IB Brings World Language to Elementary Schools, but Social Studies Pays the Price

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An unidentified student at Woodbury Elementary School wrote a letter, collected 80 student signatures and submitted it to Principal Randall Yates last month making clear student criticisms of the school’s Chinese program. To view the letter, click here: https://www.shakerite.com/cover-story/2012/04/12/letter-to-woodbury-principal-yates/

The writer argued the value of social studies classes in comparison with Chinese lessons. In comparing Woodbury’s social studies curriculum to its Chinese curriculum, the writer stated, “In Social Studies, we learn many useful things, like what the 50 states are, what the 13 colonies were, and where the Rocky and Appalachian mountains are. These things we could really use during our lifetime, whereas when are we ever going to sing a song about colorful lanterns?”

The 2007 Ohio Core Curriculum Bill worked to expand Chinese programs in high schools across Ohio, and Ohio schools received a grant of $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Education in 2007, which helps to cover the costs of school districts in Ohio that teach Chinese.

In 2009, the Ohio Achievement Assessment test in social studies was eliminated due to budget cuts, with the result that districts have begun to place less emphasis on that part of the curriculum.

“One thing that has happened since the passing of No Child Left Behind is that in some school districts, social studies classes have been reduced because the state only tests in English and math,” said Michael Charney, director of Ohio Youth Voices.

Woodbury students who signed the letter think Chinese classes waste school time and believe that the program is not effective. “We don’t learn. Watching YouTube videos, doing crafts, and playing Chinese games on the computer isn’t going to help us speak Chinese,” the letter stated.

Shaker Superintendent Mark Freeman hopes to adapt the program to align it with the students’ requests. “We are taking steps to deal with these objections to make sure the program functions properly,” he said.

Freeman said he would prefer not to cut social studies classes, but that the short school day at Woodbury – about half an hour shorter than a school day at the high school – does not leave much flexibility. He said that the administration is working on lengthening the school day and that the Woodbury staff wants to expose students to more world languages, specifically French, Spanish and Latin, the languages offered at the middle school. 

However, a longer school day would require a new agreement with the Shaker Heights Teachers Association. SHTA President John Morris said that only the starting and ending times of classes could be adjusted at this time because SHTA negotiates a contract every three years. Although contracts cannot currently be renegotiated to include a longer school day, changing class times could accommodate added periods in the day to teach languages in the elementary schools.

The students’ letter further argued that social studies classes are more valuable in the long term than Chinese classes. “In Chinese, we aren’t learning anything that may one day help us be bilingual,” it stated. “In Social Studies, we’re learning things that will educate us in the history of our country and what’s going on in our world.”

The letter writer hits a sore spot with that argument. Last May, the New York Times published an article describing the results of a study that showed that only a quarter of fourth- to twelfth-grade students were proficient in civics. The remaining three-quarters remain ignorant of facts relating to American government and history. At the same time, Shaker is cutting one social studies lesson every other week from elementary students’ school days in favor of Chinese instruction.

The Chinese program is trying to establish an internationally aware community through education and communication. However, the students are having trouble ignoring what they perceive as wasted education time.

Despite their negativity, the students in a sixth-grade Chinese class on Feb. 22 seemed to understand much of what teacher Jen Hu-Yan said. Nevertheless, the student letter to Yates called for “confident teachers, preferably with experience running the class.”

When Shaker applied to participate in the Chinese teacher exchange program, it hoped for a brighter bilingual future for its Woodbury students. One Woodbury 6th grader, however, may have summed up student feeling by concluding, “Chinese is weird.”

Cover Story Editors Alysse Eberhard, Marissa Miller and Rachel Shaw contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in print on 20 March 2012, on pages 8 and 9  of The Shakerite.

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