Spanish-language program lets students be teachers
Published: Friday, November 23, 2012 at 4:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 7:41 p.m.
As Maria Carrillo High School Spanish student Marissa Nguyen collected worksheets from a second-grade class Thursday morning, she said “gracias” over and over again while straightening the papers in her hands.
And then, from somewhere within the gaggle of small students, a boy looked at her and said, “De nada.”
Nguyen and Swen Gummer, her teaching partner and fellow senior at Maria Carrillo, are part of a program run by Spanish teacher Jim Baptista that sends advanced Spanish students into area elementary school classrooms to teach lessons once a week.
The student teachers sing songs, play vocabulary games and introduce younger pupils to Spanish while reinforcing their own ability to communicate in a second language.
“It takes their Spanish to a different level,” Baptista said. “Throughout most of their high school foreign language learning, they are in these contrived and man-made and synthetic situations and they are having to communicate. Finally, they are in a real-life situation where they have to pick their language carefully and speak and teach.”
The student teaching program was born at Santa Rosa High School under Spanish teacher Mary Jo Renzi, who later brought the program to Maria Carrillo. It was adopted district-wide and at one time included student training stints at Sonoma State University.
But now, more than two decades later, only Maria Carrillo and Piner still run full-fledged programs.
“A lot of people believe that the best way to learn a language is to start in elementary, so this plants a seed,” said Patty Michiels, Piner's long-time Spanish teacher who developed her language partnership program with the help of now-retired elementary teacher Paul Nikol.
“The sooner you get the language in, the better,” she said. “Research says by the time they are 11 or 12, students can't make all the sounds any more.”
Third-year Spanish students from Piner teach in elementary classrooms at Jack London and Schaefer elementary schools from January to April. Baptista's students at Maria Carrillo have for the first time this year expanded the program into a year-round commitment. This semester there are 10 working in classrooms at Sequoia, Whited and Hidden Valley Satellite elementary schools.
Baptista said he hopes to send an additional 50 students out to classrooms in the spring semester.
Baptista acknowledged that with increased accountability requirements and restrictions on teachers' classroom minutes, elementary instructors have to be committed to the program.
“It's difficult. With budget cuts and furlough days, teachers are finding it really hard to accommodate an enrichment program and offer their time,” he said. “I feel the pressure. If we are going to be taking time from the core content and standards and adjusting those, it should be really good. It should be matching their effort.”
Elementary educators say the program is solid.
“It's really organized,” Sequoia Principal Matt Reno said. “It's not just them coming in and talking to kids. There is a full-on curriculum they are following.”
Sequoia kindergarten teacher Stephanie Nolen said the program gives native Spanish-speaking students in her class a chance to lead their peers and shine academically.
“It's really nice because they are able to take a step in the limelight because they know they are the experts,” she said. “They know what is going on and they are able to help other students. It's kind of a nice mentorship that we try to carry through the week.”
In Debra Regan's second-grade class at Hidden Valley Satellite, Nguyen and Gummer on Thursday gave vocabulary quizzes by calling out words in Spanish and having students retrieve the item from somewhere in the room. They also sang songs and wrote words on poster taped to the chalkboard.
“If they are not having fun, they are not learning,” Gummer said.
But the fun has a lasting impact, said Tom Castagnola, principal at Whited Elementary School. There, an expanded program is run by Maria Carrillo students through which Whited students get about five years of language lessons by the time they graduate sixth grade.
“We are finding it spills over into other academics,” he said. “I think it sets them up well when they make the transition to middle school and high school — it's not something they are hearing for the first time.”
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