Language in the Classroom

  Travis Amen,  teacher at McPhee Elementary School Lincoln, Nebraska
 ecently, I wrote and implemented a classroom project.  
My class consists of fifth and sixth graders at a high-risk, 
inner-city school.  The project deals with the English and Spanish 
languages, focusing on the use of modifiers (adjectives) in both 
languages.  For example, most modifiers in English hold a 
prenomitive position.  In Spanish, modifiers hold a postnomitive 
position.

Example:
	1.	the blue house		(English)
	2.	la casa azul		(Spanish) - the house that is blue

The adjective takes precedence over the house in the English language.  
In Spanish, the house, structurally, is more important than the color:  
it is a house first and blue second.   Clearly, there is much room for 
debate.  There is much to be learned about what a culture values by its 
use of language.

Structurally, the role of modifiers in the English language partially 
explains an ability to directly or indirectly dehumanize social constructs.  
For example, in Spanish-speaking regions, slavery existed; however, in most 
cases, it was a result of the physically weaker population being dominated 
by the physically stronger population.  In English-speaking regions, most 
notably America and South Africa, slavery might be explainable as reflected 
by English's use of modifiers, resulting in the ability to dehumanize entire 
populations - a label with a person attached to it.  This project is in no 
way meant as a justification for social injustices; however, a clearer 
understanding of language structure may lead to positive social change.  
Through awareness of such concerns, students may be more mindful of the 
ramifications of language. 

As I introduced this project to my class, I noticed that the children 
responded well to the idea of a language study.  The class had spent 
the first semester gaining a firm understanding of the English language.  
The majority of time was spent on diagrams and essay structure.   Many 
students had been told what a sentence was through various existing 
language programs.  This project allowed them to see, through the aid 
of diagrams, what a sentence can be, including many of the relationships 
between parts of speech.  The solid foundation in English grammar enabled 
the class to fully understand the role of modifiers in the Spanish 
language.  Students began to notice that English is mainly prenomitive 
and Spanish is postnomitive.  Granted, this is an involved and abstract 
concept; however, this project clearly aided in solidifying the need to 
question language structures.  This project served my class well because 
it was integrated, including history and social studies.  Student 
language-study essays may be viewed at the following site:  
http://mcphee.lps.org/202.html

Oftentimes, I have seen language programs at the elementary level fail 
because those programs are disjointed in practice and finite in purpose.  
Consequently, this project was my effort to provide an opportunity for 
students to see that language is powerful and relate it to the world 
around them.  My students see clearly that language is not only how we 
define ourselves in the world, but also the world within ourselves.