In the Classroom

20 years of Spanish immersion make Lawrence Township a model for Indiana

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

The little boy’s lips were set in a hard line across his face, his head bent over his worksheet as he tightly grasped an orange crayon in his fist while his neighbor chatted freely.

“I already started coloring,” the other boy declared. “Crayons are more faster.”

But the problem wasn’t that the boys were talking, as it might be in other second grade classrooms. The problem was that they were talking in English.

In Mabel Ramos’ language immersion classroom at Forest Glen Elementary School, even socializing must happen in Spanish. That’s what immersion means — completely surrounding students by a new language until they become fluent.

“It’s going to help as they grow up, not only the academic piece but the personal social skills,” Ramos said. “You want them to be really prepared in every single area, not only academic.”

Forest Glen is Lawrence Township’s Spanish language immersion elementary magnet school. It’s an example of exactly the sort of idea touted by legislators this year as a way to expand career opportunities for students.

Senate Bill 267, passed and signed into law by the governor last month, set up a grant program schools and districts can apply for to create their own language immersion pilot programs, in Spanish or other languages, much like what they already have at Forest Glen.

The township is way ahead of the game: it’s been doing this at Forest Glen for 20 years.

Forest Glen’s assistant principal, Jerome Omar Lahlou, believes this is the best way to learn a new language.

“Research shows that bilingualism can truly and successfully be achieved by language immersion, which is the most effective way to teach a second language to students,” Lahlou said.

Grades K-6: building a strong foundation

It’s not like Spanish immersion at Forest Glen is a small speciality magnet for just a handful of students, as magnet programs sometimes are in other districts. The school is huge: more than 650 kids are enrolled.

But there is still a wait-list. Lahlou’s own children took years to get a spot.

The program is popular with both a fast-growing Spanish-speaking population in the township and families that want their kids to graduate high school fluent in Spanish.

Lahlou said immersion schools are especially helpful for Spanish-speaking students because picking up English is easier when they are learning in Spanish at the same time.

“You are coming to school to learn with the language that you are really learning at home,” Lahlou said. “And then as you learn English along the way, then you transfer all that knowledge to English.”

Three girls in Mabel Ramos' third grade class at Forest Glen Elementary School work on writing letters to students in Cuba. Immersion classes are primarily taught in Spanish.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Three girls in Mabel Ramos’ third grade class at Forest Glen Elementary School work on writing letters to students in Cuba. Immersion classes are primarily taught in Spanish.

Lahlou said English speakers get better at Spanish from talking with their Spanish-speaking peers.

“The source of the language became not only the teacher, but from the students around them,” Lahlou said.

Younger students spend more time speaking exclusively in Spanish. In third grade, that changes to 70 percent. By fourth grade, the day is split 50-50, Spanish and English.

The school has learned over the years that approach works best. Start them with too little Spanish, and by later grades they don’t have a strong foundation in either language. Those splits give kids enough work on English grammar and reading so they can pass ISTEP.

For a project in her third-grade immersion class, Mabel Ramos is having her students write letter about themselves to send to other students in Cuba.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
For a project in her third-grade immersion class, Mabel Ramos is having her students write letter about themselves to send to other students in Cuba.

Forest Glen has a 77.6 percent passing rate on ISTEP, higher than both the district and state passing rates. About 44 percent of the school’s students are Hispanic, and 46 percent are from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, earning an annual income below $43,500 for a family of four.

Lahlou said the opportunity to learn a new language and for Spanish speakers to continue learning in their native language is immeasurable. And he should know — he speaks five: Spanish, English, French, Arabic and Catalan, a Romance language spoken in parts of Spain and France.

“There is really no tool to measure the benefits because there are so many that we don’t even know,” Lahlou said. “You feel like you can achieve things that were not even possible, that you can achieve anything in life.”

Grades 7-8: Moving past social skills

Middle school can be a turning point for immersion students. Either they bolster what they know and approach fluency, or they begin to lose it.

“When they arrive here we can see huge changes in the language,” Fall Creek Valley Middle School language arts teacher Gema Camarasa said. “From seventh grade first day to the end of eighth grade, those two years, if they really work as we tell them to do, day by day, the language speeds up. It’s crazy.”

