Let's teach Anglos, Hispanics how to talk to each other
Arizona Republic
Nov. 4, 2005


Johnny can't read.

Juan is illiterate in two languages.

And George W. Bush wants "No Child Left Behind." advertisement

Heavily oriented toward teaching reading, "No Child" provides the typical government carrot ("free" federal grants to schools whose students do well on tests) and the usual stick (economic sanctions to schools whose students don't do well on tests). The result: Teachers teach the test rather than language skills.

The efforts of public education to meet the president's 2002 mandate are, at best, chaotic and, at worst, totally absurd. And all are completely blind to the fact that the United States is a bilingual nation but few of us speak or read or write both languages.

Every national chain store recognizes America has become a bilingual nation.
You can't go to a restroom in any retail establishment without tripping over one of those yellow plastic cones warning you of wet floors - in both English and Spanish.

But the public schools haven't a clue.

Maybe, just maybe, if we teach Juan to read and write in his native Spanish first and then transition him to English, he actually might become proficient in both languages.

I'll go a step further. If I were state schools Superintendent Tom Horne (a genuinely brilliant Harvard-educated lawyer who never has spent 30 seconds as a classroom teacher in a low-income neighborhood), I would require every Anglo student in Arizona to learn to read and write in Spanish as well as English.

Then, maybe Johnny and Juan could understand each other.

Being bilingual isn't exactly a handicap. The American schools ought to be able to teach our kids at least two languages.

One of the things I decided to do when I retired from journalism was to dust off the education degree I earned a long, long time ago and do some substitute teaching here in the Southwest Valley, where I now live.

Having spent my entire adult life making a living by using the English language as a newspaper writer, I was eager to step into high school classrooms where they are teaching a new generation my favorite subject.

Oops. I found that to call it "teaching English" is more than a bit of a stretch.

On one hand, they have dumbed it down so much that English isn't even being taught.

Freshman English students in one district are working on what they amusingly call a "research paper." They can choose any topic they please and research it in the school library and on the Internet. A bibliography is required.

But get this: They aren't being required to write anything. The local School Board decided the students should make a poster showing the results of their research. Not a paper. A poster. Might as well rename the course from freshman English to freshman poster.

On the other extreme, schools in the same district are forcing Hispanic senior students (to whom English is a very distant second language) to read literature that was considered torture for "college prep" Anglo kids in my
day: Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, the early English church history written by the Venerable Bede. Who picks this stuff?

I spent several days subbing in a senior English class where Hispanic students - whose parents speak no English at home and whose homes have no books in any language - were hopelessly mired in a really tangled translation of The Iliad.

These kids were so frustrated, so angry, so unable to comprehend the pages in front of them, it's a wonder any of them graduate from high school at all.

All I could think was: "Thank God for Brad Pitt (yup, I really thought that). Thank God for the movie Troy. Because at least these kids (who all have seen the movie, of course) have some vague notion of what those dudes Achilles and Hector and that babe Helen are all about."

This is so easy to repair. Well, maybe not easy, but certainly doable:

First: Everyone learns English and Spanish in public schools. Starting with kindergarten. That will ensure no Hispanic child will be left behind.
And Anglo children can play with Hispanic children.

Second: Revive the nearly extinct technical high schools. Teach those youngsters who have no interest in college how to be carpenters and plumbers and electricians (very marketable skills in Arizona). And let them read Elmore Leonard (my vote for the best living American author) and Anne Rice's vampire tales and the Harry Potter novels, of course: Contemporary literature by talented authors with the instant gratification of being fun to read.

That isn't leaving children behind. It's making their education fit their needs and abilities.

And it's giving Anglos and Hispanics the ability to talk with each other.

Isn't that what communications skills really are supposed to be about?

Tony Sommer was a politics, government and courts reporter for The Phoenix Gazette from 1972 to 1996. He then moved to Hawaii, where he was the Kauai bureau chief for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. He recently retired and came home to Phoenix. You can reach him at tony.sommer@cox.net.