Spanish program may be accelerated
"Como se llama la estación?"-- or, in English, "What is the name of the season?" -- asked Señora Roth.
"Invierno!" answered a handful of students sitting on their knees in a circle.
Following Roth's lead, the students crossed their arms and rubbed their shoulders as if trying to keep warm and said, "hace frío," which means "it is cold" in English.
Using hand motions, sounds and Spanish, the children continued to describe elements of the winter weather outside the classroom window.
Roth speaks only in Spanish to the kindergartners -- whether it's during their daily 10-minute lesson or an encounter in the hallway. The motions and sounds she teaches to accompany vocabulary work to jolt students' memories and help their comprehension.
"When they speak to her in English, she answers them in Spanish, and they just move on like it's nothing," said New Canaan Public Schools kindergarten through eight World Language Coordinator Lizette D'Amico.
D'Amico is the curriculum coordinator for Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES), a program implemented this year in kindergarten through second grade, in an effort to familiarize students with Spanish language as soon as they begin formal schooling.
Next September, grades three and four are on track to receive Spanish lessons, too.
"The Board of Education set a district goal that kids would graduate from high school at a much more fluent level, and I absolutely believe that in order to do that, you have to start when they are much younger," D'Amico explained. "And the way that we've created this program is so that language becomes a part of their life. It's not an add-on, it's not a special, it's not a choice for them depending on whether or not they are good at it -- everyone gets it everyday.
"We will see a big difference when the kids hit middle school because their expectations are going to be high of their teachers. They are going to expect to be pushed, they are going to expect their teachers to stay in the target language. It won't be a matter of do you want to take a language, it will be a matter of which one and how many. And that's actually another board goal -- to look at the ability for students to take two languages in the middle school."
D'Amico currently collaborates with a teaching staff of two in the elementary school and five in the middle school to help students achieve greater fluency.
The FLES program is designed to mirror subjects taught in each respective grade level curriculum. As the kindergartners learn the names of the continents in world geography lessons, they learn the vocabulary to express those concepts in Spanish class.
"Although there are a ton of units going on right now in every grade level, we pick the one where we can get the most mileage out of language," D'Amico said, adding, "In kindergarten they are learning [the concept of] yesterday, today and tomorrow. They don't know that yet. So as they are learning that in English, we are teaching that in Spanish. In kindergarten you learn how to count to 100 and you learn how to skip count and read the calendar. So we are working on those concepts too. ... The idea is to get them so excited about what they are focusing on that they are tricked into talking about it in Spanish."
The program is designed so that kindergartners receive 10 minutes of Spanish each school day and first and second graders receive 15 minutes of Spanish four days each week. Next year, third graders will have 20-minute Spanish classes four days each week and fourth graders will have 25-minute Spanish classes four days each week. The lesson lengths and frequencies are based on the students' attention spans and D'Amico's belief that consistent exposure to language leads to fluency.
"It's such a joy to see [the students] get so excited about learning Spanish," Roth said. "After about a month of me coming in and teaching Spanish, a little boy raised his hand and said, `Senora, I love you.' We've bonded. I see them everyday. I can even assess them in the hallway when they're greeting me in Spanish."
Roth teaches more than 400 elementary students at East and West. She has learned not just their names, but also their skill levels.
Roth's dedication has earned praise from D'Amico and other school administrators who are impressed by her ability to individually assess each student's performance, considering that she only sees them for minutes each day.
"There's a parent of a South School student who happens to be the assistant superintendent of Darien [Public School System]," D'Amico said. "He was so mesmerized by how his son was speaking Spanish that ... now Darien is looking into doing a FLES program."
Spurred by this success and enthusiasm, Board of Education members expressed interest in accelerating the implementation of FLES in grade five last week during discussion of the proposed school budget for the 2010-2011 school year. The board sent D'Amico and Superintendent David Abbey away from the meeting with a bit of homework: to find out what it would take to introduce the Spanish program to fifth graders next September, rather than in September 2011, as scheduled.
D'Amico has spent the last week analyzing the cost in dollars and resources tied to a pending ahead-of-schedule introduction of Spanish lessons in grade five, as well as the effectiveness of a program put together with only seven months warning.
"If [the board is] expecting a full-blown curriculum written [with] teachers trained, I don't think I can do that," D'Amico said last Friday. "If they are expecting a transitional program, that's more doable for me. I don't know if I can find the staff. ... This is a shortage area in the state of Connecticut. I already have to hire two [teachers], the thought of hiring four is a lot."
In the past, D'Amico implemented a FLES program simultaneously to K-5 students in Greenwich. She speaks from experience when she describes it as a task that is doable, but not without a lot of legwork.
"It requires you to redo your curriculum every year as those kindergartners move up because you have different sets of kids with different experiences," she explained to BOE members last week. "It's not that it can't be done, but I would have to write that fifth grade curriculum over again for the next three years ... because the fifth graders won't have had any language, the fourth graders will have had one year of language, the third graders will have had two years of language."
Whichever path the board chooses, D'Amico said she is happy with its enthusiastic response.
One of the most fervent advocates of the FLES program is Abbey.
"What I love hearing is the feedback from parents who say that their child is using what they are learning [in Spanish class] at home," the superintendent said. "We had [a story] of a kindergarten student watching a football game [a few weeks ago] ... and on the back of one of the player's jerseys was the name Ochocinco. ... He started laughing and said, `What a silly name! 85!' ... This is only a kindergartner we are talking about who put that together. ... It's great to hear."