Learning through language
The simple-but-inescapable meat hook realities of producing a daily newspaper puts me in a position of writing this column on Thursday, which is funny for me because I’m really writing this to put off writing something else that will have appeared days ago. I’ve found myself somewhere in the darkest circles of school budget hell, where the phrase “education spending” is a piece of statutory language and not a synonym for school budget. Don’t you dare ever make that mistake if you find yourself talking with anyone who makes their living in education. Or the Tax Department. Or our elected officials. This is life-or-death stuff, my friends, and I dread writing about it, partially for fear I will simply get something wrong, as I did when I first started covering crime and thought homicide was synonymous with murder.
Instead, I’m going to keep things light and offer you a couple of news tidbits that I didn’t find a home for this week.
Rutland City Schools is looking to create a pair of 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups. The first would allow the Rutland Raiders Booster Club to become its own organization. The move would enable the club to give donors a record of their tax-deductible gifts. The club would incorporate itself and have at least two committees, one for sports and another for music and the arts.
The other proposal is to create the Rutland Public Schools Foundation, which would allow donors to give directly to the district for scholarships and other charitable purposes. Superintendent Mary Moran told me the district had looked into creating a foundation seven or eight years ago and decided to hold off, because other school districts were creating foundations after Act 60 and Act 68 in an attempt to dodge the collection of school-bound tax dollars by the state. Now, the time might be right.
“We’ve had a couple of inquiries from people who are planning their estates and want to make donations and right now they can’t do that,” Moran told the School Board last week.
The district is waiting on word from the state and since my beloved Arlington Eagles never play Rutland, I guess I’m free to say, “Go Raiders!”
Rutland High School is looking to take advantage of an opportunity to expand its foreign language curriculum. Middlebury Interactive Languages is a for-profit service that offers online classes in languages commonly studied in high school — French, Latin and Spanish — as well as more diverse offerings such as Chinese. Usually, Middlebury Interactive charges $25,000 a year for the service, but in January they offered to provide site licenses for $6,000 to the first 30 schools who applied. Now, it appears Rutland High might jump on this opportunity, and I say Godspeed to the faculty, staff and students.
One of the many hats I’ve worn over the years was that of an English teacher in Japan. I taught for Nova Group, a for-profit school similar to Middlebury Interactive. I arrived there fluent in English, marginally competent in French and Spanish and possessing a handful of Japanese phrases that involved ordering food and drinks and being able to tell a woman she’s attractive.
I was there for about 18 months, and the euphoria of the new quickly turned into frustration as I was unable to achieve even a basic mastery of the written language. It made me empathetic toward my students, who were mostly adults who had learned to read and write English in primary school but had no idea what it sounds like.
I just came from California, which has a sizable Spanish-speaking population and an equally sizable population of angry people who will shout — as loud and as often as opportunity allows — some variation on “Learn to speak American!” I found myself initiating conversations in Spanish with these supposed non-English speakers. Unamazingly, I discovered these folks could speak English. They just didn’t want to talk with someone who was so aggressive about speaking English, who couldn’t speak another language, was dead-set against learning one and usually had poor command of the one language they knew.
Language barriers are one of the ways some people differentiate between who belongs and who doesn’t, and by extension who is a better person. We Americans seriously need to get over our fear of sounding foolish when speaking another language with a native speaker. With the exception of a few days in Paris, I’ve never had a French, Japanese or Spanish speaker yell at me to learn the language.
Our youth are already behind the rest of the world in most education subjects, and the recent push for students to focus on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is not going to be worth a whole lot if they can’t communicate with scientists, mathematicians and engineers from other countries. And if we’re behind, why would they bother to learn to communicate with us anyway?