Language lab

Math and science may be universal, but the terminology is not. A partnership between the FWISD and TCU help child immigrants grasp scientific words in English.

Language lab

Molly Weinburgh, director of the Andrews Institute, helps FWISD students in a summer enrichment program designed to boost math and science language.

Language lab

Math and science may be universal, but the terminology is not. A partnership between the FWISD and TCU help child immigrants grasp scientific words in English.

“Variable” and “erosion” are not words 10-year-old Ledezma reads around her house very much. And “alluvial fan” is one she’d never heard before.

But the fifth-grader at Fort Worth’s Diamond Hill Elementary School, who is a Mexican immigrant, will encounter those terms again — and other math and science words such as “height” and “length” — on future standardized tests.

When she does, Ledezma said she’ll be prepared because she will remember the sand erosion experiments she performed at the Fort Worth Independent School District’s Language Center Summer Program.

The three-week venture, held in June at TCU’s Palko Hall, was designed to help elementary-age students who are recent immigrants and still mastering English reach grade-level benchmarks and catch up with peers by the middle school years. The work on math and science concepts gives them an extra boost on language not used every day.
“We can’t say the water made the hole bigger,” Ledezma said, peering over the fan-shaped deposit left at the stream table. “We have to use science words — like wider.”

Now in its third year, the partnership between the FWISD and TCU’s Center for Urban Education and the Andrews Institute of Mathematics and Science Education brings school district instructors and Horned Frog professors together to teach, with students divided by language proficiency.

Not only do the students learn the terminology, but they also play the part of scientists, using rulers and graph paper to measure and chart the results of tabletop experiments. During the term, they placed fractions on a number line and weighed objects on a scale. Later, on a walk around campus, they spotted examples of erosion in nature and recorded them in journals to take back to the classroom. Writing helps bolster retention.

By the end of the session, students had devised their own research: What length would a gully be in the stream table if grass is added? What about with a hill? Or rocks?

“This is not remedial work. It’s summer enrichment,” said Janet Cox ’99 MEd, a teacher at Manuel Jara Elementary School. “It’s instructional play, and they’re acquiring academic language. We talk about what makes a fair test, what variables are, what constants are. It’s fun and they’re learning.”

Throughout the term, FWISD teachers drop by to provide encouragement and see what the students are retaining.

Bianca Erbez, a teacher at Bruce Shulkey Elementary, peeked in on some of her students calculating the size of basketball player Shaquille O’Neal’s footprint on graph paper.

“I’m really proud of them,” she said. “They’re learning big words and following directions. I expect a lot of ‘I know this!’ in the fall.”

Having the program at TCU is advantageous, said Lupe Barreto, director of FWISD’s Elementary ESL Program. “This year’s summer enrichment program served all third-year Language Center students from 10 locations across the district,” Barreto said. “The previous two summer sessions serviced only students from one or two sites.”

A grant from the JP Morgan Chase Foundation helped provide buses to bring the students to campus and outfit them with workbooks and backpacks.

The program also serves as a learning lab for TCU students and faculty who study teaching methods and conduct research on best practices.

Video cameras sit on tripods in all corners of the room, capturing interaction between teacher and class and students with students. Each table also has a small audio recorder to pick up clues about learning styles. TCU faculty will also comb through the students’ journals after the program.

“It will take a year to watch and listen to all the tapes and analyze the data,” said Molly Weinburgh, director of the Andrews Institute. “In this setting, there is no such thing as cheating. We want the students to talk to each other and help one another. It’s peer tutoring — young people learning from other young people. And that’s what we’re so keenly interested in.”

FWISD officials and TCU faculty hope the program becomes a prototype for future Language Center Program summer offerings, and that research from the camp will provide evidence for innovative instruction.

Parents of the children also benefit. During an open house near the end of the program, students and their families toured residence halls, ate in the Brown-Lupton University Union and received information about college admissions, financial aid and scholarships. For many of them, it was the first time to set foot on a college campus.

“Our research is looking at how second-language learners learn English,” Cecilia Silva, associate professor of education who specializes in English Language Learners. “But it’s clear that the program has wide-ranging benefits to the whole family. That makes it even more important.”

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