‘It’s fun that we get to learn in Spanish’

Krystle Wagner • Sep 30, 2017 at 2:00 PM

“Dos, cuatro, seis ...”

Heather Grisales’ kindergartners and first-graders at Grand Haven Christian School counted by twos in Spanish. Throughout the lesson, the students answered addition problems by speaking the language they’ve been immersed in since Aug. 29.

Grisales’ class has received 100 percent of their classroom instruction in Spanish as part of the first-year immersion program. With the exception of specials classes — art, library, gym, music and technology — all instruction is en Español.

Grand Haven Christian School partnered with add-a-lingua to align the classroom’s curriculum so that it’s equivalent to traditional classrooms.

Kyla Zuidema, 7, said she enjoys the class. The first-grader said she’s learned things such as colors, counting to 100 and the alphabet in Spanish within the first few weeks of school.

“It’s fun that we get to learn in Spanish,” she said.

While the class is new to students, the format is also new to Grisales. It’s the first time she has taught a one-way immersion program and for multiple grades. Grisales previously taught kindergarten, second and fourth grades in a 50-50 two-way immersion program.

In order to prevent challenges to understanding or if children don’t understand, Grisales uses a variety of strategies such as drawing, photographs, charades and “realia,” which she said are “real items from the classroom and from home.”

Grisales said the best moments are when her students begin understanding the language.

“You watch them struggle through the problem of trying to understand through repetition, routines, drawing on prior knowledge, body language, visual cues, and realia — and then, flash, like a switch, it just clicks, and the light bulb goes on,” the teacher said. “It takes anywhere from two weeks to four weeks, but eventually it happens for everyone on their own time, at different times. It is truly amazing.”

Kindergartner Wesley Vanbiesbrouck said it was difficult at first to understand, but it became easier when he focused more on listening and watching his teacher’s actions.

When it came to enrolling her first-grade son, Alex, in the program, Beth Annema said they decided it was a great opportunity that they couldn’t pass. She said they liked how being bilingual will be positive in her son’s life in regards to his future worklife, cultural awareness and relationships.

“We also liked how it will expand his horizons and help him connect to others in a world growing closer and closer together,” Annema said. “And finally, how learning another language at this age helps make certain connections in the brain that otherwise wouldn't be there.”

When Katherine Averill and her husband looked at schools to send their kindergartner, Emma, they chose Grand Haven Christian School, but they also wanted to enroll her in an immersion program. When the school added the program, Averill said they were immediately on board because they want Emma to learn a second language young. She said children retain information faster in addition to the other benefits. Averill said it also teaches problem solving as children work to understand by listening and watching Grisales and the cues she provides.

Earlier this week, Annema said her son spoke to her for the first time in Spanish at home. She said they tell him he’s doing great, and he knows they support him and know it can be challenging.

Not long into the school year, Emma, unprompted, counted chairs in Spanish and sings songs she’s learned in class. She also quizzes her family, asking if they know what different words mean, Averill said.

Speaking Spanish at home isn’t a requirement. Annema said she has a minor degree in Spanish and she tries to remember what she learned so she can converse with Alex.

Grisales provided families with videos and music to do at home with their children. Annema said they were told that the most important thing is reading to their children in English every night.

Averill said they’re thankful for Grisales in how she has made the transition easy for her students.

Grisales said she hopes her students gain a “new appreciation for God, the world He created and the Spanish language, and celebrate how “being bilingual can be used to increase God’s kingdom.”

“I would hope that my students increase their level of compassion and kindness for others,” she said. “I would also hope that all of my students meet or exceed their highest academic, spiritual and behavioral potential through this amazing experience.”

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