Equity & Diversity Opinion

I Work in a Globally Minded School. Here’s Why Students Are Better for It

By Jack Davern — January 31, 2018 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

All educators know that communication is key for students if they’re going to succeed in work and life. But how much more of a master key would students hold if they all knew more than one language and had the tools to understand other cultures and countries outside of their own?

I am the principal of Elon Elementary School, a public school in Elon, N.C., where many English-speaking students, including my son, are in a Spanish-language immersion program. One day, we encountered an anxious parent who spoke to me in Spanish. I asked my son, who knows much more Spanish than I do, to translate.

“Daddy,” he said, “I can’t translate.”

“Can you ask him what he needs help with and tell me?”

“Oh, yeah, I can do that,” my son replied. At 7 years old, he listened, figured out that the man was looking for a school event, and told him he had arrived one day early. The man gestured to my son and said, “Whoa, muy bueno! You papa?” I nodded yes with a proud smile.

Only one in five K-12 students in the United States studies a foreign language, according to a 2017 study by the American Councils for International Education. And though teaching a foreign language is required in 11 states, no more than 11 percent of all foreign-language programs employ the kind of immersion that produces fluent graduates.

These are troubling statistics. Not only is foreign language highly prized when conducting business, defending our country, and competing for jobs, research has also shown that foreign-language study increases cross-cultural understanding. Schools need to do better.

A Classroom Model

I have seen firsthand what happens when schools prioritize foreign language and supplement that learning with cross-cultural studies. A decade ago, our school committed to a Spanish-immersion program. Approximately 20 percent of our students start learning the mechanics and foundations of the language in kindergarten with a native Spanish-speaking teacher. In kindergarten and 1st grade, all instruction for those students is entirely in Spanish; by 2nd grade, students receive 80 percent of instruction, including reading, math, and science, in Spanish through 5th grade.

For the whole school, a different kind of immersion comes in the form of an emphasis on global competency. We depend on a for-profit company called Participate to provide professional development, technology, and consulting on global competence for teachers. The group also assists in recruiting international teachers from places like Australia, Jamaica, and England. We currently have 11 international teachers on staff, and whenever we have a teacher vacancy, we simply expand the candidate pool. International teachers are with us for a set time, then return to their home country.

Though every school may not be able to provide full immersion in the same way, my experiences provides several takeaways on why directly exposing students to new language and culture is a worthwhile effort:

1. Learning a foreign language at an early age has academic benefits.

With each year of learning, students not only gain a deeper understanding of a language, but also develop proficiency in unrelated subjects. When students have to constantly translate between languages, their brains are more attuned to interpreting what they read, write, and hear.

In our school, after the 2015-16 school year, we compared end-of-grade test data in reading and math for all 3rd grade Spanish immersion classes with the averages of their non-dual-language peer groups in the school district. The results showed that 74.9 percent of immersion students (who are admitted to the program based on their interest) were proficient in reading and 76 percent were proficient in math, while only 57 percent of their peers were proficient in reading and 55 percent in math.

2. Language immersion goes beyond academics.

A language-immersion program can allow the student body to increase their methods of communication and form deeper friendships with one another. Though our immersion students have separate instruction, all students—some of whom are native Spanish speakers—interact at lunch, recess, and in after-school programs. Both groups seem to have a stronger sense of belonging and fitting in. Teachers who work with Spanish-immersion students also report an increased level of acceptance of differences. When students encounter classmates’ rituals or views that are unfamiliar to them, they’ll ask, “Is that a tradition in your family?” rather than assuming the unfamiliarity is strange or wrong.

3. A global lens allows students (and teachers) to reimagine the world.

Early in my own career, when I taught 4th grade, I was surprised at how many students thought the world began and ended at our state borders. That’s why increasing interactions between students and teachers of many backgrounds and nationalities is so important. The influence of international teachers helps other staff gain insights on education strategies in other parts of the world that they might not have considered. Students, meanwhile, have daily opportunities to compare and contrast learning, cultures, and traditions from other countries to those of their own, helping them cultivate deeper understanding, borne out of direct relationships, that they could never get from a book or video.

In some cases, teachers share artifacts and stories from their own lives or use Skype and Google Hangouts to connect with classrooms in other countries. These strategies relate everyday lessons in math, science, and reading to what’s happening abroad. When one of our classes was learning about law enforcement, the students Skyped with a constable in Australia to compare roles and responsibilities to police officers in the United States.

A Wider World

Teachers who want to promote global experiences in the classroom can find resources through the Flat Classroom Project, which offers online courses for global teaching, and TakingITGlobal, which promotes cross-cultural understanding through the arts. Professional-development courses from university programs, such as World View at the University of North Carolina and the global-competence certificate developed by Teachers College, can help teachers become experts in global education practices.

Embracing global immersion through language and education might sound like an extra thing to do, but it’s a lens that not only broadens students’ classroom experiences, it also reminds students just how big and diverse the world beyond school walls really is.

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Reported Essay Do Students Have What They Need? One Survey Looks to Answer That Question
Even before the pandemic started, one state started thinking about how to understand student needs better. That plan accelerated with the virus.
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Reported Essay What the Indian Caste System Taught Me About Racism in American Schools
Born and raised in India, reporter Eesha Pendharkar isn’t convinced that America’s anti-racist efforts are enough to make students of color feel like they belong.
7 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Reported Essay Our Student Homeless Numbers Are Staggering. Schools Can Be a Bridge to a Solution
The pandemic has only made the student homelessness situation more volatile. Schools don’t have to go it alone.
5 min read
Conceptual illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Equity & Diversity How Have the Debates Over Critical Race Theory Affected You? Share Your Story
We want to hear how new constraints on teaching about racism have affected your schools.
1 min read
Mary Hassdyk for Education Week