Martinez Bridges English, Español

Christopher Peak PhotoIn his other sixth-grade classes, Keybein often stayed quiet, hesitating to mispronounce his words. But in his bilingual intervention class, he hopped over chairs to get to the white-board where he wrote answers in Spanish.

At John S. Martinez Sea & Sky STEM Magnet School, an elementary school that’s almost entirely Hispanic, teachers are going out of their way to recognize that students’ difficulties learning a new language aren’t the same as struggling with subject matter. Just because a student like Keybein might not know the word in a textbook doesn’t mean he can’t grasp the concept.

Through a new model called “The Bridge,” Martinez’s bilingual students now prep vocabulary ahead of time to make sure they’re not lost in class. As it’s done at Martinez, “bridging” ensures that non-native speakers achieve English proficiency without giving up their first language.

It’s not exactly the program that the school wants, enviously eyeing the dual language immersion at John C. Daniels School of International Communication. But with a budget deficit being felt across the city, Martinez’s teachers are making it work and exiting more students than almost any other school in the district.

The new approach helped Martinez, a K-8 school in Fair Haven where two-fifths of the students are learning English, complete a successful turnaround. Because of an achievement gap in math scores among its high-needs students, Martinez had been designated as a “focus school” by the state. But after notching major gains, Martinez was taken off the watch list earlier this year.

Amazing Shark Attacks

One day toward the end of the school year, in a pull-out session for eight middle-schoolers — seven who spoke Spanish and one who spoke Arabic — Keybein and his classmates talked about sharks.

They read an article in English, acted out the words’ meaning, translated the toughest vocabulary, compared the differences and then conversed in Spanish. The 20-minute intervention prepared them to look over similar material in an upcoming science class.

Ekaterina Barkhatova, Martinez’s SEL teacher for the upper grades, first told the sixth-graders to stand up and follow her lead through what’s called a “total physical response.” She slowly read through the article, enunciating every word while signing a definition that the kids copied.

“Great white sharks” — she spread her arms wide like an open jaw — “arrive in the waters” — she wiggled her hand like a moving ripple — “near Southern California” — she pointed down — “in summer,” Barkhatova read.

After reading through the whole story about sharks’ migration and feeding patterns, the students sat back down.

“Now, we’re going to try to come up with the Spanish equivalent for our English words,” Barkhatova said. She invited students to come up and translate words onto a white-board.

First up: great white sharks. “Anybody can write that?” Barkhatova asked. “It’s okay if you make a mistake; we’ll fix it later.”

Everyone stayed silent.

She walked over to the poster-board, uncapped the marker and, across from the English words in blue, started writing out “grandes tiburones blancos” in red.

“G-R-A-N-D-E-S,” Keybein spelled out.

Reem, the class’s one Arabic speaker, cheered.

Next one: young sharks. Keybein volunteered to write this one himself. But he wasn’t sure whether to put the adjective before the noun (like in English) or after (like sometimes in Spanish).

“No, I messed up!” he shouted, after he caught his mistake.

But Reem told him again, “Good job, Keybein!”

Other students took turns doing “the chemicals,” “warm water,” “by mistake,” “manta rays.” Reem translated “fish.”

“Now, the most interesting part comes,” Barkhatova said. Word by word, she compared the two languages, like the different placement of adjectives that Keybein hesitated over or the similarities in adding an “s” or an “es” to make a noun plural.

Barkhatova asked if the class remembered the concept of “cognates” she’d discussed before, words derived from the same root. Just look at “attack” and “ataque,” “chemicals” and “químicos,” she said. “This word is the same across languages,” she said.

“That’s amazing,” Keybein said softly.

Barkhatova led the class through one more round of gestures, this time while reading the article in Spanish.

Then she asked them to each say something they’d learned in Spanish. Even Reem tried. With her classmates feeding her each word, she got out, “Tiburones grandes blancos les gusta agua caliente.” Barkhatova clapped and sent them off.

Speaking Spanglish

In academic circles, educators call the Bridge a “contrastive analysis” that increases “metalinguistic awareness.” Translated into simpler terms, they’re just making clear what rules govern each language, side by side. They review the differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, word order and idioms wherever there might be a mix-up.

Created by the Center for Teaching for Bilteracy, the Bridge recognizes that it’s normal for kids to meld languages together into Spanglish, as they try to comprehend the linguistic features of each. But the mix of both can go awry, making it hard for a listener to follow.

