Most children in New York public schools aren’t introduced to a second language until they reach middle school, but thanks to a special partnership with Ithaca College, kindergarteners and first graders at Belle Sherman Elementary in the Ithaca City School District are beginning to learn Spanish.
The program is called ¡SALTAR! — which means “to jump” in Spanish — and is part of a service-learning course titled Teaching Spanish Language to Children through Arts and Recreation. Those involved in the program teach Belle Sherman students Spanish during music periods and gym classes.
“Most New York public schools don’t teach any type of language other than English until the seventh grade,” said Annette Levine, associate professor of modern languages and literatures and the founder of ¡SALTAR! “Ideally, language learning should begin as early as possible, when the brain’s linguistic development is actively developing and attitudes about global understanding are more open. The younger a language learner is, the greater their chances of developing near native fluency as they grow older.”
The program started about six years ago, when a teacher at Belle Sherman suggested the idea of bringing Spanish instruction to the school. It has since undergone many changes, and at one point was an after-school program. But Levine’s ultimate goal has always been to incorporate Spanish instruction into the school day.
“We started by bringing an art activity into the classroom, and it was complete immersion,” said Levine. “That was the answer. We were finally doing integrative content with the language. It’s couched in a valued space within the school day for the children.”
Levine believes that teaching Spanish at Belle Sherman is particularly beneficial for the many students whose first language is one other than English.
“The families at Belle Sherman come from all over the world,” she said. “There is a wealth of different languages already spoken in the school, so to bring in language instruction other than English is very exciting for everybody; suddenly everyone is on the same playing field. We try to give instruction almost 99 percent in Spanish, so all children have to capture it with whatever skills they can.”
Levine also sees the course as a confidence booster for Ithaca College students, and she appreciates seeing the evolution of their skills throughout the semester.
“You can do [the class] for up to three semesters,” she explained. “I’ve had students who have done it for the first time and have been really nervous. By the end of the semester they feel better, and by the third time they’re the leaders of the service-learning experience.”
Mariana Arenas, a sophomore Spanish major, has enjoyed taking the course multiple times.
“I was surprised at how much the children learned and remembered from last year,” she said. “I did this course twice, so I got the chance to teach them some songs last year. It was amazing to see how interactive and persistent the children were, even when we had long gaps in between seeing each other.”
Recent graduate Rachel Benjamin learned much from watching the children’s learning process. “This course gave me a great perspective into how children learn language. And I was honestly pleasantly surprised by the children’s dedication and attention to the songs we were teaching them,” she said.
The children’s lessons culminate in a Spanish-language concert at the end of the semester. Levine said she’s looking forward to continuing the program next year and hopefully expanding it in the future for continuing education beyond kindergarten and the first grade.