Two for one: Spanish-English immersion thriving at elementaries

By: 
Scott Girard

Photos by Scott Girard. Kindergartner Elena Haffner, a native-English speaker, practices her reading in the Spanish classroom in front of her classmates. Teacher Danielle Kison had students come up and point to the words as they read them out loud.

Kindergartners Hazel Mayer and Aracely Montes-Mejia read a book during English reading time. Hazel helped Aracely by rereading some of the book’s sentences to ensure she understood them.

Glacier Edge teacher Danielle Kison ensures even objects in her room, such as the chair she sits on to read to students, keep the Spanish-language immersion theme.

The entrances to the two rooms illustrate the division of the Spanish and English rooms, with similar signage in the two languages.

Kindergarten teacher Danielle Kison sits in front of her class reading “Where is the fly?”

But instead of “Where is the fly?” the book’s cover reads “Donde esta la mosca?”

Every page that followed is in Spanish, as well. But this isn’t a Spanish class.

Instead, it’s the reading time of the day in the Spanish classroom in the Verona Area School District’s “Two-Way Immersion” program at Glacier Edge Elementary School.

The first-year program, which is also at Sugar Creek, has English- and Spanish-speaking students working together in a pair of classrooms, one taught entirely in English, the other entirely in Spanish.

“It’s really amazing to see how they’re growing in English but right alongside in Spanish, and vice-versa,” said Angie Rahn, who teaches the English part of the program at GE.

“Being able to learn a language at the same time as their first language helps so much,” Kison added.

The program is a new spin on the district’s English as a Second Language program, and offers both English- and Spanish-speakers a chance to learn the normal curriculum while developing a second language in the process.

But the students don’t learn everything twice. Instead, the district and teachers involved worked out a plan to split the curriculum nearly 50-50, allowing the students to learn the language as a natural product of learning the curriculum.

While the first-year success of what is now a kindergarten-only program has prompted hope for the program’s long-term future, district administrators are simply taking it one year at a time, as it will become a K-1 program next year and eventually grow to a K-5 as this year’s class grows up.

Keeping consistent

As Kison reads the book, she asks her students to guess where the “mosca” or other animal might be as the book offers new pictures on each page.

As she turns to a picture of a dog in a bush, she asks the class to guess where the dog is.

An English-speaking student eagerly raises his hand, guessing “maybe in some bushes with flowers?”

“Arbustos con las flores?” Kison responds immediately.

Keeping consistent with the language use, even when the students don’t, is part of the daily routine for the teachers, who have to keep in mind that half of their students may not always understand what they say.

“I think it was fair to say that for teachers with classrooms where half of the kids may not understand you, there was some nervousness about that before school started,” said Alexis Nass, the district’s K-5 ELL/bilingual coordinator. “But I would say even at the end of that first week, the types of strategies that those teachers are using are specifically designed to address those pieces.”

Those strategies include using consistent actions to demonstrate words between the classrooms, signs scattered around the classroom walls and using cognates, or words in both languages that come from the same Latin root.

“So science and ciencias, for example,” Nass said. “We’re teaching kids to recognize those similarities between the languages so they can internalize the learning that’s happening.

“Those kind of concerns really were relieved … fairly early in the school year. Just kind of the astonishment of, ‘These kids understand what I’m saying, and they’re following directions.’”

And while the kids still often speak in their native languages (they are still 5- and 6-year-olds, after all), the teachers appreciate that they sometimes correct each other or help one another work through vocabulary.

For example, in the English classroom, one of the native English speakers slowly repeated “Look at my socks” to her Spanish-speaking partner as the two read a book together. Rahn said that sort of communication has become typical.

“They just got in the groove of it, and it worked out,” she said.

No redundancy

New programs can bring misunderstandings, however, while parents adjust to new strategies used in the classroom that are different from what they’re used to.

VASD director of community services John Schmitt, who oversees the ELL program at a district level, said that has stayed true with the Two-Way Immersion program, and he, Nass and others still often have to explain how the curriculum is designed.

“Some people would think,‘You’re teaching it all in English, then you’re teaching it all in Spanish,’” Schmitt said. “But we’re not doing that; the kids are learning content in another language for half of their day.”

That’s the only way to ensure the students get through all of the same content their peers do, Schmitt said, so there’s no choice.
In planning for the program, administrators did research on the best techniques and had to decide what subjects would be in what languages.

They settled on teaching literacy in both Spanish and English, teaching science in only Spanish and math in only English. Social studies will be taught in Spanish through second-grade and then transition to an English topic for grades 3-5.

At GE, for example, that means a student could spend the morning learning writing and math in English, before switching to the Spanish classroom in the afternoon for the remaining subjects.

