There are few things we enjoy more than highlighting the amazing work being done by teachers in add.a.lingua partner schools around the country. In this, the 13th episode of our podcast, we’re returning to our teacher feature series to profile 2nd grade Spanish immersion teacher, Silvia Núñez, from Zeeland Christian School.
Join addalingua’s Stephanie Irizarry and Maestra Núñez as they dive into Silvia’s journey to become a Spanish immersion teacher in the U.S. and talk about some of the daily joys and challenges that come along with teaching in a dual language immersion context. Let us know what you think in the comments section at bottom. Enjoy!
Stephanie: Good afternoon! Here I find myself with Maestra Silvia Núñez at Zeeland
Christian School. It [has] a Spanish immersion program, an early-total, one way
immersion program. Silvia is a second grade teacher here, and she’s going to talk with us a little bit about her experiences, not only here in the school but also about her life and what brought her here to [the United States], as well as what attracted her to Zeeland Christian. So, Silvia, thank you for being here with me this afternoon.
Silvia: Thank you, as well, for the invitation, Stephanie.
Stephanie: Of course! I would love to learn a little about your experience because, as a native [Spanish] speaker, you can be heard in your classroom using cultural expressions in dialogue with the students all of the time purely in Spanish. Can you share with us about life when you were very young, and where that love for Spanish and the culture come from?
Silvia: Sure, of course I can. Thank you, again, for this opportunity to share my experience. I was born in Ecuador and lived there for 25 years until I finished my studies [at the university level] and my husband, Vicente, studied in the United States at that time. After marrying in Ecuador, I came to the United States as he wanted to finish his education here and began working here. Really, that was the main reason I moved to the United States. Then it was all about being immersed in the culture of North America, and the source of a lot of happiness.
[With respect to] my experience in Ecuador in education, I studied at La Universidad Católica Santiago de Guayaquil in the school of pedagogy and philosophy. When I finished, I began working in a Baptist school teaching in first grade. At first I was an aide for a few months in kindergarten, and then later, I had the opportunity to work in first grade when [the first grade teacher] moved to Europe. At that point, I took her place. That was a very positive experience in Ecuador without knowing that later on I would return to teaching
first grade in the United States and in Spanish!
Stephanie: How lovely, Maestra. Then, you have come to this country with a lot of pedagogical experience, no?
Silvia: By way of my studies, but in practice just a year and a half.
Stephanie: Okay, so the majority of your work as a teacher, the majority of your teaching experience has been in the United States.
Silvia: Yes, practically after arriving to the U.S., I had my family, my children, and I wasn’t working in the school system. When my children grew up and my youngest child, my
daughter, was in preschool, I returned to [teaching] here in the United States [because of] my daughter’s teacher! She invited me to help out in preschool, and afterward, they offered me a job and I began there once again in Delaware.
Stephanie: Wow! Okay, and that was in a Spanish program, too? Or was it an English program?
Silvia: Well, this wasn’t a Spanish program. It was a preschool program for low income families. [In that role] I worked part-time with the students, and part-time with the parents as an outreach person.
Stephanie: Phenomenal! So, it was like you were the link between the school and the home.
Silvia: Yes, it was another type of connection in Spanish because the Spanish-speaking families who lived in the state of Delaware couldn’t communicate with the school because of the language [barrier], so I was the link between the school and the parents.
Stephanie: What an experience! So then, how did you find out about Zeeland Christian, which we know now to be a program that has students moving into the high school levels, right? It’s a program that is very developed [K-8]. How did you find this place? Or, how did this place find you?
Silvia: Well, after living for eight years in Delaware, we moved to Michigan due to my husband’s work. I began to do work as a volunteer at West Ottawa [Public Schools] with my children. So, I worked as a mom inside the school, but I wanted to involve myself more with my children at that time because they were new to the state. Then, after I felt that my children were a bit more established, I found a position at Vanderbilt Academy where I worked as a teacher’s aide in all of the grades from kinder through eighth grade helping students who spoke Spanish. I was the intermediary there, teaching the students in Spanish and English. That was my function. In the middle of that experience, I received a phone call from a friend who shared that Stacey VandenBosch [add.a.lingua co-founder, previously the Zeeland Christian Spanish Immersion program coordinator] was looking for a Spanish teacher and that she wanted to meet me. My friend was the connection through which I began learning about the program at Zeeland Christian. When I found out that the program was Spanish Immersion, I couldn’t believe it! I was so happy and excited because I feel like God cleared the path for me to arrive at this place
Stephanie: So, you’ve had a variety of experiences, not only as a teacher, but also as an aide in classrooms. You’ve seen a great variety of classroom cultures, you’ve seen a variety of cultures not only in Ecuador, but also here in the United States. What are some of the most notable differences, or most obvious differences that you’ve seen in the places you’ve worked?
Silvia: Really, the education that I received at the university is obviously a pedagogy that is nearly of the past. I call it the “old school”, and the most traditional. When I moved to the United States, I saw that much of the United States used that same type of style in the traditional sense in that the teacher taught, and the students listened for hours and hours. But, practically my group at Vanderbilt had the most time with the teacher and I spoke both languages with them. So, the students were enriched a lot, and so was I because they were children with two cultures, one from the United States and the other from their home in which they spoke Spanish. I very much enjoyed getting to know that group of students. In that sense, I feel as though I’ve passed from the 20th to the 21st century, right?
