Earlier this month, second graders in Madison Elementary School’s Spanish Language Immersion Program listened to Winona State University student Taylor Stumo-Langer read a Spanish-language children’s book she wrote for them.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Mr. Alejandro Orzaiz divided the second graders into three groups, one for each Winona State University (WSU) student standing with a handmade picture book tucked under their arm. As they shuffled off in the same direction, one little girl pointed across the room to WSU student Taylor Stumo-Langer and asked her classmate, “¿Estás con ella?” When her friend answered that, yes, she had been assigned to Stumo-Langer’s group, too, the little girl responded excitedly, “¡Yo también!”
This was one day of class earlier this month in one of Madison Elementary School’s Spanish Language Immersion Program (SLIP) classes, where students spend half their day speaking and hearing Spanish, from math lessons to excited whispers between friends. WSU students studying Spanish produced Spanish-language children’s books as their final project for the semester and shared them with the Winona elementary school and with Arcadia Elementary School.
Arcadia has a large Hispanic population. Arcadia Elementary School Principal Paul Halverson said that 73 percent of his students are Latino, and many of them speak Spanish at home. However, while they learn to read in English at school, they do not always learn how to read Spanish at home. Some parents do not read English, so the school is trying to make sure students can get Spanish-language books so that more of them have a chance to read with their parents when they go home. “Parents are the first teachers, and we need to make sure that we’re building that bridge with those parents because when you have a good parent-school relationship, your kids do much better,” Halverson said.
WSU students donated their children’s books to Arcadia last week, adding to the school library’s Spanish-language collection. “We hope kids check them out … We’re hoping that our parents read to our students,” Halverson said.
Back at Madison, one of Stumo-Langer’s classmates read to the second graders from her children’s picture book comparing Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Stumo-Langer’s own story was a little more personal. It was about her adoption, her pets, her loving family, how other kids once picked on her for being adopted, and how she got over that. One girl stopped Stumo-Langer to ask where her birth family was — her “primer familia,” the girl said. Stumo-Langer did her best to explain to the child. “I didn’t know how to answer that,” she said.
WSU Professor Vanessa Fernandez Greene said that, knowing they had a chance to share a message with children, many of her students ran with the assignment and put a lot into their books. “A lot of them found it really valuable to have a specific audience that would hear it,” Fernandez Greene said. She added that it was eye-opening for many of the college students to hear students, who may only be in second grade, but are more fluent in Spanish than they are.
For his part, Orzaiz thought the visit was great. “I love when people come and to us because we learn new accents and new words,” he said.
When Winona Area Public Schools launched the Madison SLIP program, school district leaders were excited, but also wondered: with students doing so much learning in Spanish, would English reading skills suffer? This fall, the SLIP program defied those expectations, posting English reading scores that went up by eight points.
In Arcadia, Halverson said it is a school-district-wide goal for all students to be bi-literate in English and Spanish. “Eventually, we’d like to have a full-immersion Spanish program in our school,” he stated. “I just think that students who are bilingual have a definite advantage in the workplace, in the world, and we want all of our students to have that opportunity, not just our Hispanic students. It gives them an upper hand on students who don’t have that luxury.”