by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Like all first graders, Erin Siemback’s students are reading to themselves, spelling words they’ve learned so far this school year, and practicing how to write. Siemback and her student teacher are working with students individually and in small groups, with some students going over the sounds letters make, just as other elementary teachers are doing. There is one difference between this classroom and others, however. Siemback’s students are learning in Spanish.
Siemback teaches in Winona Area Public School (WAPS)’ Rios Spanish Immersion Program, in which students learn all or mostly in Spanish throughout their time at WAPS. It is housed at Jefferson Elementary School and Winona Middle School. During distance and hybrid learning in the recent past, teachers, students, and families in this program worked to tackle the unique obstacle of virtually immersing students in Spanish. Now, with class being in person on a full-time basis again, they are appreciating the return to a more consistent immersion learning environment.
Students in the program learn the same content as their peers in other classrooms, and the program’s teachers follow the same subject area learning standards as their colleagues in other classrooms, Rios fourth grade teacher Amanda Indra said. Students simply learn in Spanish. “The biggest strategy is just exposure to the language,” Siemback said.
Students learn how to read in Spanish first, Siemback said. Once students are in third grade, they begin learning English language arts alongside Spanish language arts. “When that starts happening, we start making a lot more connections to the two languages and really embracing their bilingualism,” Indra said.
One of the benefits for students of being in an immersion classroom is learning to communicate with and support others who speak a different language, Indra and Siemback said. “We’re hoping students in the Rios program have an exposure to an array of cultures and an understanding of acceptance with many different cultures and diversity,” Siemback said.
The program’s reach goes beyond academics, Jefferson Principal Maggie Maine said. The program brings various cultures into Jefferson, Maine said, from the interns who come from countries such as Spain and Mexico to the visiting teachers from these countries.
While in-person, Indra said teachers use visual cues to help students connect Spanish words with the cues. She also expands students’ Spanish vocabulary by explaining the meanings of new words. Siemback uses body language, visual cues and repetition to teach her students. She also acts concepts out and uses American Sign Language. “It’s very interactive,” she said.
Similarly, during hybrid and distance learning, Indra used many virtual visual cues, she said. Siemback worked to foster connections with families so they were comfortable reaching out to her for help, she said.
Having fewer opportunities for conversation was the most difficult part of hybrid and distance learning, Indra said. She would put her students into virtual small groups to discuss “would you rather?” questions, for example, but it just was not the same as talking in the classroom, she said. “Those genuine and authentic conversations were harder to have,” she said.
Indra said that as with every classroom, it is better for the program’s teachers to have students physically in front of them. However, trying to teach students in an immersive way during hybrid and distance learning presented particular challenges, she added. She, Siemback, and parent Brittany Littel agreed that having less time to immerse students in Spanish was a challenge. “It was really difficult to do distance learning and hybrid with our Spanish immersion program, because they weren’t really fully immersed for as much time as [when] they were immersed in the classroom,” she said. “We just didn’t have the same number of minutes of exposure to the language,” Siemback said.
Additionally, teachers strove to work through how to support families who do not speak Spanish, and families who do not speak English. Families who do not speak Spanish needed help when it came to assisting students with Spanish assignments, and families who do not speak English needed help when it came to assisting students with English assignments, she explained.
Being back in person on a daily basis has been a return to teaching in the format Siemback is most comfortable with, she said. “It is so much better to have them in the classroom,” Indra said.
“The number one thing has been the kids being able to be back together with their friends and their teachers, and getting the everyday support. And … being back in the environment of hearing the Spanish language and interacting in Spanish for the majority of their school day,” Littel said. She has sons in second and fourth grade in the program and is the co-president of the program’s parent organization.
Being back in person is not without its slight difficulties. Siemback has used a voice amplifier and done extra repetition and practice of letter sounds and words with students to offset students not seeing her mouth under her mask. Furthermore, keeping students safe and healthy during the continuing pandemic is a priority, she said, as students needing to isolate or quarantine leads to disruptions to their learning.
Teachers both in and outside of the Rios program are working to address learning gaps from the continuing pandemic, as well, Maine said.
Throughout the changes in learning format in the past few years, the goals of the program have remained the same. One of the benefits for students of being in an immersion classroom is learning to communicate with and support others who speak a different language, Indra and Siemback said. “We’re hoping students in the Rios program have an exposure to an array of cultures and an understanding of acceptance with many different cultures and diversity,” Siemback said.
Littel hopes her sons gain confidence in communicating with others, regardless of the language they speak. “I know being bilingual has opened a lot of doors for me, and allowed me to meet a lot of people I otherwise wouldn’t,” she said.