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.”

Out of this World

Named for a renowned astronaut, this Colorado school took a break from classes to watch the solar eclipse

Students at Scott Carpenter Middle School take in the total solar eclipse. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

Just minutes before the peak viewing window of the United States’ first total solar eclipse in 99 years, science teacher Randy Vanderhurst excitedly waved a model of Earth orbiting the sun before his class of 6th graders.

In his raspy, booming voice, he asked students — broken up into clusters labeled “Awesome” and “Brilliant” — to answer questions about how the eclipse works.

“Awesome, please tell Brilliant why you think the eclipse is going to move across the country,” Vanderhurst told his students at Westminster’s M. Scott Carpenter Middle School.

When the moment finally arrived Monday, hundreds of kids at Scott Carpenter flooded out the school’s back doors and onto a large field. They carefully placed their red and black Eclipse USA glasses over their eyes to examine the sun, which looked like a bright orange sliver through the lenses.

Echoes of “Whoa!” and “That’s so cool!” scattered across the field. One girl was more dismissive, suggesting it was all a waste of time.

Nationwide, people clogged parks and drove in throngs of traffic to get their best glimpse of the “Great American Eclipse,” which arced across the country from Oregon to South Carolina. To make the phenomenon a teachable moment, educators across the country prepared special lessons, projects and safety plans — and Colorado teachers were no exception.

Scott Carpenter Middle School had special cause to pay attention: It is named after a Boulder-born astronaut who became the second American to orbit the earth. The school has long emphasized planetary science in its curriculum, making the eclipse a must-see event for its over 500 students.

Principal Tom Evans said once a teacher drew the impending eclipse to his attention in July, he set to work right away securing “legit” eclipse glasses for everyone in the building to safely view the event.

Over the Denver area, the eclipse reached about 93 percent totality, making Scott Carpenter’s lawn a decent viewing spot.

“It’s pretty cool we don’t have to travel to see it,” said Manuel, an 8th grader at the school.

Jeff Sands, who teaches 7th and 8th grade science, said students did not seem to be testing their luck by starting directly in the sun, which during an eclipse could lead to permanent vision damage.

“You’ve got 30 kids in a classroom and it’s kinda hard to keep track of them all,” Sands said. “These guys seem to be pretty responsible, though. I’m pretty impressed they’re listening to us.”

After a little more than 20 minutes of viewing, Evans, the principal, started directing the meandering middle schoolers back to their classes. He said he felt the logistics went “smoothly.”

Once all the students returned inside, they settled in to write reflections on the eclipse, and where they hope to be the next time such a celestial event passes. The next visible total solar eclipse over the United States will come in 2024, when the 6th graders at Scott Carpenter will be seniors in high school, Evans said.

“Scott Carpenter was an individual who obviously at some point in his life looked up at the sky and drew some inspiration,” he said. “It’s only fair that we give these kids the same opportunity because who knows, this may have sparked their interest as well.”

How I Teach

For this Denver AP English teacher, success means students who push against the status quo

Ashley Farris, an AP English teacher at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School, with her students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

To Ashley Farris, an advanced placement English teacher at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School in Denver, teaching is an act of social justice — a way to help students push against the status quo and create community change.

It’s an outlook she adopted during her first teaching job in Baltimore, when she got a crash course in racism and poverty. She says her belief that teachers can change the world is what’s kept her in the profession.

Farris is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I think teaching is in my blood! I am the oldest of my siblings, so I was often teaching them when we were growing up. I found solace in books as a child, and I knew that I wanted to share my love of reading as a teacher.

I think the reasons that I became a teacher are far less important than my reasons for staying. My first teaching assignment was in Baltimore City, and it was the first time I had to confront a system that really was not working for all of the people involved. I learned a lot about racism, poverty and trauma while I was teaching there, and it made me angry. As a person of color, no one had ever taught me the academic vocabulary to describe the things I was experiencing and the things I saw my students experiencing. I pushed myself to learn more about institutional racism, implicit bias, etc. because I knew that my students deserved more. I wanted them to be able to talk about the challenges they saw every day.

For me, teaching has become an act of social justice. If my students are successful, they are pushing back against the status quo, and they are able to make the changes they want to see in their communities. Although I am no longer in Baltimore, I am still committed to working with minority students in underserved communities. I co-taught a social justice class last year and it was incredible to be able to share stories with my students of color about our common experiences. Recently, I saw this quote that said, “She believed she could change the world, so she became a teacher” and I thought: that’s me! That’s why I’m still here!

What does your classroom look like?
I play with seating arrangements a lot in my room. I have tables and they are currently in L-shapes so students can easily work with a partner or in a small group. There is a lot of student talk and collaboration in my class, and I try to choose seating arrangements to help facilitate that. I don’t have too many things on the walls because I find them distracting, but I do have a few plants to add some color and life to the room.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My document camera, which projects documents onto a screen. I use my document camera every day with students because it is so easy to work alongside them, show them my thinking and have them present their own work.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons last year was an introduction to a unit on truth. I had five volunteers touch an object that was inside of a box and describe what they felt. They each had drastically different answers: Some said the object was soft, others firm, one said it felt feathery. I revealed that the object inside the box was a teddy bear wearing a graduation cap (a gift from my family when I was accepted to college, which also gave me an opportunity to talk about being a first generation college student).

We discussed how although none of the students were wrong about what they felt, none of them was able to understand the whole truth of the object. Then we read both “The Parable of the Elephant” and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” It sparked a great conversation about how we know when something is true and the importance of listening to different perspectives. Students were still bringing up the “elephant story” in our discussions at the end of the year.

How did you come up with the idea?
I based the entire lesson on “The Parable of the Elephant,” but I Google everything. I am constantly saving articles on Evernote that I think would be interesting to teach in class. I am always on the lookout for something that I think could be useful in a lesson.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student doesn’t understand the lesson, I might have another student help them. Sometimes kids are able to explain things to each other in ways that make more sense. We also have office hours at my school, so I am available at least once a week to help students. I invite students to come during lunch as well if they’d like extra help.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
This is my second year teaching seniors and honestly, they are not often off task nor do they need much to get their attention! When I taught middle school, I found countdowns really useful because it gave students time to wind down their conversations.

Most of the time if students are off task it is because they are confused or they have concerns about something outside the classroom. I simply ask a student if they have a question about the assignment or if everything is OK. If they don’t have questions and they are fine, I repeat the directions for the assignment. I find that is usually enough to get kids back on track and if there is a problem, they now have space to voice 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?
On the first day of school, I write each student’s name on an index card and place it on their desk. Their very first assignment is to write something they want me to know about them on the back. That night I read and respond to every card by writing back with a question or comment. I pass the cards back the next day (which helps me learn names) and invite them to respond again. Sometimes students will pass the card with me 3-4 times! Putting in the time to get to know students at the beginning of the year gives me the opportunity to start up conversations with them about their interests and help calm any fears or worries they may have.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
During my first year teaching, I called a parent to discuss her son’s poor behavior in my class. I remember her telling me that she didn’t know what to do with him and asked me if I had any advice. I was 22, barely out of college, with no kids of my own. I had no idea what to tell her!

That moment made me realize that we are all doing that best that we can with what we have and no single one of us (parents, teachers, administrators) has all the answers. It is so important for schools to work with families in order to help their children have engaging educational experiences.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I recently finished “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson and I’m working on “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best teaching advice I’ve ever received was from teacher and education consultant, Jacob Clifford. He said to teach your best lesson on the first day.