For instance, if a student says, “No hay sopa en el baño,” they’re confusing a word that sounds like “soap” with the Spanish for “soup.” Or if they say, “La rufa está liquiando,” they’re approximating the sound of “roof” and “leaking,” but with a made-up noun and a verb for a sell-off.

It’s exactly those tricky areas that educators long tried to avoid in their instruction. In English as a Second Language classes back in the 1990s, teachers believed students needed to master the basics of one language first, before they could transfer their reading and writing skills over to another one.

But the Bridge model says that students can handle both. It’s aimed at helping students take what they know from one language into another right away, rather than being caught between the two for years.

“Their Spanish is helping their English; it’s such a direct correlation,” Barkhatova said. “This is not what ESL teachers normally do. But I think there’s a value to it. We elevate the status of their Spanish, and they feel good about themselves. The confidence is there.”

Barkhatova has observed a big difference with the boys who don’t raise their hand in other classes but jump up in hers when they can answer in Spanish. As a native Russian speaker herself, she said, she felt the same “painful fear and shyness” in not being able to come up with the right word at the right moment.

The process of bridging the languages becomes especially important in the upper grades, when English learners are puzzling through technical terms that are unfamiliar to them in either language.

“The students’ conversational Spanish is good, because this is what their families speak. They don’t speak English at home, period,” Barkhatova said. “The Bridge is important so they know how to speak academically about content. I don’t think they speak about sharks getting poisoned by chemicals at their dinner table. They don’t use those words, so the idea is they actually know how to say it in Spanish.”

Barkhatova added that Martinez’s other teachers, including seven who earned their bilingual certification, are helping English learners succeed. They now try to explicitly teach vocabulary, add visuals through role play or pictures, and keep the discussion concrete. A social-studies teacher even makes test questions available in both languages.

“At some schools these kids are not acknowledged,” she said. “Here, the attention is on English learners. More and more teachers each year try to address their needs, the way it should be done. They know who these kids are, and they know the strategies.”


Across Elm City schools, there’s no standardized method for teaching students with limited English. Depending on staffing and curriculum, schools vary widely in how much of their native language kids continue to learn.

At one end, dual-language immersion programs keep English and foreign-language speakers together as classroom teachers alternate between the two languages. In the middle, transitional bilingual programs gradually decrease the amount of foreign language each grade until students’ English is strong enough. And at the other far end, students learn no foreign language, receiving support from a tutor in an English-only classroom.

This year, 260 English learners (in 14 different languages, including French, Pashto, Arabic and Swahili) demonstrated their proficiency on a state exam, after an average of about 5.29 years in a program. The great bulk of them — 217 students — were enrolled in a bilingual or dual language program. Only 27 received tutoring in English as a second language, and 16 opted for no support at all.

While dual language immersion is considered the top model, because it encourages students’ bilingualism and bilteracy, it’s offered at only three elementary schools: Daniels, Fair Haven and Columbus.

At Martinez, which adapted the transitional bilingual model, students are kept together until second grade. After that, from third up, Spanish-speakers are usually pulled out to work on their English. (Lately, the district has been trying out a “push-in” model of assisting in class.) For some students, especially at the high school level, that can give the impression that they’re stuck in a remedial program.

“Our goal is to have a dual language program here. But because of obstacles, we’re at a standstill,” said Luis Menacho, Martinez’s principal. “We do an amazing job in meeting [English learners’] needs. It’s a huge piece of our school improvement plan, and all of our teachers are on board with best practices.” But, he added, “We feel like we could use more support.”

Superintendent Carol Birks (who has enlisted a tutor to help her learn Spanish) said she’s reviewing what’s going on in New Haven and what other cities are doing.

She said there’s some model programs in New York, Maryland, Utah and Washington that the district could draw on. And she wants to create a pipeline for immigrants to get their teaching certification, maybe through a tuition reimbursement.

“In my assessment, I want to see what is working and what we’ve done. I don’t have a comprehensive view yet, but I really want to develop a comprehensive approach and make sure that we are honoring students’ native languages,” she said. “I believe in the portfolio model, but there’s some things that have to be tight. We have to make sure that everyone have access to the core curriculum.”

At a ceremony at Wilbur Cross High School last Thursday celebrating students’ exit from English learner status, Birks promised that the district would meet their needs.

“You have my commitment to the same education that all other students are receiving,” she said. “I want you to remember that you bring such a rich heritage and culture to our learning community. We’re looking forward to continuing to have you teach us about your countries.”

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