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Por que no puede leer Juanito?

This human mosaic represents a demographic profile where nearly 30 languages are spoken and more than 90 percent of the student body is bilingual.

Not only are educators faced with the challenge of effectively teaching content and context, but they must now cope with the prospect of having to face a classroom filled with an array of smiling faces reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.

And behind each of these beguiling grins is a fertile mind just hungering to take in the best their early years of wonder have to offer. Unfortunately, without the wisdom of Solomon, teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to determine whether the messages they are attempting to communicate are, in essence, the same messages being received by their culturally diverse students.

This cultural communication chasm was particularly evident earlier this year when the newly elected California Governor Pete Wilson visited Marian Anderson Elementary School in Sacramento to show his interest and support of statewide education.

The occasion should have been an excellent photo opportunity for Wilson. It wasn't. The visit should have infused parents and the educational community with a sense of confidence. It didn't. The second-grader poised at a computer terminal should have been able to say a few words to Wilson. He couldn't. The young boy, whose family comes from the mountains of Laos, didn't speak English.

It was a poignant scene to be sure. Rather than exchange greetings and information, all they could exchange was blank stares and a stony silence.

The stark reality is that similar exchanges of blank stares between teachers and students are occurring in classrooms throughout the culturally rich face of the US.

The continual educational conundrum of "Why Can't Johnny Read?" is taking on new meaning in what Newsweek magazine recently termed "America's Classrooms of Babel."

USA Today recently published a four-page supplement focusing on education and the challenge of bridging the culture gap. According to an article by Jeff Kleinhuizen, throughout the US, minorities now account for at least 30 percent of public school enrollments, up from 24 percent in 1976.

Newsweek recently reported that more than 5 million children of immigrants are expected to enter US public schools during the 1990s. On a national scale, about 3.5 million schoolchildren are from homes where English is not the first language. By current estimates, nearly 75 percent of language minority children are Hispanic.

It is further estimated that more than 150 languages are represented in US schools. From the perspective of education, this panoply of languages and cultures is perhaps the most formidable challenge to face the educational system. From the perspective of private industry, the prospects for a well-trained and well-educated multicultural work force in tomorrow's factories and offices could be startling.

Futurists such as John Naisbitt contend that the US' ultimate corporate strength lies in its diverse work force. The belief is that from such a rich cultural mixture a myriad of ideas, skills and perspectives can emerge.

Judy Rosener, author of "Workforce America," believes that "few US institutions seem adequately prepared today to deal effectively with this momentous change, the increasing cultural diversity of the US work force." As she notes, "people of color" will account for the majority of the nation's work force growth in this decade and beyond.

Clearly, part of the solution to the dilemma facing educators must come from corporate America. Bold ideas and new teaching techniques must be forged through an effective alliance between industry and education. One such approach is an innovative curriculum recently developed for Southern California Edison by Dan Fichtner, Ph.D., a noted junior and senior high school teacher.

Edison, one of America's largest electric utilities, provides electric service to a population of more than 10 million people. The utility's 50,000square-mile service area contains more than 5,000 schools, colleges and universities. Through various demographic studies conducted by the California Department of Education Bilingual Education Office and recent census statistics, it was determined that at least 30 percent of the utility's customers do not speak English or use English as a second language. Further, one out of six students in the state does not speak English.

With more than 100 languages spoken in southern California schools, the opportunity to help bridge these language barriers was clearly evident. In fact, research showed that many children were being pulled out of school to assist with language-related family responsibilities which included helping their parents translate and conduct everyday business transactions such as grocery shopping, obtaining a driver's license and paying their utility bills. Learning Safety and Language at die Same Time It became obvious that these "Little Interpreters," their non-English-speaking schoolmates and a large population of adults were in need of immediate and special attention. With the assistance of Fichtner, the California Department of Education, a panel of leading bilingual educators and Edison's long-standing educational advisory council, the Language Connection was born.

The Language Connection is an upper-elementary and adult English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) curriculum program designed to help limitedEnglish speaking students understand the concepts of energy conservation, electrical safety and how to obtain quality electrical service. Of particular significance is the fact that this five-language program is matched with the California State Education Department's Science and Mathematics Framework requirements.

