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However, the even greater implication for former Spanish Immersion students came from the connection between this issue of synthesis writing and Mr. Mann’s policy regarding when students were ready to enter Spanish Language AP. For several years, Mr. Mann and the other AP teachers had argued that freshman students should not be admitted to Spanish Language AP courses because they were not developmentally ready to produce college level, synthesis writing21. Some former Spanish Immersion students and parents had fought this policy, and argued their way into these classes. In 2009, three freshman students were in Mr. Mann’s second period class, took the exam and passed it.
They had all passed an exam developed by the Spanish department as a screening device for their entry into the AP course. While the exam tested grammar and orthography, mechanical aspects of the language, Mr. Mann still argued that their need to engage in college level writing was one of the main reasons that they should not be admitted. The former Spanish Immersion students in the focus group did not seem aware of that policy, though one student, Mateo, did comment on his own immaturity as an academic writer, commenting that perhaps he was not quite ready for the type of writing on the exam.22 The question of whether or not 9th grade students can/should take AP courses is an interesting one and the source of conflict for parents, students and schools across the U.S.
While a search of the College Board website does not yield a clearly stated policy regarding this question, the organization does present the courses and exams as being aimed at juniors and seniors, as college level courses. Midville High School’s student handbook does not state that 9th grade students may never take AP courses as some other school districts seem to, but it does point out that “AP tests can be taken as early as 10th grade,” while it also urges students with “special strengths in a subject” to consult with their counselors about taking an particular AP course and exam. Other school districts point out that “As a 9th grader, students not only do not receive weighted credit for AP courses, but are not prepared for the emotional maturity or analytical skills necessary and expected from the workload, course rigor, and writing requirements they face in an AP course. AP exams are also graded in a norm-referenced structure, meaning 9th graders would be compared to older students, placing them at a distinct disadvantage” (“Frequently Asked Questions for Incoming Ninth Graders,” San Dieguito Union High School District, North San Diego County). This argument is one that can be heard in the Midville School District as well, and from Mr. Mann and other Spanish Language AP teachers, leading me to believe that it is one propagated by the College Board.
Other former Spanish Immersion students felt that the dividing line for getting into Spanish Language AP was the ability to use the subjunctive tense in their writing, and that the exam Mr. Mann administered for placement was really meant to measure that language feature (Focus group 5/5/09).
As Mr. Mann told me about his thinking about putting less emphasis on the quest for synthesis writing in his course, he did not seem to be aware of the implications for his policy regarding former Spanish Immersion students and I did not feel that such a change would make any difference in his thinking about their suitability for his classes.
Dissatisfied Students: What Former Spanish Immersion Students Believed about Their Language Learning and Development Though the former Spanish Immersion students who participated in the post-AP exam focus group all affirmed that both Mr. Mann and their other Spanish AP teacher were very good teachers, in particular how much they liked Mr. Mann, most of them also expressed varying degrees of dissatisfaction with their secondary Spanish language courses, related to the many limitations placed on their language learning and use by the World Language model of language learning and use. Their experiences as Spanish Immersion students had left deep impressions on them, and they wished for a return to some of the language use practices of that model, including reading and talking about books, opportunities for greater autonomy in using Spanish, and more natural, less artificial, ways of using the language resources they had brought with them to their Spanish classes in high school. The effects of their high school Spanish language experiences had been to reduce their sense of ability and confidence in their use of Spanish, rather than to increase their sense of control over their language use.
Role of Reading and Talking About Books
During the focus group of former Spanish Immersion students who had just completed the 2009 Spanish Language AP exam, the 10 students in attendance expressed a variety of perspectives on their experiences as both Spanish Immersion and AP Spanish Language students; however, a predominant theme in their talk about how those experiences compared was the artificiality of language learning in the AP course (and previous Spanish Language courses). They located that artificiality in the absence of book-length reading, their lack of autonomy in their language use, as well as in the focus on learning for the sake of the exam, or of the grammar texts they had used in their Spanish classes. In each of these elements of the World Language model of language learning, they identified problems associated with the encapsulation of school learning.
This group of students made significant comments about the way reading had changed from their elementary Spanish Immersion experience to their high school Spanish language courses. When I explained to them that I was interested in what happened to former Spanish Immersion students when they go on to study Spanish at the high school level, Mark, a freshman, volunteered Mark: I think that there's like no reading of books afterwards Merritt: No reading of books?
Mark: After elementary school like they like suggested that you read books in middle school, but they didn't really enforce itMerritt: umhm Mark:
-and then in high school there's just absolutely none.
As a freshman who had entered directly from middle school into the Spanish Language AP course, Mark had not had exactly the same experience as some of the sophomores who had taken the exam that day, who had spent their freshman year in Spanish 3 Honors (3H). However, even in that course, which had been the pipeline course into Spanish 4AP, the only longer works the students had read were two plays (Focus group, 5/5/09).
