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School district says 'Hola' to new instruction

Spanish teacher, Christine Engel, gets down on the floor with a group of kindergarteners from Pam Ekstrom's class. Students including, from left, Danny "Markeiths" Jones, Zachariah Kloos, Engel and Hayleigh Hartenstein sing songs, count and listen to stories while learning Spanish.2 / 2

After being piloted last year at Greenwood Elementary, the River Falls School District introduced the K-1 Spanish program this year.

Travelling to all three elementary schools -- Greenwood, Rocky Branch and Westside -- is Spanish teacher Christine Engel. She also teaches part-time at the high school.

When asked why foreign language should be introduced at such a young age, Engel said that after puberty, speaking like a native speaker is drastically reduced. She cited the dying of brain synapses as the reason.

Her hope is that early exposure will "plant a seed" and make sure that those connections within the brain are made.

During a typical class time, Engel wants kids to "hear it and see it."

"It has to be engaging," said Engel.

To keep the enthusiasm up, Engel gets down at the kids' level and uses games, stories and songs.

"I try to make it fun," Engel said. "I want to show them how I love Spanish." Besides language skills, Engel takes a social studies approach to the curriculum which includes learning about celebrations, family and community.

The students are also learning the basics such as numbers, colors and how to say their name.

Engel spends about 15-20 minutes with each kindergarten and first grade class twice per six day rotation -- each class gets about 30 minutes per week.

Being just three weeks into the program, Engel says the kids seem eager to learn Spanish. "They are bouncing with excitement," said Engel.

Teaching students at both the high school and elementary level, Engel notices a difference between the students -- young elementary students are unafraid.

As Engel pointed out, "I will sing a song, they will join in even though they don't know the words and make mistakes."

Engels says to learn a language you have to make mistakes. "To use it, you have to speak it and try it," Engel added.

See the full article in the Feb. 28 print edition of the Journal.

Jillian Dexheimer
Jillian Dexheimer has been a copy editor and reporter for the River Falls Journal since 2011. She previously worked for the River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. Dexheimer holds a sociology degree from UW-River Falls.
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