At the heart of the Language Connection is a teaching technique referred to as "Sheltered English." The ultimate goal of Sheltered English is to teach the content of courses as well as the language needed to understand, explain and apply the concepts learned. To wit, science, math and social science concepts related to energy conservation, electrical safety and electrical service are interwoven in the lessons.

As a result, the integration of related concepts allows students the opportunity to acquire deeper insights into each of the subjects being taught. Since the students must explain, question and clarify their ideas with their teacher and fellow classmates, they not only learn the science concepts, for example, but they also acquire the language needed to work with the concept. \%en teachers use the Language Connection curriculum, their students will learn about electricity and acquire English language skills at the same time ! The written materials contained in the Language Connection are in five languages: Chinese, Khmer (Cambodian), Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese. Edison's Language Connection was field tested last summer. Following an analysis of the information gathered, it was determined that "about half of the students surveyed did some of the electricity lessons at home," and that "more than three-fourths of the student respondents indicate they have changed their behavior related to the use of home appliances."

As one adult ESL teacher reported, "My students learned a lot from the lessons, particularly with a heavy emphasis on earthquake preparedness. I think the thing that most students were excited about was learning how to read the electric bill."

What makes our Language Connection program unique is that it embraces the best elements of three distinct teaching techniques," says Valerie Williams, Edison's project manager.

"For perhaps the first time on such a comprehensive scale, this curriculum employs Sheltered English, bilingual education and cooperative learning techniques such as task-oriented assignments and small group discussions." Curriculum Available to Schools Phase two of the Language Connection field test is continuing. This phase consists of offering the curriculum free to teachers and schools within Edison's service area in central and southern California who are willing to participate in a special workshop conducted by Fichtner. Evaluation and measurement of the program's effectiveness will be conducted by Kathleen Wulf, Ph.D., of the University of Southern California's Department of Education.

The feedback I've received so far is uniformly positive," Williams says. "I would love to see other companies develop similar educational programs. So much of what happens in the classroom ultimately affects these students for the rest of their lives. If employers are to meet their expectations with respect to the quality of their new employees, they are going to have to look at ways they can help shape their company's future and the future of our world."

The key to forging a firm partnership with the educational community is to involve teachers early in any project intended for their use.

As Williams points out, "While I felt that a program about electrical safety was important for youngsters and adults to learn, if we didn't have the support, endorsement and participation of teachers in the field, our program wouldn't have helped anyone sitting on the shelf somewhere."

Williams is quick to credit the work of Fichtner and Edison's Educational Advisory Council in helping to mold the Language Connection into a practical teaching tool.

"Everyone involved in the development of these materials has been academically challenged to consider how best to meet the needs of our changing student population," says Fichtner. "Our future, after all, lies in them."

"Dr. Fichtner's teaching experience and special insights really made this program possible," Williams says.

The utility's advisory committee is composed of a select group of volunteers who represent all levels and disciplines of education from the company's service area. These educators serve a three-year term. Meetings of the entire council are usually held twice a year. Smaller group meetings are conducted more frequently to work on specific projects related to a member's area of expertise.

It was at such meetings that Language Connection was to face its severest critics. "The council is noted for its open and honest exchange of ideas," Williams says. "If they don't like something or think that a particular idea won't work, they're not afraid to speak up. That's what makes the council so effective. If our educational products can pass their review, I have confidence that what finally reaches the classrooms will be effective."

To minimize the misunderstandings that can occur when languages and cultures meet face to face, society must understand and be sensitive to the dynamics that occur when East meets West.

The importance of cultural sensitivity is certainly not a new concern and was once addressed by former US President John F. Kennedy: "So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us direct our attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And, if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity." Keith A. Sheldon, ABC, APR, is the media relations features editor at Southern California Edison, Rosemead, Calif. NOTE: If you felt frustrated when you weren't sure what this headline meant, you will understand what non-English-speaking individuals face when they see a sentence as seemingly simple as "Why can't Johnny read?"
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on international communication; US education system and cultural diversity; Why can't Johnny read?
Author:Sheldon, Keith A.
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:When your national language is just another language.
Next Article:Choosing a training consultant: how to get the results you want.

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