By Jenny Neyman
In any language, certain things make for interesting instruction — new content presented with crafts, songs, games and other activities by an enthusiastic teacher with which students feel a genuine connection.
And who better than students themselves to know that avoiding a boring, droning lecture is important to learning — muy, muy importante, in fact.
That’s been the premise behind a multigrade effort in Soldotna that has had students from Soldotna High and Middle schools teaching Spanish to Redoubt Elementary students.
“We do a lot of brainstorming on what makes a good lesson, what makes an engaged learner and what makes an engaged teacher. And so we talk about, ‘If you’re receiving this lesson, what do you want it to look like? What makes it fun for you?’ And that’s what you want to do to go teach it to somebody else,” said Sheilah-Margaret Pothast, who has been taking her Spanish 2 students to visit Redoubt for six years now.
In years past it’s been middle-schoolers paired with first-grade classrooms, but with her largest-ever class this year, Pothast’s students branched into kindergarten and second-grade classes, too.
“The awesome thing is that the kids got to see differences in grade levels as far as, how do you prepare for a kinder as opposed to how do you prepare for a second-grader?’” Pothast said. “The kinder teams had to think about, ‘OK how do we take this content and make it approachable for a kinder?’ The second-grade team had to think about, ‘OK, how do we take this content and make it more challenging?’”
The content of the lessons is set — colors and numbers one visit, animals the next and parts of the body the third — but the delivery varies and is developed with the students’ firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of instruction.
Flash cards, coloring pages, interactive PowerPoint presentations and songs were useful teaching tools (“Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in Spanish was a particular hit). Beyond that it helps to be excited, patient, to interact with students one on one and to give lots of encouragement, said Soldotna Middle students Kamry Meyer, Luke Trammell, Brandon Crowder, Michael Reutov and Hanna Noyes.
“Give them high-fives,” Meyer said.
“Be entertaining,” said Noyes.
“Always go there with a smile on your face,” said Trammell.
But students also learn that teaching isn’t always a pedazo de la torta (piece of cake), however.
“They have a lot of energy, they’re fun to teach, but can get distracted easily,” said Reutov.
“Getting them to interact sometimes (is hard). You have to get on their level,” said Trammell.
“It’s fun but at the same time it’s hard to teach to little kids because they can’t pronounce the words right at first. It kind of takes awhile,” Meyer said.
Pothast, meanwhile, is ready to assist if needed, but otherwise observes and learns some things herself.
“It’s so fun to see the interactions with some of the kids. You see them here in this particular setting (at Soldotna Middle) and you know them in that environment, and then you go and watch them teach little guys and you get to see another side of them,” she said. “That is so cool. I see my big tough guys who are very cool here, and then they go over and they’re just really sweet and gentle. It gives you an opportunity to see them in an entirely different light. And the little kids love it. They think it’s a lot of fun. They’re always excited when we come over.”
In Jake Eveland’s fifth-grade class at Redoubt recently, students were, indeed, excited that it was Spanish day — on this occasion the final visit from Soldotna High School students for the year. It could have been excitement over the opportunity to learn new content matter — as languages aren’t part of the school district’s elementary school curriculum — explore the history and culture of Mexico, or apply their spongelike brains to foreign vocabulary.
Or it might possibly — out on a limb here — have been the fact that the lesson on Cinco de Mayo was to culminate in a craft project making piñatas.
“Can we put CANDY in it?!?” one student asked, as though sugar-laden goodies had already been inserted, removed and consumed.
“It’s actually really fun getting to know younger kids and helping them learn about Spanish,” said Sabrina Hilbrink, one of the SoHi students. “Definitely getting to control them is interesting. Somebody will make (an off-topic) comment, usually you’ll address that, ‘Yeah, that’s really cool,’ and then get back to what you’re teaching.”
Class control is one of the many skills the SoHi students have learned in their 12 weeks visiting Redoubt’s fifth-grade classes, as demonstrated by Claire Kincaid during a lesson on Cinco de Mayo and Mexico’s history with French invasion.
