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Students Soak Up Dothan Brook School’s Spanish Immersion

  • Hartford High School Spanish teacher Katy Allis-Paredes and her second grade class sing and motion along with a video lesson during an immersive Spanish class at Dothan Brook School in Wilder, Vt., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. The class is part of a pilot program teaching the language to first, second, and third graders once a week. "The first day there's just this shock, pure shock," said Allis-Paredes of the students' reactions as they try to adjust to the immersive environment. But, she said, they adapt and learn quickly. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dothan Brook School second grader Malia Perez holds a photo of her grandmother, Donna Sophia Danys, that she brought to Spanish class to place on the Dia de los Muertos altar in Wilder, Vt., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. The class was learning about the Day of the Dead holiday in Mexico, during which families honor their ancestors. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Katy Allis-Paredes teaches about the Mexican Dia de los Muertos using objects common during the holiday such as the calaveras, skull decorations, on the wall and the flores, flowers, and velas, candles, on the altar, at Dothan Brook School in Wilder, Vt., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2018

As the other second-graders took their places on a large masking-tape circle in the Dothan Brook School library on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Bella Fiorelli came skipping up to her teacher, an old book tucked under her arm — a book her grandmother had given her before she died.

“Ah. Perfecto! Gracias!” Katy Allis-Paredes, known to her students at Senora A-P (pronounced Ah-Pay), exclaimed, directing Bella to a corner in the back of the room decorated with crayon-colored sugar skulls, traditional symbols of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Gently, the girl placed her book on a table laden with mementos and photos and strewn with tissue-paper blossoms: an altares de muertos display the class had made the week before.

The gesture, simple as it was, showed Allis-Paredes that the previous week’s lesson had made a lasting impact. And that’s the point.

This year, Dothan Brook School joins a growing number of area schools offering foreign language at the elementary level, responding to the realities of a global economy and the evidence that pre-adolescent brains absorb language far more effectively than those of older students and adults.

But implementing an elementary foreign language program isn’t without challenges. For starters, you can’t just open up a kid’s brain and pour in foreign phonemes.

“The first day it’s total deer-in-the-headlights,” said Allis-Paredes, who spends most of her time teaching Spanish at Hartford High School and comes to Dothan Brook for about an hour a day to teach second-, third- and fourth-graders.

Allis-Paredes uses the popular, research-backed language immersion method, never lapsing out of Spanish during her 30-minute lessons, even to correct a child’s behavior or answer a non-lesson related question.

“Can I get a drink of water?” one second grader asked during a lesson last week.

“Ah, como se dice en Espanol?” Allis-Paredes replied.

“I don’t know.”

Pointing to a whiteboard covered with common phrases, Allis-Paredes recited, “Puedo tomar agua?

Puedo tomar agua!” the girl repeated, earning her water break.

Along with lots of repetition, Allis-Paredes deploys other evidence-based techniques. She emphasizes cognates, words that share similarities across languages, and tries to build consistency between what the students encounter in other classrooms and what they encounter while immersed in Spanish. For example, posters that hang throughout the school also hang in her classroom, translated into Spanish. She also makes liberal use of pictures and, not surprisingly, rhymes, songs, games and videos.

“I have to find creative ways to get them to understand,” said Allis-Paredes, who owes her own Spanish skills to a combination of classroom lessons and life experiences, including working in Mexico, playing soccer with migrant workers in Tennessee, and marrying a man from Central America.

Of course, learning a new language isn’t just about comprehension. It’s also about retention. That’s why Allis-Paredes believes it’s important to conduct activities that really fire up students’ brains, such as the Day of the Dead altars. “When students connect with something in a meaningful way, that’s one way to facilitate deep learning,” she said.

Other educators agree.

“When you learn English, you don’t start with the grammar rules and vocabulary lists out of context,” said Jeff Valence, principal of the Lyme School, which claims to be the first school in the Upper Valley to offer foreign language instruction to children in grades K-4. “When your mom sat you down in her lap, she didn’t say, ‘OK, don’t forget the gerund.’ … It’s about teaching language in a way that’s relevant to them and fun.”

The Lyme School introduced foreign language at the elementary level 10 years ago, but the program didn’t make it onto the regular school budget for four years. During that time, Valence raised private funds and crossed his fingers that the program would prove its value.

“It’s a discussion that arises for people because the cost of education is high,” Valence said. “The face of education has changed dramatically from the world that many of our citizens were educated in.”

That so few adults have mastered a foreign language may be one reason school foreign language programs can be a tough sell. According to a 2015 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 80 percent of Americans speak only English, and only about 10 percent speak a second language fluently.

Nationally, only about 15 percent of public elementary schools were offering foreign language instruction as of 2008, according to a study conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., the most recent research available.

Locally, though, support for foreign language instruction at a young age appears to be relatively strong. Numerous elementary schools in the Upper Valley offer Spanish or French, including schools in Thetford, Hanover, Hartland, Windsor, Norwich and Pomfret.

“When families are looking at schools, it’s one thing they want to know,” said Rick Dustin-Eichler, principal of Dothan Brook.

That’s why, when a local high school student submitted a proposal to teach a short-term Spanish class at Dothan Brook last year, the Hartford School Board jumped at the chance. The class was so well-received by students, parents and staff that the school devised a pilot program for this year utilizing a block of time that freed up in Allis-Paredes’ schedule.

“We’d been talking about expanding foreign language (to the elementary level) for a while,” Dustin-Eichler said. “Parents have been advocating for it.”

Dustin-Eichler hopes to continue and even expand the program to Hartford’s other elementary schools, in Quechee and White River Junction, in coming years but realizes it may run up against budget constraints.

Another obvious issue when trying to implement a new program — however valuable it may be — is time. At Dothan Brook, each class gets just 30 minutes of instruction a week, making immersion-style learning especially challenging.

Even so, the benefits are already evident, Allis-Paredes said. “It’s amazing to see how far the kids have come,” she said.

Even a small amount of exposure to a foreign language can prime young brains for future learning, Valence said. “It’s not about what language is being taught. It’s about building the neurological capacity for multiple languages,” he said.

Some schools are starting to see the long-term effects of that early priming. In Hanover and Norwich schools, language teachers are grappling with how to adapt to the changing needs and skills of the student population as they progress through the levels. Marion Cross School in Norwich has been offering French instruction and Hanover’s Bernice A. Ray School has been offering Spanish instruction for several years. 

Hanover High School French teacher Maureen Doyle recently devoted a seven-month-long sabbatical to exploring possible class offerings that would serve the needs of more advanced learners at the high school, including some seminar-style classes on topics such as film and theater, taught in the target language. Additionally, Richmond Middle School has begun grouping students by level instead of by grade, and some middle school students are currently enrolled in honors Spanish at the high school, Doyle said.

Whatever the long-term outcome, though, foreign language programs undoubtedly add color and energy to elementary schools and expose students to cultures different from their own, which may be an especially valuable benefit in this predominantly white, English-speaking area.

Dustin-Eichler said he’s enjoying hearing kids singing Spanish songs in the hallways and trying out their Spanish phrases in circle time.

“I think it’s really fun because we haven’t had it before,” said second-grader Maria Chaput.

Bella Fiorelli agreed. “I have a whole notebook full of Spanish,” she said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.