With a bag of stuffed animals, a few simple songs and realistic goals, mother Nan Smith walks into a kindergarten classroom to teach Spanish.
She is not a teacher, and she is not alone.
Kindergartners and other elementary students in schools across the Spokane Valley are learning Spanish, French and Russian. Parents and teachers say children will need a second language, and the earlier they’re taught, the faster they will learn.
During and after school, children soak up the names of colors, animals and other words and phrases from parents, high school students and, in one case, a part-time teacher.
Smith sets out a pink cat, a dog, a rabbit, a chicken and a bear.
“Que dice el gato? Meow. Que dice el perro? Ruff, ruff,” Smith said.
When it comes time for the bunny, Smith leads the first-graders in enthusiastic bunny sounds. “Sniff, sniff.”
A few minutes later, “Adios, gato. Adios, conejo.” And the cat, the rabbit and the others go back in Smith’s bag.
Nowhere in the Valley are elementary schools able to pay for full-time language teachers. But more opportunities for second-language classes keep popping up.
In the East Valley School District, about a dozen elementary teachers recently received training on software to help teach foreign language.
Why should elementary children be exposed to a second language?
“It’s a part of my kids’ future if they’re going to compete in a global job market,” said Smith, one of the South Pines parents who have created a month’s worth of exposure to Spanish-speaking cultures.
Merrie McIvor, who teaches Spanish and Russian at West Valley High School, said, “In Russia, they start teaching English at first grade and they’re fluent by the time they’re teens.”
McIvor’s Russian students work with third- and fourth-graders once a week.
A recent Newsweek story on children’s brain structure shows birth to 10 years as the “learning window” for language.
This month, South Pines has flags of Spanish-speaking countries flying from one end of the school to the other. The sign thanking parent Karen Martin for the flags is in English and Spanish, as is just about every other sign around the school. Water fountain: fuente para beber. Kitchen: cucina. Golden Eagles, the school’s mascot: Aguilas de Oro.
Parents Sue Andre, Mary McGahey, Jackie Laurich and Smith wanted to create a variety of ways to present other cultures. They arranged a morning of Mexican song and dance, a pen pal project, a visit from a Spanish-speaking foreign exchange student, and a display of dolls and crafts from Spanish-speaking countries.
At Greenacres Elementary School, fourth-year Spanish students from Central Valley High School come on Fridays to work with kindergartners and first- and third-graders.
CV senior Mike Van Houten said working with the young ones is fun.
“It’s neat to get out with these impressionable kids,” he said.
“They’re learning things I didn’t have the opportunity to learn until I was in ninth grade.”
Central Valley teacher Teresa Cromer makes sure the lessons include hands-on activities for the little ones - “just as we learned our own language.”
First-grade teacher Sara Dougherty said: “We’ve been struggling to teach our first-graders Spanish ourselves. But the lesson plans Mrs. Cromer uses for her kids are the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been teaching for 25 years.”
In most cases, the teachers guard against unrealistic expectations. These first-graders aren’t going to become bilingual. They will get a taste of a second language.
Nan Smith’s goals are simple: for the kids to have fun, gain a glimpse other cultures and learn those all-important words - por favor and gracias.