The national bilingual teacher of the year is in Dallas. Irma De La Guardia is a third grade teacher at Withers Elementary in Dallas ISD, and she jetted off to Las Vegas to pick up the honor last week from the National Association for Bilingual Education.
We recently visited her colorful classroom, where it’s social studies time. "What are we studying today?" asks De La Guardia.
“Libre empresa!” they shout in unison. The free market!
De La Guardia asks a child to explain a free market economy to the class, in Spanish. The boy doesn’t speak Spanish at home, so this is a stretch.
"la libertad di tener un negacio..." he says.
"Negocio," she corrects.
He’s doing pretty well. But when she asks him to explain what producers do in a free market economy, his Spanish runs out.
“They sell the products," he says.
Half of these children are native English speakers, and half Spanish speakers. They were matched up in kindergarten to learn elementary school subjects in both.
“You are learning two languages, two cultures, and your brain is developing at a faster rate than other programs," De La Guardia said.
The dual-language program at Withers started eight years ago -- now there is a waitlist and lottery to get in. This focus on teaching children Spanish is a change for immigrant parents. Traditionally they’ve tried to get their kids to learn English as quickly as possible.
“Of course they want their children to learn English, but one of the downsides of going to school was that they were little by little losing their native language, and culture comes with language, so they were losing their culture as well," De La Guardia said.
Connie Wallace, principal at Withers, says De La Guardia is dedicated not just to her students, but to parents, fellow teachers, and to the success of the dual language program.
“While I know that there are great teachers in the world, Irma stands out," Wallace said.
And while dual language programs are picking up speed in elementary schools across the country, De La Guardia is a veteran. She received a bilingual education herself in Mexico City as a child, and has spoken both languages her whole life.
The free market has a key word, she tells her students—and she asks everyone to write that word on a portable whiteboard.
“En tres, en dos, en uno..." she counts down for the class.
"Escojer!” they shout
That key word, she says, is “choice.”
Now it’s time to practice being young capitalists. The students will choose what to buy and sell in their own little stores -- there are dolls and ponies and iPhones.
The kids run to their stores in the corners of the room. They may not realize that they’re preparing for a global job market that favors those who can speak more than one language.