We now see that education has experienced a transition in the United States, lightly and slowly, but also timely in that we find ourselves in the 21st century wave of education. Education has had its transformations and I’ve had to re-educate myself in many areas, learn new pedagogy, and that’s brought me real happiness and satisfaction because I can now not only share my culture with my students, but I can do it in a new way. [It’s all about] changes in myself, the students, and the culture itself in the United States
Stephanie: Sure, so it’s a total transformation in that the evolution of education continues as time passes. Thanks so much, Maestra, [for your reflections]. So now, here in your classroom, what calls your attention the most? You mentioned a bit about the importance of learning another language and about another culture, essentially being able to share what you’re learning pedagogically according to what you design and write for your lessons, but can you talk to us a little bit about the personal aspect as well? [Tell us about] that whole idea of sharing your native language and culture with this group of over twenty children [each day]?
Silvia: The experience has been fantastic! Being that I’ve been a part of the pilot group of early-total, one way immersion here at Zeeland Christian School, it was an opportunity to live the evolution of the program and learn together and share ideas in order to reach students in different ways…not only with the language, but with the culture, and with the curriculum that is also important. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been able to remember my own education of learning English and all of the shortcomings or errors that can happen based on how I learned in Ecuador. When I arrived here [in the United States] I didn’t understand hardly anything that was spoken to me [in English], but I understood a lot of grammar and understood when I read. That’s when I realized that that was the way language was taught in my country, and I didn’t want to do the same with my students here. The pedagogy is now so very alive and new that, for example, the student, I now know, needs to hear a word used around 70 times [in context] in order to make it a part of their vocabulary. So, just imagine how much we need to do and the resources we need to have in order to make sure that students can learn new vocabulary. And, that’s even with young students who have stupendous, fabulous memories! It’s [important to have them] immersed 100% in order for the program to be successful and for the students to really own and love the language. It’s a great opportunity for them to learn not only the language, but also the culture and develop their cognitive capabilities. So, it’s a real mix of so many different components so that students feel successful in their understanding of their new language.
Stephanie: Without a doubt. Just right there you mentioned the three goals, really, of these types of programs: the acquisition of the language, the academic/cognitive development, and the idea of cultural appreciation. You also mentioned a variety of resources that one needs to use, teacher resources — practices and techniques that we teachers use. You also use the add.a.lingua frameworks that are part of what you implement in the program. Can you describe how the implementation of this resource manifests itself in the classroom, and how it fosters and accentuates what you’ve already described as being important relative to culture and language?
Silvia: Absolutely. In fact, I think that [the add.a.lingua frameworks] are the backbone of the immersion program. You need to know the language framework very well, study it and make it your own so that you can share it with the students in order for them to make it their own. So much so, that the students are able to think about their language when they are studying other subjects like mathematics or Bible. In addition, it helps them make constant connections to the language objectives that we have each week. The add.a.lingua frameworks that we utilize in this program is the base; it’s what helps us connect everything, not only the new words that they use, but also grammar components, etc. That helps the student maintain thinking on the language focus at the same time they’re focusing on content goals.
Stephanie: Okay, [you see it as important] so that the student is aware [of language] not only during language arts, but also during other subjects of the day, math, science, in order for them to become more involved in the content, in their studies.
Silvia: Sure, sure. They can “speak mathematics” in Spanish. To be able to do that [successfully], they need to use specific language techniques. They’ve got to be able to ask questions and utilize academic vocabulary associated with mathematics in Spanish so that as they move forward, they’re growing in Spanish at the grammatical level. And, content area curriculum is included so the student can connect across those content areas of study. This, for me, is the foundation. In fact, for all of us as teachers, I feel that it’s such a help that we are able to work with this [add.a.lingua] framework from week to week.
Stephanie: Okay, and that’s so that there’s a real language focus not only from week to week but throughout the school year.
Silvia: All year. And from week to week there are connections to be made. That’s the good thing. [It’s good for] student development because week after week, they have the base then for what’s coming next. The student moves forward, growing in sequence while simultaneously expanding the vocabulary. The [add.a.lingua framework] is very, very important.
Stephanie: Thanks so much. Well, [as we wrap up], I would imagine that there are many teachers or future teachers who are hearing us right now online, and maybe they’re thinking, “Oh, what should I do? Which way do I go with respect to the field of education? I’m going to become a teacher, but what am I going to do? Will I use both of my languages, or not?” So, from your perspective, what would be your best recommendations surrounding those who might become teachers, especially in the context of immersion for their futures?
Silvia: One of my pieces of advice in this moment would be for native speakers, as well as those who are considering entering an immersion program would be to first, really take the time to immerse yourselves in Spanish speaking culture. It can be anywhere, but it’s important to have that contact to enrich one’s understanding of culture. Second, take the time to grasp what it’s like to speak solely Spanish because that’s a foundational practice in the classroom — being aware and intentional so that the class is truly 100% in Spanish so that students can talk in Spanish, speak, connect with one another, and socialize in Spanish. As a teacher, if you are not a native speaker, that would be an important foundational piece. Additionally, for a native speaking teacher, they might have the culture, but I would propose that they continue to be learners and learn even more! In fact, I have had to do that as well! I’ve needed to learn more about my country, my culture and traditions that we have in order to be able to share it with my students. That’s because we want for it to be solid, and not something fictitious. I do it with stories and photographs, and to add that dynamic and [level of] happiness in the classroom helps students explore the cultural information in a positive way. Finally, teachers should be always ready to learn because education continues evolving, and they should always be involved with a language [framework] because studying that and recognizing its importance is necessary in order to be able to manage it easily in the classroom.
Stephanie: Thanks so much, Maestra Núñez, truly. What you do here with your students is something magical, so thank you for sharing just a little bit of your time.
Silvia: Thank you very much for the opportunity!