K-2 students learning language and culture
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Spanish words and phrases are heard ringing in the halls and classrooms of Royalton Elementary School during the first year of expanded Spanish instruction in the district.
“It’s been a dream for a lot of years to offer a foreign language here,” said Elementary Principal Dr. Phil Gurbada. “We know how receptive the students are at a young age.”
When the former high school Spanish instructor retired, the district saw the opportunity to expand the program.
“We thought we’d have a better chance of finding someone if we went full-time,” Gurbada said. “The support from staff and parents and the enthusiasm of the students has made it a very worthwhile effort. Very few rural school districts offer a foreign language at the elementary level.”
Melrose native Lindsey Seawell taught high school Spanish for two years in Frazee. She was pleased to spot the job posting for a combined elementary/high school position in Royalton.
Seawell experienced a changing cultural landscape in Melrose as she grew up, as more people with Hispanic heritage moved into the area. She took four years of Spanish in high school, two of which she earned college credit for.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” said Seawell, whose father is the elementary principal in Melrose. “When I started Spanish in ninth grade, I knew that’s what I wanted to teach.”
While attending St. Cloud State University, Seawell studied in Guatemala for a month.
“I went with a friend,” she said. “The lessons were very intensive, seven to eight hours a day of one-on-one tutoring.”
She has traveled back to Guatemala since her first experience there.
Seawell has found differences in how the younger students learn compared to the high school students.
“We use a lot more games in the younger grades; they soak it up so fast,” she said. “We do more writing activities at the high school.”
Seawell tries to make the learning experience as cultural as possible for everyone.
“We can gain better understanding of language when we know the culture as well,” she said.
Seawell experiences the cultural effects of speaking Spanish as she uses her language skills out in the community.
“When my fiancé and I eat at La Fiesta (in Little Falls), I speak to the waiters in Spanish and they enjoy that,” she said. “I love to see people’s expression when I join a conversation in Spanish. People treat you more respectfully when they know you know their language.”
Seawell loves to travel.
“We can realize we’re not the only culture on earth,” she said.
She has picked up many souvenirs while travelling which decorate her classrooms, including quilts, musical instruments, photos, textiles (clothing), artwork, sombreros and more unique items such as loofahs grown in Guatemala.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Seawell said. “I use online resources such as Pinterest, simplySpanish.com (an elementary Spanish teachers blog) and a Facebook group of elementary Spanish teachers.
“A lot of teaching with the younger grades is verbal, and singing is one of the best ways to learn a language,” she said.
Seawell is thrilled to see her students using their Spanish skills outside of class.
“There are several high school students who have siblings in the elementary classes,” she said. “They talk and sing songs together in Spanish at home.”
The district would like to see the Spanish program expand even further with offerings at every grade level.
“More and more, as students get older they are traveling to places with more diversity,” Gurbada said. “Having knowledge of another culture and language is a tremendous benefit. With Spanish spoken more widely in our country, having that skill is very helpful.”
“(Expanding the program) is a big initiative, and better to do it all at once, so no one is left out — so there are no gaps in the learning process,” Seawell said.
“Research shows that children who learn a second language make improvements in their native language,” Gurbada said. “It’s good for their brain development, stretching their minds. We’re hopeful we’ll be able to expand to K-5 next year or soon after.”