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Kindergarten in Spanish: Lowell immersion students work toward learning a second language

Lowell Elementary kindergarten teacher Rebecca Sheldon works her students in Spanish during the math portion of the day. The school began its Spanish immersion program this year. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Rebecca Sheldon watches as Javon Farrell (left) counts out beans for a math exercise. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Rebecca Sheldon's kindergarten class formed a circle on the floor, each student laying out a selection of brightly dyed beans.

Sheldon, a Spanish immersion teacher at Lowell Elementary, asked her class on Tuesday whether anyone had "quatro roja" — or four red — beans. For several minutes she asked variations of that question, allowing kids to respond in Spanish or in English. The exercise was about math and language simultaneously, illustrating how an immersion program works. Students learn the state standards, but they're learning them in a different language.

"They come in here, and they know nothing; it's herding cats," Sheldon said of the first couple of weeks working with kindergarteners. "Now, for the most part, kids are getting me, although they may not understand word for word."

Sheldon teaches one of two Spanish immersion classes at Lowell, which are offered for the first time this year by the Duluth school district. It's the second immersion program added to district offerings, along with Ojibwe, which began in 2014, also at Lowell.

Rebecca Sheldon works with a student on a math problem recently at Lowell Elementary.Kindergarten is a good age to introduce a second language, Sheldon said, because language connections are made more easily in a developing brain. Students are less self-conscious about the process and absorb the language more readily. Through routine, visuals, animated facial expressions and song, students start to pick up on the meanings of words. They may not respond correctly in Spanish, but they know what Sheldon is saying.

"Compare that to the natural progression of language with our own children," said Crystal Goldman, the district's Spanish immersion specialist and English language development coordinator.

When you speak to a baby, she begins to understand you and eventually says a few words, then strings those words together to form a sentence, Goldman said. "It's the same with Spanish immersion."

Research shows plenty of benefits from language immersion, including higher levels of cultural awareness, more mental flexibility, better problem-solving skills and deeper cognitive development, Goldman said. As is the practice with immersion programs, the teachers and their Spanish-speaking assistants only revert to English in emergency situations. That can be stressful for students, Sheldon said, but it's all part of the process. The students are also learning how to be in school at this age, so frustration can lead to behavior issues.

"But you work through it," she said, and it often takes reassurances from the teachers and the parents to ease anxiety. That's no different from what happens in a regular classroom, Sheldon said, where kids learn to fail and learn from their mistakes.

While Ojibwe was chosen first because of its history and strong connection to the area, Spanish was next because of its commonality across the country. The district originally planned for three sections of kindergarten but only two filled, with 45 students between them.

Lynn MacLean, a parent of an immersion student, said more families probably would have enrolled, but district-wide transportation to Lowell isn't offered.

Having two immersion programs is good for the 377-student school, said Principal Jen Larva. She recites her morning greeting to students over the public address system in English, Ojibwe and Spanish. With 13 students at the school who speak English as their second language, the hall is filled with a variety of sounds, she said. School signage reflects the diversity, with the Spanish "la oficina" for example, pinned outside of the office.

"It makes a huge difference in that everybody feels, regardless of what they speak, that we respect all languages," Larva said.

MacLean's daughter, Hattie, is in the inaugural class, and she also plans to send her son when he reaches kindergarten age.

"It's a phenomenal opportunity for our kids, to be exposed to Spanish for six hours a day," MacLean said. "Both my husband and I speak foreign languages and we feel it broadened our world view. We hope it will do the same for our kids."

One month in, Hattie can sing five songs with the correct pronunciation, and count to 39, all in Spanish.

"She just loves being able to do that," MacLean said, "and it's fun to see her excited about school and about learning a language."