Day of the Dead, Mark Twain and Cognitive Magic

This is gonna be short, but incredibly sweet.

This here photo is of a Day of the Dead altar built by students, teachers and parents. It seems Mark Twain had a thing about San Antonio – and who doesn’t? – and so the community at Mark Twain Dual Language Academy and Middle School there set out pan dulce and marigolds, among other ofrendas, under the curmodgeon’s portrait.

It was my privilege today to spend time at the school, which features a kind of state-of-the-art bilingual education unique, at least in Texas. This particular school teaches some children who arrived speaking only Spanish, some speaking only English and a sizeable population whose parents lost their Spanish as children because historically in U.S. schools the goal has been to move kids into English-only instruction, and as quickly as possible.

Some of the sweet kids I talked to today – schools in San Antonio enroll kids as young as 3 — may soon be able to speak to their grandparents. Go ahead and let that wash over you a second before we move on to today’s most interesting bit of learning – for me.

There’s a river of research backing this school’s approach, but the boiled down version is this: Dual-language learning has a magic effect on cognition. Learning in two languages seems to help the brain make all kinds of neural connections, with astonishing results. Not only is there evidence that taught in full dual immersion, the kids most at risk outperform their wealthy white peers, there are early hints that bilingualism may push out the onset of dementia.

Given what we know about the impact the supply of words has on the developing brain, this doesn’t surprise me one whit. We’ve known for a while that the achievement gap in many ways starts with the word gap.

The bit I hadn’t considered: Language is rooted in culture. Disconnect the two and kids won’t learn enough language to become truly literate.

Pour on enough words in any language with a direct tie to a child’s culture and you only need to teach them to read in one language. Once you know how to read, you know how to read.

So on top of the word gaps experienced by Native children and children of color whose parents often lack the time and resources to supply a word-rich environment we can add the compounding effect of schools that do not affirm these children’s cultures or identities.

No wonder, right?

Why are we surprised that culturally affirming schools outperform traditional ones? Why do so many of our schools still aim to not see color? Why do we continue to think that without eliminating implicit bias integration is a cure-all?

Now ponder this: How affirming is it to a child of color – maybe one cut off from their ancestors’ tongue – to see that their language is desirable? That people who are fluent in English want to learn it?

Bonus snapshots, because pixels are so much cheaper than film:

A map of indigenous Texas.

A western boot-themed math workbook. I mean, in the wake of all of the battles over creationism in textbooks, Texas went and did something right.


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