Robin’s Nest: Notes From Inside One Early Childhood Language Immersion Classroom

I have asked Robin, a long-time bilingual educator, to write an occasional column for Hao Mama to provide another perspective for parents considering immersion education or just looking for advice on how to create a bilingual environment at home. Here’s her first installment:

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer.
It sings because it has a song.”
- Chinese Proverb

Notes From Inside One Early Childhood Language Immersion Classroom

What is an immersion classroom like?

Imagine yourself to be four-years-old. Get down on your knees and enter the classroom. What does it look like to you? Can you navigate yourself around and reach everything and wash your hands or find a book, find the bathroom or take a puzzle out and know where to put it away? Do you see your name? Do you see where you can put your lunch box?Are you attracted to look or touch or discover something in this room? Do you feel safe and happy? Every year as I prepared my classroom for the school year this is what I did. It is the best way to know immediately what the children will sense when they enter.

First of all a good Early Childhood classroom welcomes, inspires discovery and independence, respect and inquiry and feels safe and clean. It should feel alive with natural sunlight and plants and beauty. This does not require expensive materials and equipment, i.e. simple stones or recycled materials can be used in fantastic ways. Boxes of messy papers or jumbled manipulatives jammed into unsightly shelves give the classroom atmosphere the feel of chaos and neglect. The classroom should exemplify respect for the world we live in and it should serve the children as a place where all their expressions and achievements are seen and celebrated. Everything in it should be scaled and arranged for young children so they can function in it and feel that it is their special realm. I always remind parents that when they come into the room it is their child’s classroom and world and they are guests in it.

I always think of a good classroom as being my assistant teacher. If it is planned well, the children will be able to go about their activities and tasks and play in self-guided ways, keeping their responsibility to themselves and to the other children in mindful awareness. The behavior of one affects all and the behavior of all affects one. Social interactions are encouraged by various areas in a classroom as are singular pursuits or small group exchanges. Autonomy, a major Early Childhood goal, leads to lifelong self-motivated learning pleasures and challenges.

The classroom should also have evidence of addressing the child’s emotional needs. Activity areas to relax a stressed child such as water play or clay and comfortable quiet area for looking at books or just looking out a window and dreaming, and an area for active imaginary play. Young children in general move around a lot and the classroom should show respect for this.

So an immersion classroom is above all a good classroom immersed in appropriateness to young children. In addition to infusing everything, the immersion classroom becomes a world where the target language floods the child’s experience of that language. When you enter the classroom (on your knees or not) you should be able to feel as though you are entering a place where another language reigns as the primary language. Everything inside the room should express the target language: labels, calendars, signs, books, playthings, educational materials, colors, music, perhaps even the architectural elements of the structure.

The environment outside of school, in this case English, is all- present and powerful all the time, so the immersion classroom has to create an equally strong language and cultural environment for the hours the children are in there.

Meet Robin: For over twenty years I have been a French language teacher and lastly for seventeen years at the Washington International School in D.C. where I was French Immersion teacher in Pre-K for three and four-year-old children. I also served as the Coordinator for the Early Childhood Program there, which in addition to the four Pre-K classes (two Spanish Immersion and two French Immersion) included two French and two Spanish Kindergartens. We implemented the International Baccalaureate Organization Primary Years Programme, the French classes also implemented the French National Curriculum and all the classes implemented the NAEYC guidelines in addition to the regulations of the District of Columbia. It was strenuous and challenging, immeasurably fulfilling and an amazing passionate journey for me.

I would like to share this journey with you because I understand so well that you are looking for any and all information about raising your children bilingually. I can offer my experience and perspective. I am a very hands-on and hearts-on person rather than theoretical. To begin I will just talk about the classroom itself. In time I will address other issues such as teachers, the child’s experience, parents’ queries and concerns, etc. and eventually my visits to schools in China, Japan and India may offer a global perspective to early learning practices. I know you are targeting Chinese, and although my target language was French, my experience focused on the same dedication to bilingualism from parents and school perspectives.

Your comments and questions will guide me and are welcomed. I am fully admiring of your goals for your children and I would love to encourage and help in even a small way.


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