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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

Book Review / The Globe's Emigrating Children: Teaching in a Second Language by Kathleen A. Stark (Peter Lang, 2008)

"We didn't know nothing." This is how 1st grader Jayson assesses the language skills that he and his fellow English language learners brought to the classroom the previous September. It's June now, and the students are finishing up the year. "Now we know everything!" exclaims his classmate, Etienne.
In this heartwarming book—The Globe's Emigrating Children: Teaching in a Second Language—Kathleen A. Stark invites us on a wonderful journey. Stark documents her year teaching 1st graders in a sheltered English language classroom. We meet—and come to know and care about—Etienne, "a boy who loves action and is sure of his body"; Mufdi, a boy from Sudan who remains mute in the classroom and cries for weeks; shy Glenda; Derek, the artist; and many more.
Stark explains at the outset that her primary concern in this sheltered English classroom is not to teach English as an isolated activity, but rather to focus on students' academic achievement. The reader soon understands that her project is far broader. In addition to having high academic expectations for her students—not just in English, but in content areas as well—she hopes they will leave 1st grade "with permanent mental traces of how people can live peacefully with one another" (p. 54).
Stark's 24 1st graders—speakers of Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Haitian Creole, and Somali—don't understand a word she says. The majority hardly know 10 words in English. She explains thatEnglish speakers enter 1st grade with vocabularies that range from 2,500 to 5,000 words, and every year add about 3,000 more. To reach native-like proficiency, this is how many words my 1st grade ELL students needed to learn. (p. 122)
From 10 words to 2,500? That's some daunting task she's set out for herself. But she succeeds. Wildly, in my estimation. By the end of the year, the students are having book discussions. They're respectfully confronting one another with issues that arise—"We're solving a problem we have!" Brenda says happily, in conference with Ingrid. They're using functional words likesince and content-laden words like scurry in somewhat fluent conversation. They're learning how to write about the things that matter to them: "My grandmother is an old bird," Etienne lovingly writes, and later, to Stark's great consternation, "My grandma, she killed." Through all this, the students have learned how to work on teams, value their peers' different strengths, and encourage one another. "Mufdi talked!" cries out a child, and everyone cheers. By now, I'm cheering, too.
All the while Stark reflects on her teaching practices, her tone so friendly and pensive that you almost feel like she's right there, conversing with you, as an old friend or a peer, about what worked during that year and what she might have done better. She sees classroom climate as crucial to learning: "I won't teach them much and my education and experience will be useless if I can't make them happy to come to school" (p. 1). She also insists time and time again on the key to language learning. "All communication," she says, "had to be for a purpose, connected to real life and not to a pretend world with fabricated life situations" (p. 23).
Readers will come away from this book not only inspired, but also armed with a rich arsenal of strategies that work with English language learners. We see them work—with Etienne, Jayson, Abubakar, Sara, and with all the others—and we're convinced.
But for all the good this book has to offer, it has one major flaw, which came close to preventing me from reviewing it at all. The book is rife with misspellings, peculiar punctuation, and word omissions. These can, in the discerning reader's eye, discredit the author early on; many readers, dismayed, may simply throw the book aside. For all the Etiennes and Jaysons in this world, I'm hoping readers persevere.
References

The Globe's Emigrating Children: Teaching in a Second Language. (2008). By Kathleen A. Stark. New York: Peter Lang.

Amy Azzam has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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