Lesley De Paz would normally be giving instructions and having conversations with her third-grade students in Spanish, able to offer praise or a gentle grammar correction in real time.
That changed when the pandemic hit and her classroom went virtual. Gone was the easy back-and-forth chatter. In the first week of distance learning, her students were quiet and hesitant.
“They really didn’t want to speak, and it was very fragmented,” said De Paz, who teaches at Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School.
Language immersion is designed to help students become bilingual by surrounding them with opportunities to read, write, hear and speak a new language. Over the summer, De Paz and other educators from Minnesota’s 70 or so language immersion and dual language programs worried about just how they could replicate that immersive experience from afar. It presents a particular challenge for students with parents who can’t speak Spanish, Chinese, French or other languages a student would hear in class.
But they’ve found ways to meet the challenges. Several immersion programs are offering hybrid learning models that bring younger students into the building several times a week so they get more in-person instruction. And for the online learning programs, interns in other countries and high schoolers are joining virtual lessons to offer fun ways to practice conversation skills. Some families are even opting to have their child complete their distance learning at an immersion day care, where they can have extra support and exposure to the foreign language.
Chris Holden, the principal of Normandale Elementary, a French immersion school in Edina, has seen his staff adapt to the new challenges.
“Immersion teachers are a creative crew,” he said. “They’re used to taking something and adapting it. That’s just on steroids this year.”
Normandale is operating in a hybrid learning model that brings kindergartners into the classroom four days a week and first- through fifth-graders in two days a week. Other hybrid language programs in the metro area are operating on a similar schedule so younger students get in-person instruction.
French instruction happens on the days students are face-to-face with their teachers. English language arts lessons are now scheduled for at-home learning days so that parents can more easily assist their children with the lessons.
“We’re like an island of French in a sea of English, so really the only time kids hear French around them is when they are in our building,” Holden said.
In a typical years, area language immersion programs, including Normandale and the Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School, bring in interns from other countries to assist students in the classroom. Pandemic-related travel restrictions this year, however, meant the schools had to adapt.
Normandale has continued the connections with international students and created a virtual internship program. Students in French-speaking countries can connect with the classroom online and host small reading groups or conversation time on the days that students are at home.
Other immersion programs are partnering high school students with elementary immersion classrooms or helping parents find other language learners who can help their child practice their skills. The older students often lead virtual conversations or guide read-aloud sessions.
“They love it because they get to talk with a big kid,” said Molly Wieland, the K-12 world language and immersion coordinator for Hopkins Public Schools, which offers Spanish and Chinese immersion.
Minnesota students learning Chinese can get free tutoring from university students in Beijing through a partnership with St. Cloud State University’s Confucius Institute. The offer has proved popular, Wieland said — there’s a waiting list of students who want to be matched with a tutor.
“I do think parents sometimes worry their kids aren’t getting enough practice,” she said. “But we now have so many tools at our disposal. If this had happened 20 years ago, this wouldn’t be nearly as doable.”
Tierra Encantada, a Spanish immersion day care in Minneapolis, now assists about 20 students from kindergarten through second grade with its distance learning programs. Split between three classrooms, the students — many of whom are enrolled in Spanish immersion elementary schools — complete their lessons as a staff member walks around, ready to help. The staff give instructions in both English and Spanish.
Terrae Weatherman enrolled her 6-year-old daughter in the program and has noticed that she’s more comfortable initiating conversation in Spanish. She’d attended Tierra Encantada before she started at Bancroft Elementary, where she has Spanish classes.
“I’m not sure we would have been able to support the classes she has that teach in Spanish,” Weatherman said. “Hearing Spanish is just not something we could have offered her at home.”
Despite the challenges of the unusual school year, De Paz said she’s seen parents step up to help with language immersion teaching. And her students have grown a lot more confident and chatty — gone is the silence during video calls.
“We’ve watched these kids have to gain a lot more independence,” she said. “That’s really empowered them.”