Spanish Program at Proctor Elementary excites students

About half of the Proctor fifth grade class takes part in the Spanish Club.
By RUSSELL JONES

Walking through the halls of Proctor Elementary School, Shondell Dahm is greeted with hive-fives and shouts of “Hola” or “Adios” from a travelling pack of six year olds. She greets them, returning the high-fives, and speaks to them about their day in Spanish with a big smile on her face.

Dahm is the new Spanish language teacher at Proctor Elementary and the size of the school is quite different from her former setting. Originally from North Augusta, South Carolina, Dahm is used to a much larger group of students in her classes.

“I ran the Spanish club at my former school and I had 400 students that participated,” she said. “When we met, there were usually around 100 students at a time.”

She taught for 10 years in South Carolina and she, her husband and their two children had been coming to Vermont every summer for nearly five years when they decided to make the move.

“We just fell in love with Vermont,” she said. “I love the people’s attitudes here and the whole atmosphere. I love that there’s not a Wal-Mart on every corner.”

She also said she loves the smaller class sizes. When the Proctor Spanish club met on Thursday, there were eight children present.

“Working in smaller groups like this is much easier to teach them,” Dahm said. “Their young minds just soak it in.”

Students at Proctor start taking Spanish classes in Pre-K as studies show that it is much easier to learn a foreign language at a young age.

“At their age they don’t need a translation, the rules aren’t set in stone for them, like high school students.” Dahm said, referring to English grammar rules and the way Spanish doesn’t always follow those rules. “Older kids see those words in a different order and their English-brain tells them that it’s not right.”

Dahm works part-time at the school, teaching on Wednesdays and Fridays, and each grade of students meet with her once a week for 45 minutes in the classroom.

Dahm teaches her students using a method called Comprehensive Input. That is, she speaks to the students only in Spanish during their time together.

The method seems to be successful as her students are full of praise for her. Olivia Outslay is a fifth grade student in the Spanish club and said that learning Spanish is easier this year under Dahm’s tutelage.

“It’s not as hard to learn it as it was with a different Spanish teacher because she makes it fun,” Outslay said.

Dahm said she keeps it basic and the students can understand what she is trying to communicate even though they may not understand every word she has spoken.

“I hold up a picture and I tell them, ‘tengo un perro rojo,’ which means ‘I have a red dog,’” Dahm said. “Then I tell them, ‘tengo un perro azul’ and then I ask them what color the dog is and they all say, ‘rojo’. So they are retaining what they learn.”

Dahm’s Proctor Spanish club consists of about half of the fifth graders in the school and she is soon opening it up to the fourth graders, then sixth graders will follow shortly after.

“The club is really an extension of the class,” she said. “We will do some cooking, dancing, art and cultural events.”

The students will also be conversing with a youth soccer team from Costa Rica via Skype this year.

“It is really exciting to see how they really get into learning a new language,” Dahm said. “They practice and work on learning the words all week until we meet.”

Learning Spanish at a young age can also help the students in other areas of study, Dahm said.

“I had a student tell me that knowing Spanish helped when they took their SAT,” she said. “They remembered the Spanish word for building was ‘edificio’ and though they didn’t know what an edifice was, they were able to use context and their knowledge of Spanish to figure out that it meant a building.”

If a student started taking the Spanish classes in pre-school at Procter and continued all the way through their sixth grade year, upon graduation from elementary school they would be considered to be at a novice-mid or novice-high level of fluency.

Students that are considered novice-mid level of proficiency can introduce themselves, greet others, name some of their likes and dislikes and have a good list of vocabulary words like colors, animals and food.

At the novice-high level, they can do all that and can read with some proficiency and respond to the spoken language, use connecting words and describe surroundings and people. “You really can’t put high expectations on them unless you see them for hours every week,” Dahm said. “But it’s amazing to see how much they can retain from just the one time a week.”