Doubling up on language skills in Shakopee

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 16, 2013 - 2:02 PM

Latino ninth-graders can take a Spanish for Native Speakers class, which helps boost literacy skills in both English and Spanish.

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Teacher Amanda Marek at West Junior High in Shakopee talks with students in her Spanish for Native Speakers class.

Photo: Erin Adler, Star Tribune

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For Valeria Sentillo, conversations with her mom often start in Spanish. But as the ninth-grader tries to find the right words to explain things, she sometimes switches to “Spanglish,” a blend of her first and second languages.

“She wants me to speak in either Spanish or English, not both,” ­Sentillo said.

So Sentillo’s mother was happy when her daughter enrolled in the Spanish for Native Speakers class at West Junior High School in the Shakopee district. The yearlong elective class, now in its fourth year, aims to help Latino ninth-graders become more literate in their first language, Spanish, so they’ll be stronger academically in both languages.

For teacher Amanda Marek, who is licensed to teach both Spanish and language arts, the class makes sense for many reasons.

“There’s a lot of research to support that a student can’t really be literate in a second language until they’re literate in a first language,” Marek said.

Though all 24 students in the class speak Spanish as their first language and at least occasionally at home, Marek said their Spanish skill levels “span the gamut” coming into the class.

“Some of them I’m teaching phonics in Spanish; some are pretty fluent and literate, but they need to be practicing literacy in their native language,” Marek said.

The course helps students learn academic vocabulary in Spanish so they can be truly bilingual, an advantage in college and their future careers, Marek said. Students also build reading, writing and grammar skills and give oral presentations.

There’s also a lot of spelling practice, because bilingual students often use English rules to spell Spanish words and vice versa, Marek said.

In addition, the class has a strong cultural element because the students share a similar background, Marek said. That element is fostered through celebrating holidays like El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) and Three Kings Day, as well as through curriculum choices. For example, students read novels and poems written by Spanish-speaking authors, mostly from Mexico and Latin America.

This allows students to analyze both their own culture and culture more generally, so they can better understand Minne­sotan and American perspectives. That way, “they can assimilate where appropriate without letting go of their own roots,” Marek said.

“It’s a lot of fun, because everyone already knows each other and we can connect on a lot of things,” Sentillo said. “We all participate a lot.”

The class began four years ago when the world languages department at the junior high saw a need and the administration supported it, said Jayne Gibson, the district’s director of teaching and learning.

“They recognized that they had a number of students that were first-language Spanish speakers that were struggling in English,” Gibson said. “It really was a grass-roots initiative from the teachers who were seeing the challenges students were facing.”

Marek was part of that effort. Because of her dual licensure and knowledge of bilingual education, she was an ideal person to teach the class, Gibson said.

Students are enthusiastic about the class, Marek said, though the content isn’t always easy.

“It’s challenging — you’re used to talking, reading and writing in English,” said student Ruben Carrasco. “Overall, just in learning and speaking the language, I think I’m better” now taking the class.

Parents, too, appreciate that their kids can speak and read Spanish at a higher level and are taking an added interest in their culture, Marek said. “I get a lot of hugs,” she added.

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