RANTOUL — Jacqueline Hoke slips what she calls the "magic scarf" around her neck, and the students in her classroom know that now it is time to speak only English.
Hoke, a first-grade teacher of bilingual students at Eastlawn School in Rantoul, said her students' English-speaking ability varies widely — some not speaking much of the language while others are more proficient.
Hoke, a Mahomet native, learned the magic scarf trick when she was a student teacher last year in the Chicago Public School system. She said children seem to be better able to transfer from one language to another when visual means are employed.
Now in her first year with her own classroom, Hoke said she learned a lot in her year teaching in a dual-language program in Chicago, which she said was "rough at times."
"Our classroom size was almost 30 students," she said, adding that, still "it was a good experience. You learn how to handle things that they don't teach you in school."
Twenty-one students make up her classroom at Eastlawn.
It is one of five bilingual rooms at the school.
The students are friendly and accepting of one another. They greet a visitor to their classroom like an old friend, one child even giving a hug.
The students are also more accepting of change — such as learning a new language — than they might be as they get older.
Another thing Hoke learned in her year of student-teaching was writing Spanish words on her "word wall" in red and English words in blue.
"The point of the colors and the scarf is to learn to switch (languages)," Hoke said. "It's not about translating; it's about the mentality of it."
Hoke is one of 14 people employed by the Rantoul City Schools district who help bilingual students, who are also classified as English language learners.
Just two years ago, the district employed one person — an aide — in the bilingual program, according to Jason Wallace, principal of Eastlawn School, where a large number of the bilingual students attend. A total of 216 English language learner students are enrolled in RCS, and 99 of them are in kindergarten through second grade at Eastlawn. (An English language learner is any student who speaks a language other than English and scores below proficient levels set by the state.)
The bilingual program costs the district $363,735 this school year, and the district pays most of that amount — $290,159. The bulk of that is used for salaries. The rest is for supplies, benefits, travel and professional development. The rest of the cost comes from a bilingual grant ($73,576).
Only in kindergarten are Spanish-speaking children speaking only their native language. From first grade on, they are taught both Spanish and English. The goal, Wallace said, is make the children more and more proficient in English as they take part in the transitional program.
Both Hoke and Nicole Haegele, the bilingual coordinator at Eastlawn, said bilingual students are to be envied — noting there are several advantages to being able to speak two languages. For one, it helps them learn. And then there's the ability to become more diversified and to find a good job. There's also the benefits of staying active mentally as they age.
"There is a lot of interesting research," Haegele said. There are "several benefits of being bilingual besides the economic benefit of finding a job. Bilingual people are better at multitasking because they're better able to focus on multiple things."
Haegele said brain scans of bilingual and monolingual people have shown the difference — Haegele calling "the activity in the brain phenomenal" in those who speak more than one language.
"It doesn't prevent Alzheimer's, but it tends to delay the onset of it from five to seven years," Haegele said. "It exercises (the brain) more and allows it to kind of cope with some of those diseases longer."
Said Hoke, "All the research shows that knowing two languages opens up and develops a part of your brain that otherwise might never develop."
Haegele said the bilingual program is "creating such opportunities for these students. Just so many things are positive about it. I wish I would've had it when I was a kid."
Hoke said bilingual students' social skills will develop far more quickly — in about a year — than their academic skills, which takes about five to six years.
The teacher estimated that perhaps half of her class of 21 students have reached the BICS level (basic interpersonal communication) level of social skills.
Fitting in isn't a snap for all children, Hoke saying that based on temperament and personalities, some children might not be accepted by their English-speaking peers at first.
"It can be an identity struggle for these kids," Hoke said. "What you don't want is for these kids to feel secluded."
She said the child will go through stages in being willing to speak a new language.
"At first you might be scared or embarrassed. You know you sound different. It is scary for some kids, especially if they're a little shy or nervous. Some kids get very timid when they go into English time. I tell them it's OK to make mistakes," Hoke said, noting that she tells them that they're helping her to learn as well.
Haegele said she hopes that having bilingual students integrated into classes of students who speak only English will make them more accepting of one another.
"It creates kind of a co-need for each other and respect for each other when they're learning together," she said. "They learn a lot about the world as well as the differences" and how much they are the same.
Hoke said it's important to realize the differences when the students are tested. She said standardized tests are based on "white middle class culture" in wording and background.
"These kids are more diverse than the middle class white culture," Hoke said. "You want to assess your kids on what you're teaching, not on what someone thinks the middle-of-the-line child should know. No child is middle of the line. Every child is unique.
"Their culture is very strong; their culture is very rich."
Some of the children aren't learning their second language, they're learning their third.
In Guatemala, where there are a number of indigenous languages, for example, the population might speak Spanish in addition to another language. Then when coming to the U.S., the children will be learning English.
Hoke said a young age is the best time for them to learn the language.
"These kids are incredible the way that they learn and the way that their brains work," she said. "There is a theory that the older you get (after age 12), it's not as easy to learn a second language."
Hoke loves her job and she appreciates the support she receives from most of the families of the children in the bilingual program.
"They're here to learn," she said, "and most of their parents are supporting them, and they want them to learn both (languages). The reality is these kids are going to have an advantage.
"These 6-year-olds don't realize the power they have in the ability to understand a multicultural world. These kids will break down walls that other people won't be able to."