But sometimes, pride gets in the way, the school’s science immersion teacher, Giselle Andolz-Duron, said.

“Sometimes because of where they’re at in their developmental stage they will resist using the target language, in this case Spanish,” she said. “But when friends come around, all of a sudden they know all the Spanish in the world.”

Middle and high school students have fewer immersion classes than they did in the elementary school program. At Fall Creek Valley, they take science, social studies and language arts in Spanish, as well as an English language arts class and other electives.

Students in Gema Camarasa's English class at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township drew comics during their unit on the book Don Quixote.
Students in Gema Camarasa’s English class at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township drew comics during their unit on the book Don Quixote.

Andolz-Duron said it’s the upper grades where students start to gain the “academic language” that allows them to truly discuss subjects like science, social studies, literature and math in another language, rather than just social topics.

But the social connections are at the heart of the program, too. For many students, they’ve been learning with the same kids since Kindergarten. Introducing new kids into the mix in middle school can be difficult because in the beginning, the immersion program primarily served native-English speakers who were being taught primarily in Spanish.

Six years ago that changed at Forest Glen. Fueled by an influx of children who spoke Spanish as their first language, a second approach was used: the dual-language program put both kids who speak English at home and those who spoke Spanish first in class together.

That’s been well-received, but those students are just now approaching middle school age. Current middle and high school students are mostly native-English speakers, with a few native-Spanish speakers joining along the way.

But in two years, the first group of dual-language immersion students will reach seventh grade. Fall Creek Valley Principal Kathy Luessow is excited for how the change will help the school better connect to its increasingly diverse student body.

“I can see where that is going to help us reach more of our families and communicate better with them and invite them to be part of the schooling in ways we have not done before,”  Luessow said.

The program as a whole helps open students up to the wider world. They learn from teachers who are bilingual, and many of them grew up in other Spanish-speaking countries. Andolz-Duron is from Puerto Rico, and Camarasa is from Spain. The kids sometimes don’t realize the value of those opportunities, Andolz-Duron said.

“In the U.S., our Spanish speaking population continues to grow and will continue to grow,” she said. “It’s important that we continue to integrate both the language and culture into our mainstream society. It’s everywhere and yet we don’t understand it.”

Grades 9-12: Putting on the finishing touches

By the time immersion students reach Manual Vega’s world cultures class at Lawrence North High School, many are very close to fluency.

“They leave high school really proficient, just some problems with verbs or articles,” Vega said. “They need to polish a little bit more, but they understand everything.”

It was a warm Tuesday afternoon in early May, and Vega had a class of freshmen who he was lecturing about imperialism and colonialism. He lectured some, and the students also read from the textbook.

Rows of students methodically took notes as their classmates read, competently if unenthusiastically, about colonial trade. It was entirely in Spanish, but otherwise it felt like a typical high school class.

Vega, a native Spanish speaker, spoke normally. It was just expected that his students understood. And they did.

Vega has seen the immersion program grow from its infancy. A 32-year teaching veteran from Puerto Rico, 20 of those years have been in immersion classes. Vega started out teaching second grade at Forest Glen in 1995, moved on with his students to fifth grade, and then on to high school. That group of students graduated in 2006.

“I wanted to follow how they are working in the immersion program, improving and seeing that,” Vega said.

Vega helped design the immersion curriculum, especially in the upper grades. In high school, social studies classes are in Spanish, and students can choose Spanish language electives, such as Advanced Placement Spanish Literature or film studies.

By graduation, many native English speakers who have stuck with immersion have no trace of an accent when they speak Spanish. Some go on to study Spanish in college, Vega said, and others even take on other languages, which is a much easier feat when you’ve explored one already.

That decision is still a little far off for Gigi Rowland, a 15-year-old freshman in Vega’s class. She’s not sure yet what she wants to study — maybe medicine, maybe teaching or even business.

But she knows she’ll at least minor in Spanish.

Rowland has been in immersion classes in the district for 10 years, and she knows she’s gotten the chance to be part of something special. The cultural experiences, close relationships she’s built with other immersion students and job opportunities being bilingual will open up to her were worth the years of hard work.

“In a way, I feel bad for everyone else because it’s such a great opportunity, and not enough people are given this,” she said. “It is important to me to take advantage of it.”

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”