“I thought his name was Napoleon Blown-apart,” quipped a comedian.
“Well, I’m glad that we cleared that up. It’s Bonaparte,” Kincaid said, redirecting attention back to the lesson.
“I think because I’m not their normal teacher and it is kind of casual that sometimes the kids will get kind of rowdy, and then that’s been hard to be able to get them focused back on learning. But I feel like, as this has gone on, I’ve gotten better at it,” she said. “I definitely like teaching so that part’s been fun. Working with the kids has been fun, especially the ones who have been hard to work with. It’s been entertaining, and a growing experience in teaching, too.”
The SoHi students — Claire Kincaid, Sara Faris, Austin Asp, Sabrina Hilbrink, Nick Truesdell, Justin Dahlgren, Taryn McCubbins, Mykala Steadman and Nick Truesdell — are part of a Spanish club, and come to Redoubt strictly on a volunteer basis — not as a class requirement, not for extra credit, not for anything other than their own interest in doing so. Bristol Whitmore, SoHi Spanish teacher, started the program two years ago.
“I just ran it past a couple kids, ‘Hey, do you guys think you’d be interested in teaching to elementary kids?’ Just to give them a basic introduction, because we don’t offer it at the elementary level,” Whitmore said.
In part the goal was to start introducing Spanish to younger students with the hope that it would carry on through the rest of their school years.
“We’d like to see the program grow, and by getting the feeder program going that’s another way to support what we have going on at the middle school and high school,” Whitmore said. “I think it just gives them a little bit broader horizon of what’s out there, and I’ll be curious to see what they say when they come to me as high-schoolers.”
Kincaid had some Spanish instruction when she was a kid, and though she didn’t retain much specific vocabulary, she said she did feel more comfortable in high school Spanish having already been introduced to the language.
“It was definitely easier because I remembered learning as a kid about plurals and stuff, so I had some prior knowledge. And I think it’s fun for the kids to learn about other cultures, give them that more broad aspect about life. I think that doesn’t happen as much as it should,” she said.
One of the fifth-graders, in characteristic directness, asked the SoHi students why they were coming to the school, flabbergasted (asombrado, by the way) that they weren’t required to do so.
“And he said, ‘When I was a fifth-grader, I wish someone had come and taught me how to speak some Spanish,’” Whitmore said. “So that has been the comment that has been most meaningful to me.”
It’s also been fun to see her students grow and learn right along with the younger students, she said.
“They say that when you can teach something to someone else you really know it. So it gives my kids a chance to practice their Spanish a little bit and become the leader, rather than the student,” Whitmore said. “And I think it really helps them with their public speaking because I’m not really in the classroom, they’re in charge. They have to figure out how to get their attention and make them listen to what they’re saying. I see some of my students coming in fully confident talking in front of the class, and some of them come in wanting to participate but not feeling confident, and then over the course of our time here you can see them gain that confidence.”
For the Redoubt students, the benefits are multifaceted, whether or not they realize anything other than it’s fun to learn Spanish, do crafts, sing songs and interact with the cool older kids.
“What’s Spanish for ‘taco?’” one student wanted to know, in all apparent earnestness.
“Streamers on my piñata are mi favorito (favorite),” another chimed in.
“The kids, especially at this age, they pick up so quick,” Eveland said. “It’s not really in our curriculum but it’s definitely a useful tool. Everywhere else around the world you’ve got to be bilingual, so it’s really cool that we have high school kids here to volunteer their time.”
Eveland enjoys having guest speakers of any stripe in his fifth-grade class, since it gets students ready for middle school where they’ll have multiple teachers, not just one. But having visitors be older students has been particularly enriching.
“Kids respond well to that role model, big-brother-big-sister kind of thing,” he said. “They absolutely love it. Even though there’s still an age gap between them they can still relate to the same things, and they look up to them because they see that just a couple years ago, they were in the same boat.”
Or, as one of his students wanted to know, “What’s ‘fun’ in Spanish?”