In last week's New York Times Magazine, foreign correspondent Clifford J. Levy writes about an experiment which he dubs "Extreme Schooling," but many ELL students in immersion programs in this country might recognize as everyday life: He and his wife decided to send their 5-, 8-, and 10-year old children to a Russian school where no one speaks English.
Levy and his wife told their children that acquiring the language would be natural for them, but the reality wasn't so simple. "Daddy? I want to go home," the article begins, and it doesn't get easier from there. The children move through phases of depression, frustration, and silence as the parents wonder whether they were right to immerse their children in a foreign culture and a language they themselves don't understand. Sound familiar?
A few friends and the support of the school's administrator eventually lead to a happy ending for Levy's family: the kids begin to make friends and succeed in math and other academic subjects, and by the end of the family's five-year stint in Russia, the two youngest are reluctant to leave.
But we know that for many English-language learners in U.S. schools, the narrative is not so upbeat. Levy and his wife were able to choose a progressive private school with a devoted, English-speaking leader, and clearly spend significant amounts of time supporting their children at school. Many English-language learners are children of immigrants who may not have the resources to choose a private school or the language skills to be active advocates at the school their child does attend. Levy's family also has the comfort of a way out—there are several schools with instruction in English in Moscow, and they know they will eventually return to the U.S. and an English-speaking environment. And while ELLs in the U.S. are generally served by teachers trained in aiding their transition, investigations like this recent one in Massachusetts (link upcoming) indicate that many teachers are not as trained as they or their students might hope.
The story ends with Levy's daughter graciously bidding farewell to her school in flawless Russian; we can hope for similarly happy endings for our ELL students. But this exercise in "extreme schooling" may mirror the experience of some ELLs in immersion classrooms, and Levy's article is a good reminder of the challenges that come with attending school in a language you don't understand—even in the best of cases.