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As Lakoff (2004) points out in his discussion of metaphor in political contexts, telling people “Don’t think of an elephant” will establish a cognitive frame from which they will find it difficult to escape, even if they want to. How much more powerful might a metaphor be when people want to use it and believe it accurately represents their thinking in framing a discussion of policy! Metaphor can be perceived as a shortcut to the development of policy, a sort of shorthand for the thinking of a group, and so is a very powerful Tool in the activity system of a group of policy makers. However, reducing complex thinking to a single metaphor can eliminate alternative ways of thinking about and representing ideas that are essential to resolve a complex problem. It can imply that a problem is simpler than it really is (Reddy, 1979/1993). And, perhaps, more importantly, the frame that is activated by a metaphor brings along with it confounding entailments that, if unexamined, can lead a group to establish a policy that satisfies some expectations, while stymieing others. What may seem like a unifying concept that resolves conflicts in differing points of view can actually result in the favoring of one particular point of view over another.
Further discussion in the Program Review group would point toward 7th grade as being the true center between elementary TWI and high school World Language. During Mr. Worth’s discussion of the problems involved in the 6th grade curriculum and in recruiting that “linchpin” teacher, the Associate Superintendent for Secondary Education asked whether the 7th/8th grade Spanish Immersion course is “a language course or a content course” (Fieldnotes, 10/7/08). At the time of the first full group meeting, the question of how to understand the 7th grade class remained unclear. Mr. Worth presented a graphic representation of the unidirectional flow of possible middle school courses offered to Spanish Immersion students, a “[sketch of the] bridge to get from the Midville Elementary experience to the high school World Language [program].” Both 6th grade, a “multiple subject Spanish Immersion” course, and 8th grade, a “high school Spanish” course, were clearly defined, but the 7th grade course was left as a “Spanish Elective.” The group focused on this 7th grade course in several ways. Ms. Fisher suggested that it could be a place where students could “go beyond traditional” electives to study subjects like art history, social studies, science, even biotech, in Spanish. One of the parents expressed concern that the importance of the 7th grade class not be overlooked, as it could represent the “meat in the middle of the sandwich.” The group debated the nature of the course through questions about student placement in it, the possibility of new Spanishspeaking students being allowed to enter it, the role that grades would play in such an elective, whether it would continue to focus on “exposure” to Spanish language or begin to focus on a more “academic” approach to language studies. While both the elementary Spanish Immersion community and the high school World Language community had annexed either end of the middle school “bridge,” the struggle over the nature of the middle school program relocated to 7th grade, the very middle of the middle.
Though the bridge metaphor consistently emerged during every program review meeting, members of the group expressed different views about the nature of the middle school bridge. Mr. Worth initially introduced it as a mechanism for students to move from the elementary TWI program to high school World Language courses, but while some members affirmed that view of the bridge, others resisted their understanding of the metaphor. Mr. Bell, after consulting with TWI program officials in St. Paul, Minnesota, affirmed the difficulty of the activity they were engaged in, inasmuch as “no one has really figured out the master plan for middle school [TWI programs].” However, for Mr.
Bell, the difficulty resided in the question of how to enact what he had already taken as a given, that the middle school program will be “transitional” as the students will “bridge […] into traditional [World] Language programs.” At that point, once again, he reaffirmed the district restriction on considering high school TWI education (Fieldnotes, 10/21/08). By an early November meeting focusing mostly on questions of language assessment, Mr. Foster asked whether “what we're putting together [is] a natural progression to the next step in high school?” Using another bridging metaphor, Mr.
Mann responded that their “overarching vision” would provide important information about the language resources of incoming high school students (Fieldnotes, 11/6/08).
Ms. Fisher was the member who most questioned and resisted the idea of the bridge metaphor as implying transition into “traditional” high school World Language courses. While she affirmed the bridge metaphor through use of the term, she informed the group that the elementary TWI teachers “[were] looking for a bridge that involve[d] language use, not just grammar [instruction]” (Fieldnotes, 10/7/08). She urged an understanding of the bridge as not being “academic” (Fieldnotes, 10/21/08). And at least twice, she asserted that the bridge would not lead automatically to Advanced Placement courses for all students, a stance that was informed by her own children’s experience in TWI education, as she explained in her interview. Her point of view was picked up in the language of the final policy document, drafted by Mr. Bell, so while she was the only one consistently resisting the general direction of much of the Program Review group, her stance remained an important one. Since she was instrumental in the development of the curriculum that would be used in the new 6th and 7th grade courses, her stance would continue to complicate the meaning of the metaphor well into the future.
