April 8, 2014
By Brittny Mejia
Growing up speaking Spanish doesn’t always mean students can read and write Spanish. It’s a unique characteristic of life on the border where teachers and students strolling through the halls of schools in Nogales and Rio Rico transition fluidly between English and Spanish, yet those same students don’t always earn A’s in their Spanish classes.
Because the majority of students come from Hispanic backgrounds, teachers say it sometimes confuses parents when their child doesn’t do well in a Spanish class, or that the student is taking the class at all.
“One of the things that made me want to teach Spanish in this area, even though I know most of the population speaks the language, is because people think that just because they speak the language that they know the language,” said Magda Molina, a Spanish teacher of 15 years at Nogales High School. “They don’t understand that in order to become fully bilingual they need to learn how to speak, write and read correctly.”
Teachers emphasize an academic language within the classroom instead of the slang students pick up at home or from friends, said Molina, curriculum leader of Spanish courses at Nogales High School. Lower-level Spanish courses focus on grammar and structure, while in advanced courses students analyze literature.
For Spanish teachers across both Nogales Unified School District No. 1 and Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District No. 35, the focus shifts to the reading and writing component for native speakers, areas where these students have more difficulty. Teachers review grammar rules and accent marks, which many native speakers struggle with.
Kimberly Henderson, a senior at NHS, learned Spanish before she learned English, but decided to take classes to improve her reading and writing in her native language.
“I didn’t know my accents at all, I didn’t know how to spell things,” Henderson said. “Now I’m a better translator because of it. It’s helped me jump up my level of writing and almost be as close to how I write in English so I don’t write like a third grader in Spanish anymore.”
At Rio Rico High School, there are two Spanish teachers who instruct classes ranging from basic level to more advanced courses. Teachers rely on peer tutoring where students can interact with nonnative speakers and help one another. For native speakers this can be particularly helpful, as sometimes they do not know the rules of grammar and form a sentence a certain way because it’s what they grew up hearing.
Because native speakers bring to the classroom what they learned at home, teachers focus on teaching formal language, while not disregarding the slang and regionalisms students use.
“I always validate what they learn at home. What they were brought up with, it’s worth something,” said Ana Romero-Davis, a Spanish teacher at Rio Rico High School. “It’s part of who they are so you have to validate that, but you also have to teach them something else new that’s at an academic level.”
Some of the common mistakes teachers find native speakers making is the use of “voy pa” instead of “voy para” to refer to “going to,” as well as “te llamo para atras” instead of “te regreso la llamada” (I’ll call you back). While common mistakes, teachers will take the time to point them out to students and offer the proper word.
For Paolo Agosttini, who has been speaking Spanish since the age of three, taking Spanish classes has helped him point out those small mistakes to his own family.
“Sometimes my mom gets something wrong and I correct her, I feel proud of myself for learning this,” said Agosttini, an eighth grader at Desert Shadows Middle School. “My parents think it’s excellent and they thank me for teaching them.”
Aogsttini has learned how to put accents on certain words and about how punctuation notes work in his writing. He’s also picked up new words he had never heard previously in his home, allowing him to carry on more fluid conversations with fluent speakers.
At Desert Shadows Middle School, where Agosttini attends school, Spanish teacher Devlin Houser teaches more native speakers than he does non-native, which means his focus is on reading and writing, areas where his students are not as strong as they are speaking.
While he sometimes faces difficulties with the differing levels of Spanish in the classroom, the experience of teaching these students is what brought him to the area in the first place.
“I came here because it’s right on the border and because I knew it would be a really different experience from teaching in other parts of the country and we could really get more into the language,” said Houser, who is in his second year teaching at Desert Shadows Middle School. “This is really a special place to teach Spanish.”
Source: Nogales International