Some of the students, Mark and Virginia, seemed to experience this retreat from reading books as a loss, and expressed a desire to see changes in the experience of former Spanish Immersion students that would include reading more longer works. Mark felt the loss of the practice of Club de Libros in particular. As the focus group discussed their perceptions of their own language development and ways it had slowed since they left the Spanish Immersion 5th grade class, Mark attributed the perception that his language development had “kind of stopped in middle school” to the movement away from the practice of book groups, something he saw as “really good for the teaching of Spanish and for reading.” His comment spurred a lively discussion of the problems of reading in their middle school Spanish Immersion classes, their resistance to one of the books chosen for them by their middle school teacher, Mrs. Morelli (the same book she suggested be used in the revised middle school curriculum), and the provision of Spanishlanguage picture books for daily reading activities. Mateo felt it was “kind of insulting honestly that she expected us to be at that (low) level.” The impression they gave in discussing extended reading from middle school on was that it no longer served as a significant focus of their Spanish (immersion or otherwise) courses, but became a sort of add-on to their language development experience. Books were provided or inserted into their classes, but extended reading was not understood by them to be an integral part of their language courses. It became something that Mark pointed out was “suggested” (supplemental) rather than “enforced” (central and integrated).
These students showed obvious enthusiasm about returning to reading books again. Virginia expressed a desire to have a class in which they could focus on reading books or discussing current events, one in which the focus was less on learning specific grammar features, using a Spanish grammar textbook, or preparing for an exam, and more on using and expanding upon the language they had already acquired (Focus Group, 5/5/09). They discussed energetically the Spanish 6 course they would take during their junior or senior year with the teacher who taught the AP Spanish Literature course (which many of them would take the 2009-10 school year). The Spanish 6 class met once or twice a week during lunch, and focused on reading and discussing works of Spanish and Latin American literature. Mateo recalled his older brother as having read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s novel Cien años de soledad (One hundred years of solitude) in that class, and having loved it. The lunch-time format, combined with a teacher who ran the class as a more open-ended discussion of literature, and the fact that the only purpose of the class was to read and discuss together, made the course seem appealing to this group of students.
Desire for More Autonomy in Language Use: “What You Want to Know for Spanish” During the post-AP exam focus group, several students expressed opinions about what had been satisfying in their high school Spanish language courses, and what they had been disappointed with. They focused some of their comments on what they perceived as their own language loss, their loss of self-confidence in using Spanish, and their appreciation of and desire for experiences that allowed them autonomy in using Spanish.
Several students pointed to their own sense of language loss, arguing that they had felt most able as Spanish speakers at the end of their 5th grade year. Following up on Mark’s comments about secondary school World Language classes involving very little reading of books, the students seemed to agree that their Spanish Immersion experience really ended in 5th grade, even though their middle school Spanish classes were labeled as “Immersion.” Chris: I didn't really think of middle school though as like an immersion sort of program. It just seemed like a (World Language class).
Kyle: Yeah, I mean we had “Spanish.” Virginia: Yeah, I think the immersion really ended up in fifth grade.
Merritt: umhm Kyle: Yeah, I mean like honestly.
Anne: I think 6th grade-it was ok because like some of the-Virginia: Oh yeah Anne:
--stuff were still in Spanish. Like after that it was-it was only grammar.
Though later in the conversation Anne expressed an appreciation for having gained some grammar knowledge in secondary school, they generally saw the changes they had experienced as connected with a loss of their language skills.
Virginia: Still in 6th grade I would like accidentally start speaking to my English like teachers in Spanish. It was still to that point where I was likeAnne: Yeah Merritt: And that was in sixth grade.
Virginia: Yeah but then in 7th grade it -- I lost a lot of my Spanish.
Chris: I think I was best at Spanish right after 5th grade.
Kyle: I think, honestly, like people, good students who started in seventh grade, with you know Spanish 1A are just as good as me at Spanish now.
Kyle: Well, than ME.
Anne: Well, only at grammar, like in the classroom.
Virginia: At grammar, but not in speaking.
They further made a connection between the dichotomy of grammar knowledge vs.
ability to speak with learning for school vs. learning for other purposes. Kyle pointed out that he felt that students who had spent fewer years studying Spanish performed better in the high school courses than he had, but Virginia objected to his perspective.
Kyle: Well, then, they're better at the assess--they're better at the courses that we're taking.
Virginia: Yeah, but that's not the p-that's not-that's not necessarily what you want to know for Spanish.
It's not likeAnne:
-It's like what you're being tested on.
Virginia: It's not that you can do really good on the tests, yeah, like Merritt: umhm Kyle: Yeah, so I guess it's possible I have a bigger vocabulary, but it-it-it didn't help me in any of the Spanish classes.
Virginia: I think it was bad going through all the grammar stuff.
Kyle: Yeah, cuz that wasn't even on the AP test at all.
Virginia: No not-not only because of that, but because now-like it used to just like naturally come to me like what tense I was supposed to use or whatever just cuz that's how I knew it. But now I start like trying to think about it or like I forget.
Later, Anne picked up Virginia’s suggestion that the courses did not focus on “what you want to know for Spanish,” when she added her sense of slipping self-confidence in her Spanish use.
Anne: I think in elementary school it's more natural like you can go to another country and talk to them, like, you wouldn't have a problem. But now you're always thinking about whether you're saying the right verb tense.
These students looked back on their elementary school Spanish Immersion experience as affording them the opportunity to speak the language they were learning with a level of confidence and freedom, while their secondary school experience, rather than building upon that confidence with a sense of being able to use Spanish with more precision for a wider range of purposes, led them to feel less in control of their language use, less able, less confident. Virginia expressed her assessment of the Spanish Immersion experience
Virginia: This is just my opinion. I think for Spanish-I think Spanish Immersion had the right idea. It's like it doesn't have to be like you get all the grammar perfect, but if you can like easily communicate and understand people and you aren't necessarily using the subjunctive at the exact right time or like whatever, I think as long as like you can have a good accent and you can like communicate clearly and very ably with like another person in Spanish then you-then that should be all you need to do.