A ‘gift’

Learning a second language isn’t the program’s only benefit, Schmitt said, but rather it can be seen as just an additional benefit to the academic success students achieve.

He pointed to research that shows students who learn a second language at a young age are likely to perform “as well or better academically than their peers” in content subjects.

“Then to be able to say in doing that with content, you’re also giving them the opportunity to have a second language that they know from 5 years old until 10 years old that becomes part of who they are,” Schmitt said. “That’s a gift, really, for those kids.

“They can be at par or above academically with their peers and have another language. It’s like, ‘Can I roll the clock back and jump into that when I was a kid?’ It’s really neat.”

While the program is set up to grow to K-5 currently, Schmitt said some parents have already begun asking if the district can continue the program into middle school.

“All we’ve said is we’ll take a ‘let’s see’ kind of attitude right now, but there’s nothing saying that couldn’t happen,” Schmitt said. “But let’s get this and do it well first.”

By the time it gets to the point where the students will move up in the school system, officials say studies have shown they should be proficient in both academic and social language in the second language they’re currently learning.

While social language is more of what you’d hear on a playground, academic language can open doors long-term for students, who would be able to more easily study or work abroad, for example, and allow Spanish-speaking students to continue their education in English after they’re fluent.

“The research would tell us that kids can pick up a second language, social language, in a year or two,” Schmitt said. “But then to be able to say now what I’m going to do is learn physics in that other language or learn some science concepts, that would take awhile.

“So that’s what we would see is … five to seven years to really develop a strong academic language.”

Building bridges

The program also offers a chance to develop cross-cultural relationships within each 18-member classroom split evenly between native Spanish-speakers and English-speakers.

Though that ratio is changing to a 10-8 in favor of Spanish-speakers next year, the familiarity developed between the students is something Schmitt said was key as the district’s demographics continue to change.

“Building bridges between our English-speaking and Spanish-speaking community, I can’t understate how important that is,” he said. “This is a very important piece to bring kids together to learn, interact; families come together to learn, interact and in some ways model it for our community.

“Even if you’re different in your language, even if you’re different in your culture, public school should be doing that to help that cultural understanding.”

And the teachers are witnessing those changes, even in kindergartners.

“It used to hear kids in the hall say, ‘Oh, the Spanish kid said…’ but now it’s just, ‘My friend said,’” said Laura Marquardt, who teaches the English side of the program at Sugar Creek.

Rahn said one of the GE class’s Spanish-speaking students had only recently moved to the United States and was having a tough time both socially and academically at the beginning of the year. But as the year has progressed, she said, she has come out of her shell and is visibly more comfortable talking and working with her peers in both a social and an academic setting.

Schmitt echoed the sentiment of both teachers.

“They’re no longer separated by language groups, and it’s not the Spanish speakers ‘they’ or the English speakers ‘they’ in these classrooms,” he said. “It’s ‘us.’ They’re kids. That’s probably the biggest measure for us.”

Looking ahead

The two-way program is the newest version of several elementary-level language programs around the district.

The Verona Area International School, which opened in 2010, is seeing results from an immersion program of its own, though a different kind.

VAIS is a one-way rather than two-way program because it is not a split of Chinese speakers and English speakers but rather full of native English speakers who are immersed in Chinese-language instruction for half of the day. It has grown from kindergarten-only each year and will be a full K-5 beginning next year.

VAIS director Amanda Mayo said it’s been “fun” to see students begin to use it on their own and come up with their own original phrasing instead of just repeating what they’ve learned.

“One of the things about language acquisition … they go from this rote memorization of the basics of it … to then once they reach that third- or fourth-grade more authentic production of the language,” she said.

Meanwhile, the other ELL programs, still at Country View and Stoner Prairie, will likely always be around, Nass said, because there will always be students who are non-English and also non-Spanish speakers needing support.

While the two-way immersion program may expand eventually, there is not a large enough Spanish-speaking population at either school to support it, which is why the GE and SC programs include spots open for students from either of those schools.

Schmitt said the positive results so far – and any likely future success – are in large part due to the teams of Rahn and Kison at GE and Marquardt and Krista Thusius at SC, who had to develop as teams and be ready to create an entirely new way to teach the curriculum even while they continued teaching last year.

“To think of the four of them, from this time last year, when we said, ‘We’re gonna do this thing’ and we found the teachers, the amount of professional development they’ve had to take on themselves to say, ‘We’re changing the model and we’re gonna do it while we have a group of kids, while we’re teaching this year’ and then be prepared to start in the fall, I couldn’t give them enough positive comments,” Schmitt said. “They’re just good teachers and they’re really rising to that occasion to say, ‘We’re gonna make it work for these kids.’”

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