Kindergartening Kai: Language (by Dr Susan Ballinger)

We start the 2020-2021 blogging year off with the first of two posts by new BILD member Susan Ballinger. Susan’s research primarily investigates language learning and pedagogy in content-based instructional settings. Specific interests include cross-linguistic and plurilingual pedagogies, language awareness, content and language integration, classroom interaction, peer collaboration, and L2 socialization. Current projects examine immersion teacher education and professional development across Canada, collaboration for cross-linguistic instruction between teachers in a Chinese-English bilingual school, and university course instructors’ awareness of students’ needs for language and academic literacy support.

When Susan wrote this post, Kai was finishing his kindergarten year in June 2020 under lockdown conditions here in Montreal. He has now started Grade One. We look forward to further reports as this very unusual school year progresses…

My six-year-old’s brain is overflowing, bursting, exploding. He has too many thoughts per second and cannot hold them in. They come tumbling out of his mouth whether he is with his family members or alone with his toys. He asks me questions non-stop: “Who do you like better: One Direction or Katy Perry?” “Would you rather go to Florida or Japan?” “Do you prefer Grammy or Obaachan?” In line with the pandemic zeitgeist, I overhear him making his toy dinosaurs exclaim, “There is only bad news these days! What are we gonna do?!” I would worry about that, but the kid is happy, happy, happy. While I hear other parents talking about their little ones getting depressed, bored, and anxious in this time away from school, this guy is thriving. He adores the homeschooling set up and never wants to go back to school.

I mean he really never wants to go back to school.

His school is in the French system. Although we only speak English and Japanese at home, we weren’t worried when he started kindergarten. He had attended a French-language daycare en milieu familial, and the woman who took care of him there said that he didn’t have any trouble speaking or understanding French. He was popular at his daycare. The babysitter had older children, and whenever my son arrived at her house or bumped into her kids and their friends in the neighborhood, he was like Norm stepping into the bar on the 80s TV show, Cheers. They all yelled, “Kai!” as if finally the fun could start. So, we figured he would kill in kindergarten.

But from the first week, he was…tense. When we walked him the one block to school, he would shush his father when we got close to the gates, would rush ahead of us so that we couldn’t say goodbye. Then he would go into the school yard and look around, lost. It took a while before we realized he didn’t want anyone to know that he spoke Japanese with his dad. Speaking English with me was only slightly more acceptable. However, as the year wore on, he made a group of friends, and he liked playing with them at recess and after-school daycare. Again, whenever we arrived at school or walked in our neighborhood, kids inevitably saw him and yelled, “Kai!” like the fun could finally begin.

In class, though, Kai was not having fun. Kai’s teacher used an app to send us photos of him doing tasks in class like completing puzzles, playing games, painting. Fun, no-risk kindergarten stuff. In every single photo, the kids around him are goofily smiling – the way Kai usually smiles in photos. But in his school photos, Kai stares into the camera with a heavy, tense face that says, I will get through this. I just need to make it to the end of the day without messing up.

When I met with Kai’s teacher, a kind and lovely man, he told me that Kai was doing fine but sometimes didn’t listen to instructions. I asked him if it was because Kai didn’t understand French sometimes and the teacher looked surprised. He hadn’t realized that French wasn’t one of my kid’s home languages. As a teacher educator, this shocked me, but in the teacher’s favor, Kai was doing everything he could to hide it. He was guessing, faking it, trying not to make any mistakes so that no one would know he was different. His father and I discovered that Kai preferred that his teacher think he was dull or misbehaving over letting him know that he was having trouble understanding. At the end of the meeting, when I asked the teacher what I should be doing at home, he shrugged, and said, “Speak French?”

Since mid March, when his father homeschools him, Kai reads and writes in hiragana and katakana, adds, subtracts, multiplies, divides, even reads and completes math word problems in Japanese. He loves it. He often asks to do it. When I homeschool Kai in English, we work on a book we’re creating about the animals that live in our neighborhood, watch How It’s Made videos, read together, label the stacks of drawings that he produces every day to practice his writing. No troubles there. He jabbers happily, asks questions constantly, makes me do ‘research’ for him, makes up and sings songs as he works, bosses his parents and older siblings around because he is one dominant kid. And his voice is loud. Like super loud. Like I can easily find him and his father from across Home Depot because even his conversational volume carries that far.

When we all began teaching and conducting Zoom meetings from home this year, my colleagues and I talked about how we now had this interesting window into everyone’s lives. When Kai’s kindergarten class went on-line, it also gave me a window into his life at school and his relationship with French. When I homeschool Kai in French, he is a different person. He jiggles his legs and rubs his hands against his knees. He cries easily. When I read to him or show him videos, I need to stop constantly to explain and discuss words. I often remind him to take a deep breath and listen because his anxiety is blocking his ears. How did that kid understand anything this past year? He often breaks down crying before synchronous meetings with his class. During one on-line class when he knew he would have to tell his teacher what métier he wanted to be as an adult, he asked me six times to remind him how to say archéologue and repeated it constantly to himself under his breath until it was his turn. He doesn’t ask his teacher questions. He mumbles softly and hesitantly when it’s his turn to speak, gives one-word answers, and then quickly mutes himself again on the laptop. It no longer surprises me that his teacher didn’t know him. How could he know that my silent, unsmiling son is like a shaken can of soda, struggling to hold in the thousands of thoughts bubbling in his head because he is afraid of making a mistake?

Years ago, when I conducted a classroom observation of language use in two-way immersion for my MA thesis, I watched a Grade 1 child model this same pattern. She had arrived from a Spanish-speaking country at the beginning of the year, and she never spoke in class. When I asked her teacher about this silent period, her teacher explained that the child had problems with her teeth and was in pain. That was why she didn’t speak. Then, one day, I stayed inside at recess, alone with this child and her Spanish-speaking classmate. Ignoring me, they played, laughing and yelling in Spanish the whole time.

I know that a silent period is normal for young children suddenly immersed in an additional language, that it often lasts for a year or so, and that afterwards, if they continue to study through that language, continue to develop literacy in that and their other languages, they are practically guaranteed school and language success. As a second language researcher who specializes in immersion and bilingual education, I would reassure any concerned parent that it will be all right in the end. However, having to watch my own child go through this is upsetting.

It is also frustrating that difference has been made invisible in Kai’s class. It reminds me of a French immersion teacher I spoke with once. I asked him what his students’ language backgrounds were, and he looked at me blankly, said that they didn’t discuss that because it would be discriminatory. In his mind, pretending that everyone was the same was fair.

Kai’s year of kindergarten ends this week, and he learned everything in the curriculum. Our hope is that he will learn to be himself in Grade 1.

One thought on “Kindergartening Kai: Language (by Dr Susan Ballinger)

  1. Thank you for this honest and heart rending post, Dr. Ballinger. I too hope that classrooms can become more and more like places where all students can be themselves.

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