Teaching and learning Spanish at the same time

By Corey Inscoe
Carrboro Commons Co-Editor

In just a few days, Senior Lecturer William Maisch’s Spanish 255 class at UNC-Chapel Hill will sit down with Hispanic elementary school students in Chapel Hill and Carrboro to read Spanish-language books.

inscoe_applesspanishbest.jpg Dr. William Maisch, senior lecturer of Spanish, speaks to his Spanish 255 students about their APPLES Service-Learning program, which will place his students in elementary schools to read to young students as a part of the Spanish Reading Partners program.
Staff photo by Corey Inscoe

When Maisch asked his class to discuss their anxieties about the task ahead, students offered an array of apprehensions: “I’m worried about them understanding us and us understanding them.”
“I’m worried about being really boring.”
“I don’t want them to dread me coming.”
“I’m afraid of the kids not respecting me.”

But this, according to Maisch, is what makes the APPLES Service Learning Program’s partnership with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ Spanish-School Reading Partners program a “match made in heaven.”

“They both get something out of it,” Maisch said. “What the kids get out of it is not just the English; it is more importantly the sense that here is this big, fancy university student and their Spanish is awful and they want to learn how to speak Spanish and it’s like, ‘Hey man, I can already do that. That makes me feel good about who I am.’”

Through the APPLES program, UNC students learn more about the Spanish language while serving their community and teaching English to local kids and adults. APPLES service requirements in the Spanish department range from tutoring elementary and middle school students to putting together a Spanish-language radio show.

A group of UNC students, who wanted to bridge the gap between service and learning, created the APPLES program in 1990. Now there are more than 80 APPLES courses spanning 43 departments.

Giffin Daughtridge, sophomore biology major from Ahoskie, took Maisch’s Spanish 204 class last semester and worked with the Reading Partners program at Carrboro Elementary School.

“It was rewarding to be able to read to the children and improve my Spanish speaking skills while also helping the children learn to read and speak the language, as well as have fun at school,” Daughtridge wrote in an e-mail.

Michele Thibodeau, a junior Spanish major from Duck, was also involved with the Reading Partners program at Ephesus Elementary School. She previously worked with Hispanic students while attending the University of Colorado at Boulder and wanted to continue her participation in service-learning.

“It really helps me with my fluency and accent, and I feel like I’m doing something good for the community,” Thibodeau wrote in an e-mail. “I felt like my fluency improved because I was speaking with a native Hispanic speaker. I also felt like my auditory skills improved, because it was very difficult to understand the often mumbled and rambling speech of a 4-year-old Spanish speaker.”

Despite the rewarding nature of the program, Maisch said that it often becomes stressful when the kids misbehave. He said in some instances kids hung off curtains and faked birthdays so that the tutors would bring them cake.

The environment also helps Maisch’s students retain Spanish vocabulary and grammar that they often forget in the classroom, despite being taught many times throughout their Spanish education.

This program, Maisch said “makes it real” for the students and makes them utilize the Spanish that they have been learning in the classrooms in real life situations.

Senior Lecturer of Spanish Julia Cardona Mack, uses a weekly Spanish radio show called “Dimelo en Ingles,” to enhance the learning experience in her Spanish 300 classroom. During the show, which is broadcast on WCOM, students speak both English and Spanish to teach native Spanish speakers practical English words and phrases.

Mack said working with the radio show is a good opportunity for students because “without these experiences our students wouldn’t have had the opportunity to prove to themselves that they can do as much as they can.”

Mack’s original plans for her APPLES course involved working with students from McDougle Middle School to put on a play at the end of the semester. However, the day before the second semester of the program was scheduled to begin, the middle school teacher sent an email to Mack that said her students would be unable to participate.

Scrambling for a new APPLES course, Mack remembered that WCOM had sent an e-mail to the Spanish Department about creating a Spanish-language radio show and decided to give it a try.

“They [the students] took it with gusto,” Mack said.

During the first semester, the students created a series of shows based around a fictional family, but Mack realized that someone tuning in towards the end of the semester would have no idea what the program was about. The next semester the class started using lesson plans each week.

Students in the class, which is now in its fourth semester, write the lesson plans themselves, with Mack only checking over to make sure there are no major mistakes.

Mack said she is never sure how many people, if any, are listening to the show, but she realizes that that is not the point of the class.

“I want them to realize just how different English is from Spanish,” Mack said. “I want them to realize just where the points of contact and divergences are and just how complicated this matter is.”

Courtney Patterson, a junior English and economics major from Charlotte, who was in Mack’s class last semester said that while the course was scary at times, it was interesting to learn the workings of a radio show.

“It was intimidating at first to speak Spanish on the radio to native speakers because it wasn’t my native language,” Patterson said. “Even with a script, sometimes we had to ad lib.”

Even if no one is listening, Mack said she thinks it is important just to have Spanish spoken on the radio.

“It’s a matter of privileging the Spanish language, of supporting the use of Spanish in the public environment, in the public discourse,” Mack said.

Maisch’s philosophy on teaching English as a second language, which is posted on his course Web site, echoes Mack’s idea. He says that gradual bilingual education, where only English is spoken, is bad for a student’s confidence.

In gradual bilingual education, “you’re learning English. We are only going to speak English. You’re punished for speaking Spanish. In other words, what you can already do is completely worthless. It’s not only that it’s not true, but that it undermines the self-esteem,” Maisch said.

This is why both Maisch and Mack stress the use of Spanish while they are trying to teach English to elementary school students and on the radio. They say it is important to make native-Spanish speakers feel like their language and culture is important.

Maisch said, “What’s much more important in society is feeling good about who you are and being self-confident.”

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