Valerie Sun is a former dual immersion teacher and the founder of EmpowerED Consulting, a nonprofit educational consulting company. She recently published her handbook Navigating Dual Immersion: A Teacher's Companion for the School Year and Beyond through TBR Books. This is the first of the series, Navigating Dual Immersion, which will later see a guide for parents and one for administrators. When I asked Sun how she came to dual-language immersion as a teaching and learning instructional model, she started with the personal. She told me she grew up in a multilingual household, where Mandarin was spoken at home, English was learned at school and later French was studied in high school. Her parents also spoke Taiwanese, so “languages were always going around,” explained Sun.
She also drew upon the needs of adult learners, as she remarked on the importance of Spanish in her southern California community after living in France. Spanish classes at the university level and private language schools were expensive and not always available for the general public with time and work restraints. Sun observed that “learning a language by birth or immersed in the environment is free”, so it made sense to start learning in a dual-language program as early as possible. The dual immersion programs at the elementary level in public schools would be a way to make the benefit of learning a second or third language available to everyone. Also influenced by her experience in the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF), a French government program that brings native speakers to teach in classrooms throughout France, Sun noted that French students of all levels were being exposed to world languages–Italian, Spanish, English–by native speakers brought in to teach them.
So, returned to the States after earning her masters degree in France in Applied Linguistics: Teaching French as a Foreign or Second Language, she started working at LILA (Lycée Internationale de Los Angeles), went back to school to get her California teaching credentials, and taught in public schools for a spell. An opportunity came up at Benjamin Franklin Magnet School in Glendale Unified School District to found the French dual immersion program as a kindergarten teacher. French would be the last European language added to the K-6 program on site alongside Italian, German, and Spanish. The district itself has three other language immersion programs: Japanese, Korean, and Armenian. The open access, public school model to learn another language at the elementary level was everything she believed in. “This is the spot to be. This is the dream school to be at” as a teacher, Sun thought to herself. She adds proudly and unequivocally, “We are a public school.”
I asked her, regarding her new book, how she brings innovation to the world of language pedagogy publications. As a French immersion teacher, she said she went in as an experienced educator, which isn't always the case. She realized, nevertheless, that there was professional development that she needed but didn't have access to. In writing Navigating Dual Immersion, she wants to make it easier for other teachers to get access to information and guides that she sought out on her own. Reading CALEC founder Fabrice Jaumont's The Bilingual Revolution several years ago she said to herself “This is great!” But, for her part, she thought teachers were left to their own devices in the development of grassroots bilingual programs. They, in her opinion, needed some nitty-gritty training to get up to speed. In explaining this to Jaumont over coffee at one of his book tour stops in California, he said to Sun that that was her book, her expertise, as she was on the ground, and encouraged her to write that book. She innovates as well in Navigating Dual Immersion by writing in accessible language, counseling teachers to build relationships with parents and students, as well as providing tips and tools valuable for the new and veteran teacher alike.
Talking about France's place in the dual-immersion classroom in the U.S., Sun points out that her current work has been focused on inclusive cultural instruction. This is in reaction to the implicit racism she experienced while living in France as a person of color. It's important to her, and now a de facto part of the 21st-century French language curriculum, to bring in ideas of equity and representation into the classroom. This means sourcing authentic materials from all around La Francophonie. Her kindergarten curriculum, first created by her in 2012, did not include these aspects because her own French education did not have this emphasis. Knowing better now, she strives to infuse her training with materials from different, historically undervalued, voices of the French speaking world from Louisiana, Québec, and Africa and impart on her students a tenderness for different accents and to value all of the different French languages from around the world. When asked for her definition of an educator, Sun offers the following holistic description: “Anyone who teaches. We’re all teachers. Even parents are educators, they teach us how to behave and the rules of the family.” She goes on to include paraprofessionals, as they are in the classroom working with students but often forgotten in the world of education.
Sun believes learning a language other than one's native tongue is important because, even though she “can't say learning another language decreases your chance of being a racist…learning languages at a young age makes one more sensitive to, more appreciative of cultural difference.” She gives the example of monolingual English speakers entering dual-immersion programs in kindergarten who are humbled by their bilingual peers’ ability to understand the teachers in both languages at a higher rate than them. Reminiscing about her teaching days as a kindergarten dual-immersion teacher, Sun says her favorite part of the year was the last 10 weeks or so of school, where the students were very familiar with her; and her them.
Two projects stood out to her that they finished the year on a city-planning project where they would map out their community and situate themselves in it, all in French. The second project was one based on work she did with the students learning about animals and reading African tales about them. In the end, they create a story together in French, with the native speakers helping out significantly. They take whimsical questions about the origin of different animals’ behaviors and craft a fictional tale explaining how they came about. This approach and affinity for project-based, inclusive and immersive teaching and learning is at the crux of what Sun has achieved and hopes teachers new and old can achieve with Navigating Dual Immersion. And Sun makes sure to guide us through these challenging but rewarding seas skillfully.
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