Trading places

Spanish-speaking students become teachers in Windom program

Like urban schools around the nation, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) abound with a diversity of cultures, ethnicities and languages. About a quarter of MPS students, from countries as far-flung as Laos, Mexico and Somalia, speak a language other than English at home.

Unfortunately, diversity within schools doesn't always mean integration and interaction among a school's student population -- something Windom Open School parent volunteer Gisela Valdez learned the hard way.

Valdez, who moved here from Mexico a couple of years ago, enrolled her daughter Daniela in Windom, a school that has a much higher percentage compared to the district both of Hispanic-American students and English Language Learner (ELL) students.

While happy with the academics and extracurricular programs offered at Windom, Valdez said she was disturbed by the social segregation she observed between the ELL kids and the rest of the student population.

"I saw that there is a lot of division between children from other countries and American children, no?" Valdez said. "We saw some problems at school, like during recess, they don't play together, or sometimes, the English children think that if the Spanish-speaking students are speaking Spanish, they are talking about them."

Mary Karen, another parent volunteer, said she noticed the same social cliques and that the Spanish-speaking students suffered for it.

The sense of isolation, coupled with the day-to-day difficulty of mastering a new language, left many ELL students feeling unempowered and unsure of themselves, Karen said.

"Many Spanish-speaking parents told me that their kids were embarrassed by their language and that they would only use it to tell secrets or to gossip," she added.

Searching for a way to bridge the cultural divide within Windom, Valdez and Karen decided to do something about it: together with a group of parents, they won a grant and created a weekly after-school program in which native Spanish-speaking students teach their language to native English-speaking students.

"It's a total role reversal," Karen said. "The Spanish-speaking students finally get the chance to be the boss and the teacher."

In the classroom In a Windom classroom decorated with colorful signs that call out in Spanish -- "Hola"; "Cmo ests?"; "Muy bien" -- Karen and Valdez, along with parent volunteer Kyle Samejima, sit in a circle with sixteen students, roughly half of whom are Spanish-speaking ELL students.

Each ELL student is partnered with a native English-speaking student.

"If you're listo, raise your hand," Karen calls out.

Not everyone raises a hand.

"Sydney, your partner doesn't know what that means -- you have to help him to understand," Karen says.

Sydney, a slight girl with straight black hair pulled back into a ponytail, leans over to her partner, Reid, and says softly, "It means "ready."

Nodding his head, Reid raises his hand, along with several other native English speakers who overheard Sydney's clarification.

After several simple vocabulary exercises, Valdez and Karen announce that puppet-making is the day's activity.

"We are going to make puppets that speak only Spanish," Karen says.

A few of the kids groan good-naturedly.

"And if you construct a good dilogo between your two puppets, you will get a sticker," Karen says. "That's easy for you, isn't it Sydney?"

Sydney nods her head "yes."

"But, is it as easy for Reid?"

She shakes her head "no."

"So, you have to help him, okay?"

Sydney, a bit more puffed up now, solemnly nods her head and says, "Okay."

Increasing vocabulary and grammar In addition to instilling confidence in the ELL students, Karen and Valdez say, the after-school program teaches the Spanish language to the native Spanish-speaking ELL students as much as it does to the native English speakers.

These kids speak Spanish at home, but many have never been taught the Spanish language at school, Karen said.

"My horrible Spanish is in some ways better than theirs because they have a very small vocabulary and their grammatical structure doesn't advance because they're not instructed in Spanish," she said. "Many of these students who speak Spanish are actually seeing it written for the very first time.

"A five-year-old might not know the difference between 'me' and 'mine', but a six-, seven-, eight-year-old will continue to get that wrong if it's not taught."

Valdez, who has two other daughters -- one at Washburn High School and one at Folwell Middle School, said that many

of her daugthers' friends who were born in this country to Mexican parents feel like they are in a language purgatory of sorts and are afraid to speak both Spanish and English.

"You know, one of these girls told me, 'I am afraid to speak with you because you have such beautiful Spanish, and I feel like my language is not English and it's not Spanish,'" Valdez said.

Luis Ortega, director of ELL services for the district, says he had a similar experience to many of the Spanish-speaking students in the district.

"I grew up speaking Spanish at home, but I was not actually instructed in Spanish until high school," he said. "Obviously, I could understand more Spanish than other kids, but many kids kicked my butt in grammar.

"It gives you confidence to maintain your native language, and, as a result, you can do better in school."

"Mom knows" Reinforcing the importance of the Spanish language is another benefit of the program, Karen added.

"Parents of these kids really appreciate this class because they're sick of correcting their kids all the time and reinforcing to them that the Spanish language should be preserved," she said. "Also, some of these Spanish-speaking kids who know English have parents who don't know English, so maybe they feel like, 'Well, I'm not going to listen to my mom -- what does she know?'

"Our program reinforces that Mom knows."

Parents of the students who speak English at home are just as thrilled with the program. Not only do their kids get

to learn Spanish, they say, but they also learn compassion.

Lyndale resident Sandy Beeman, whose son Eliot participates in the Windom after-school program, said that the discomfort some native English speakers feel in reversing roles is educational.

"I think during the school day the kids who are English speakers are kind of at an advantage and the kids who are Spanish speakers -- especially the younger grades who are just learning English -- often have to turn to their English classmates to learn," Beeman said. "I just think it's a good way to learn empathy for other people to put yourself in their position and to be the one who has to learn the other language.

"I don't mean this in a patronizing way, but I think it's empowering for those kids to be the teachers, to be the experts in that language."

Bringing parents together Like their children at school, parents who don't speak English as a first language or at all can feel just as isolated socially from native English speakers, Karen said.

"At many schools, parent organizations are separated by language group and race," Karen said. "That's not the case at Windom anymore, but many schools will sponsor an African-American parent night, a Spanish-speaking parent night, a Hmong night."

Many Spanish-speaking parents feel afraid to interact with English-speaking parents, Valdez said.

"A lot of parents tell me they feel ashamed because they don't know English so they can't even help their children

with their homework. And because they don't know English, they do not participate in the school or talk to teachers or other parents.

"We do have an interpreter for the school, but one interpreter is not enough because there is so much work to do."

To bring parents together, Karen and Valdez are creating an evening class, modeled on the after-school program, for native Spanish-speaking and English-speaking adults.

The parent language program is, in part, an outgrowth of Windom's annual parents-only "Piece of the Puzzle" festival.

"We knew we had to congeal parents in some way," Karen said. "So, a couple years ago, we threw this "Piece of the Puzzle" fair, and basically it is 'What is your piece of the puzzle?' We ask everybody to bring food and music that reflects their culture, and we have dancing and arts activities."

Karen said she feared the festival would be a bomb.

"I thought, 'Our old Hmong grandmas are not going to do theater improvisational exercises with people they don't know,'" she said. "But, you know what? They did. We did all these nonverbal exercises and everybody was laughing."

Windom will hold its 3rd-annual "Piece of the Puzzle" in April, Karen said.

"It is important to offer resources to groups that have particular needs, but it is also really important to have parents from different backgrounds interacting with each other in order to build community," Karen said.

"And, we have the best Mexican food in South Minneapolis, for sure."