope that through first-hand experience with the language, in activities and field trips, students will become more comfortable and confident in their new community.

The federal Emergency Immigrant Education Assistance Program, funded by Congress in 1984 and begun in Los Angeles a year later, is meant to help states with large immigrant populations supplement classroom education and give new arrivals the language and cultural skills that are not typically taught in the classroom. To be eligible for the program, students must be born outside the United States and not have attended school here for more than three years.

Within the vast Los Angeles Unified School District, the Gardena program is touted as one of the best, mainly because of teachers Linda Ritchie-Daza and Ayako Motoyasu.

"There are many excellent teachers doing wonderful things with this program all over," said Lila Silvern, head of the school district's program. "But the teachers at Gardena are some of the most experienced and creative ones we have."

During the summer, students work solely on speaking English, learning it through field trips to museums, cooking classes, arts and crafts and tours of the city police and fire departments. Classes run from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and students participate voluntarily.

The overwhelming majority of students--95%--are Latino, a few are Asian and from the Pacific Rim. Because most do not yet speak English well enough to hold extended conversations, students often speak in their native languages. Still, they say, the program does boost their English.

"It definitely serves to teach you English, especially when we take trips and go to museums, or when we do cooking classes," said Karla Abogabir,14, from Honduras. "When you do things with your hand, then you remember the words, like frosting or sifter ."

School officials say that cooking meals or singing songs helps the students learn everyday English words. But as important are the lessons in American culture.

Los Angeles offers the classes at 66 middle schools and high schools and 32 elementary schools. The program is also offered during vacation breaks. A total of 14,000 students participate. This summer, about 5,000 students are taking the classes.

To be eligible to teach the classes, teachers are asked to attend several workshops a year and must use vacation days to go to field trip sites before they take the students. In return, teachers in the program are given almost complete creative freedom in the classroom.

The idea for teaching English through cooking lessons came from Banning High School teacher Frank Silvino, and it is now a popular activity at many schools.

Likewise, a project created by Motoyasu and Ritchie-Daza last year--a scale model of Gardena--has been emulated by teachers at other schools.

The model, which is in the program office in Bel-Air as an example of outstanding work by both students and teachers, includes a freeway, police and fire departments, schools and houses. Girls even crocheted tiny curtains for the windows, and the basketball courts have tiny nets. Each item in a project teaches a nuance of English and American culture, Ritchie-Daza said.

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