I woke up. Me desperté.
The two statements about the beginning of your day mean largely the same thing in different languages, but when you’ve gone most of your life only speaking one, picking up the nuances of the other can be difficult. Luckily for the students of Moffat County School District, bilingual help can come from both older and younger sources.
On Wednesday afternoon, the second year Spanish students of Moffat County High School teacher Jessica Knez convened at Sandrock Elementary School ready to learn about the intricacies of one of the Romance languages from some very experienced speakers: the second- through fifth-grade students of Sandrock’s ELL program.
The ELL program — English Language Learners — educates students whose primary language is one other than English, in many cases, Spanish. Many of the kids are bilingual, giving them a unique perspective in helping MCHS students master a second language.
Knez described the gathering as an “intercambio,” a language exchange where multiple cultures are able to learn from each other, first inspired by last year’s literacy event, Sandrock Fiesta.
“One thing about high school students is they are so worried that people are going to judge them that they forget to be able to have fun and just speak and let those guards down,” Knez said. “With elementary students, it takes that judging factor out. If you talk to them, they’ll tell you the truth when you messed up, but in five minutes they’ll forget that you messed up. Having that barrier taken away, it lets them think, ‘Oh, I do enjoy speaking Spanish.’”
Knez and ELL Coordinator Andi Murphy helped pair the older students up with their younger teachers for the day. MCHS students came prepared with questions for their temporary tutors, many of which involved reflexive verbs about some of their daily activities.
Reflexive verbs differ between English and Spanish, in terms of the conjugation used in each language. For instance, the phrase “I got dressed” translates as “me vestí,” which literally means “I dressed myself.”
“The hardest part of it is memorizing what word translates to what,” said MCHS sophomore Jesse Kurz. “The pronunciation is hard, too.”
Students also went through a stack of Spanish-language picture books, reading to each other, with the Sandrock children guiding MCHS students through some of the more difficult vocabulary. Sophomore Kaitlyan Reed and fourth-grader Maria Rodriguez flipped through the pages of “La vaca que decía OINK,” in English, “The Cow That Went OINK.”
“She’s been helping me with my pronunciation, because I still don’t know some of these words,” Reed said.
In addition to MCHS students achieving Spanish proficiency, the goal of teachers was to help the ELL students feel more comfortable speaking English in an environment where they could use both languages.
“I like working with her,” Rodriguez said of her older study buddy.
As part of the day’s activities, groups also traveled out to the football field for lunch and a few games of Twister, with commands like “mano devecha, verde” — “right hand, green” —and “pie izquierdo, amarillo” — “left foot, yellow” — demonstrating the shifts in grammar.
Whether it’s playing games or sharing reading time, Knez said she hopes to be able build lasting relationships between her students and those at the elementary level.
“My kids get to come out of their shells and they make such a great impression on them, they can kind of break away from being a big kid and they don’t have to be scared about speaking Spanish,” she said.
As a paraprofessional with the ELL program, Sandra Hershiser draws on her own experience as a native Spanish speaker. Originally from Colombia, she is fluent in both English and Spanish, as are her children, who both attend Sandrock.
“Some of these kids are bilingual, but others don’t speak English as well, and they can be really shy, so this helps them a lot,” she said.
The key to speaking any language is finding a place to use it, Hershiser said.
“I have family in New York, so when I go there, I can speak more Spanish as part of that community, but we don’t have that as much here,” she said. “I took French in high school, but now I can mostly just say, ‘hi’ and ‘bye.’ You need to be able to practice, or else you’re going to forget it.”
Andy Bockelman can be reached at 970-875-1793 or firstname.lastname@example.org.