NU students create bilingual education course

Shanika Gunaratna

Judith Landeros grew up speaking Spanish and was regularly pulled out of high-school English classes for special instruction. Looking back on her own experience as an English as a Second Language student, the SESP sophomore questions her high school’s methods for teaching English along with all other subjects.

“I hate the fact that many students who don’t know English are put in disability classes or classes where they’re taught they’re not smart enough,” she said. “When I go back to my high school, I see so many students not learning enough. I want to know: Are the programs not effective? Is there a problem within the system?”

Prompted by these questions, Landeros signed up for a new student-organized seminar called Alternate Approaches to Immigrant Education. The 10 students enrolled in the class volunteer at two Chicago elementary schools, Peirce School and Joseph Stockton Elementary School, on a weekly basis. They also volunteer at least once at Centro Romero, a community-based organization that serves the refugee and immigrant population on the northeast side of Chicago and has an adult bilingual education program.

Weinberg senior Mallory Dwinal and Weinberg junior Elizabeth Harris are the students behind the idea for the class.

“The community directly around Northwestern has a huge ESL population, so it would seem almost hypocritical to study this, go through all the theoretical issues and not put it into practice,” Dwinal said. “At the end of the day, the main question would be, ‘If we didn’t volunteer, what’s the point?'”

Dwinal said the class includes former ESL students, as well as students who have volunteered in the past for Social Enterprise for Language Foundations, a bilingual education program Dwinal founded in 2007 that sends volunteer tutors to Chicago elementary schools.

Landeros said she finds it frustrating that so many intelligent bilingual students get stuck in the system, unable to grasp English and move further in their education.

Students may be distracted by problems at home or inhibited by undiagnosed learning disabilities, Landeros said. Students and teachers also may not see eye to eye, with teachers harboring misconceptions about their students who are hesitant to ask for help.

The instructors at Centro Romero teach English to adults up to the second level – by which time students have learned several tenses but are not necessarily conversational.

Rosanne Poppell, an English instructor at the center and a recent guest speaker for the seminar, said Centro Romero would like to expand its programs but current financial resources are stretched too thin.

“We’re hurting,” Poppell said. “If you ask for a raise, there’s no funding. If you ask for books, there’s no funding.”

Through volunteering at places like Centro Romero, Dwinal said, the seminar enables students to integrate the issues they learn about at NU – from political issues to economic and gender theories – and translate them “in a very tangible, real sense of volunteering.”

Dwinal, who has a certificate in bilingual teaching and has been accepted by Teach for America, said she began the class partly because she saw a lack of available opportunities for NU students who want to study bilingual education. To make the class a reality, Dwinal and Harris recruited Elisa Baena, a lecturer in the Spanish and Portuguese department, as an adviser. Like all advisers to student-organized seminars, Baena’s involvement is on a voluntary basis.

“It’s an issue that’s really important and has a lot of relevance in today’s society,” Dwinal said. “But there aren’t that many classes that directly touch on it.”

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