The group continued to express widely varying views of the metaphor, even as they planned to present it to the Superintendent and program parents as representing the thinking of the whole group. In the final minutes of that final meeting, as the group considered the draft of the policy document to be presented to the Superintendent, one of the parent members implied that the document seemed to fit within the values of the district, as “the district seems to understand [the idea of a] bridge” since all of high school was often presented as a “bridge to college.” Her comment seemed to provoke one of the university consultants to ask a question that could have been useful at a much earlier stage in their process: “What’s a better word than ‘bridge’?” His question received no direct response, other than a somewhat humorous observation by another parent that everyone would want to know that it’s a “bridge to somewhere” (Fieldnotes, 12/2/08). Concern about the nature of the metaphor came too late in the process, and would have meant a significant revision of the group’s most important Tool, their report and policy statement.
Metaphor in the policy statement: A bridge to maintain the status quo.
The final policy statement was drafted by Mr. Bell and submitted to all the group members for their input before they discussed it at their final meeting. It is characterized by language aimed at resolving differences through the accretion of value statements affirmed by the Program Review group. It describes the “Goal/Vision” of the SI Program
Review group as:
To provide a Spanish language experience bridge between K-5 SI to secondary world language programs currently in operation in Midville SD. Additionally, to provide an SI experience that is a pathway for students to continue in the middle school SI program.
This bridge can be taught in a core subject area such as social studies or science for communicative competency that includes fluency and academic vocabulary.
The 5 modalities of communicative competency are listening, speaking, reading, writing, and cultural awareness. This is not a traditional second language acquisition program but an immersion experience to connect the K-5 immersion program to secondary level courses.
The phrase “Spanish language experience bridge” was clearly meant to satisfy the elementary TWI teachers’ (as most consistently represented by Ms. Fisher) concern that the middle school bridge provide experiential “exposure” to the Spanish language (with an emphasis on language as a medium for content learning), more than take a traditional “academic” approach to language studies. The document’s language further emphasized this idea in the second paragraph by affirming that “[t]his is not a traditional second language acquisition program but an immersion experience.” However, in both cases, the language also affirmed the direction that the bridge leads, to high school World Language courses “currently in operation.” Such language, combined with metaphors of “bridge,” “pathways,” and “transitions,” undercut the language of experience and exposure and even the idea of “honoring [students’] current competencies.” In this use of the metaphor of the bridge, the future consistently won out over the present time of middle school. While the bridge metaphor might seem to affirm the importance of the middle school TWI experience, the larger frame activated by the metaphor and the related terms used in the document led to a different assessment of the middle school experience.
Framing the middle school TWI Program: A one-way bridge. The metaphor of a bridge activates a spatial frame involving land areas. On either end of a bridge, we can picture a land formation, and the purpose of the bridge is to facilitate movement from one formation to another. (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) point out that we impose a container metaphor upon objects, including land formations, so that we envision ourselves in or out of those formations, depending upon our relationship to their boundaries. A bridge allows us to move from being in the land on one side, to being in the land on the other side. Underneath the bridge, we envision the reason for the bridge, a gap, or chasm that prevents our movement from one land formation to another, and makes the bridge essential to our continued movement.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, mapping of the bridge metaphor on to the situation it described would have the K-5 Spanish Immersion program and its academic content on one end of the bridge, and the “secondary world language programs” and their academic content on the other end. Where then are the children’s middle school years located? The metaphor seems to provide two alternatives, one unthinkable, in the chasm between the two land formations, where there is no academic content, and the other, the only reasonable alternative, on the bridge. The metaphor implies that without the proposed bridge, there is no movement from the land of elementary school Spanish Immersion to high school world language studies. Middle school, then, represents a gap in the visual field of students’ educational experience, and in particular in the language development of Spanish Immersion students. Both Mr. Bell and Ms. Fisher expressed the idea of middle school as chasm, whether academic or social, in their interviews. In discussing the need to move students into high school World Language classes, Mr. Bell pointed to the need for the middle school bridge, since “we can’t ask them to jump the Grand Canyon” of their lack of preparedness for high school (Interview, 12/18/08). Ms.
Fisher, in discussing the tensions involved in affirming the value of middle schools apart from the way they prepare students for high school, declared that middle school aged students find themselves in “varying stages of unpleasantness. And unhappiness.” She asserted “no adult in the world wants to go back and be in 6th, 7th or 8th grade” (Interview, 5/21/09). In both cases, the only conceivable action is to move forward toward high school, to cross the bridge, not to linger on it.