A deeper immersion

Windom and Emerson students travel to Puerto Rico

WINDOM — It’s not unusual for a class of high school foreign-language students to take a trip abroad, but when Windom Dual Spanish Immersion Principal Lucilla Yira began planning a trip with some of her fourth- and fifth-grade students, even her husband had his doubts.

“I know you did this with high school students,” Yira recalled him saying, “but this is a different age bracket.”

There were some lingering sunburns in late June, but any doubts about the weeklong trip to Puerto Rico with about 60 students from both Windom and Emerson Spanish Immersion School had long since faded, replaced by memories of their whirlwind tour of the island, a U.S. territory located about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida. Even for students who spend their school days surrounded by Spanish-speaking teachers and classmates, it was a new level of immersion in language and culture.

Yira, who was born and raised on the island, said the trip was a first for students of that age from Minneapolis Public Schools and showed the district was on “the cutting edge of education.”

“We’re so immersed in the (English) language here and the American customs that, even though you’re trying to have as authentic a setting as possible within the school, it’s not as authentic until you go somewhere,” she said.

It took about nine months of fundraising to gather $68,000 for the trip. Students bagged groceries at Cub Foods, held sales and collected donations from family members.

But Yira thinks they can do it all again in two years, when she plans to return with another group of Minneapolis students. In the meantime, she hopes Windom families next summer will host some of the Puerto Rican students from Dr. Modesto Rivera Rivera School, where their Minneapolis counterparts spent several hours of each day on the trip.

Language lessons

A small group of students and several parents who served as chaperones on the trip gathered at Windom a few days after their return and sorted through a collection of souvenirs: models of the elegant Spanish colonial buildings still standing in San Juan, the capitol; colorful masks made in the tradition African slaves brought to the island when it was a Spanish colony; and trinkets in the shape of coquís, native frogs who appear in the myths of the Taíno, the island’s original inhabitants. They represent the “mixture of cultures” that created modern Puerto Rico, Yira said.

The students recounted their sightseeing tours to Rio Camuy Cave Park, location of one of the largest cave systems and underground rivers in the world, El Yunque National Forest and their paddle through a “bioluminescent bay,” one of several in Puerto Rico where microorganisms glow blue-green in the water.

But the afternoon tours only began after four hours of classes each morning at Dr. Modesto Rivera Rivera, where even gym class was a learning experience for Windom student Earl Michael. It wasn’t like Windom, where English speakers can revert to their native language outside of the classroom.

“When we were playing basketball on the first day, a few of us taught some of the kids how to say ‘here’ in English,” Michael said. “I kept saying ‘here, here’ and he wouldn’t listen, and then I taught him it mean ‘aqui’ in Spanish.”

“I didn’t think they even knew about basketball,” added classmate Charlie Cruse. But it turned out they weren’t so different; Cruse and some of the other boys noted the Puerto Rican students also liked to play Nintendo DS handheld videogames.

The Minneapolitans reportedly impressed their hosts with their language skills.

On the first day of classes, Paige Simmons was touring the school when she walked in on a dance lesson. The teacher invited Simmons to join the other students.

“After that I said, ‘Muy bien’ to them and they said, ‘Thank you,’ and I said,
‘I speak Spanish,’” Simmons said. “And so then they had to speak to me in Spanish.”

Yira said she wanted to see on the trip that her students were living up to the high academic expectations she sets at Windom.

“When I’m hearing from the teachers and the principal there (in Puerto Rico) that our students did an outstanding job, that just enthralled me, and I was so excited to hear that,” she said.


As a parent chaperone on the trip, Colleen Simmons got to see her triplet daughters Paige, Camryn and Sienna apply the Spanish skills they’ve acquired at Windom in a real-world setting: navigating the streets, ordering in restaurants and translating for their mother who, as a French speaker, understands the value of a second language.

“Obviously, here (at Windom) you’re in this oasis of Spanish,” she said. “You walk out of here and it’s English, and you go home and it’s English, and you go to the store and it’s English.

“For it to be that we were the oasis of English at the hotel (in Puerto Rico), in a sense, and everybody outside the door spoke Spanish, and what a useful thing this is, how valuable,” she continued.
“I didn’t need to see that. I wanted them to see that, and I think they did.”

In a different way, the trip had a special meaning for a few of the Windom students who come from Spanish-speaking households. Traveling to a U.S. territory meant students who may lack the proper documentation to acquire a passport would not be excluded.

“It was outstanding what this trip meant for them, because they said,
I would never have been able to do this with my parents,” Yira said. “… They were very proud to be a native speaker, as well, even though they were from a different culture.”

It has helped to convince Yira travel should be a permanent part of Windom’s culture.

“Giving these experiences to our students at an early stage and age, I believe that we are preparing them holistically — not only one or two components, but as a whole child, with all of the components,” she said. “That was the vision of this trip.”