Dr. Kizner Story: Dual Immersion at Keister, DNR

This was a frusyrating story to write because it was hard to contact the teachers I was writing about and I had to do one of my interviews over email. Getting pictures was not easy as well.

I liked writing this story. I think I did it well. Although, this story is long. Too long, in my opinion, but I just didn’t know what to cut (this seems to be a theme with my stories, doesn’t it?). Anyways, I was really excited when my dad came down with the DNR in hand and my name on the byline.


In the 2012-13 school year, the Dual Immersion program was implemented in Keister Elementary School. This program describes the learning of students in two different languages, half of their subjects in English and half in Spanish. Spanish-speaking kindergarten teacher, Mariela Formiconi teaches the reading and writing.


“We try to have a 50/50 model [for each language] and in order to do that we included half an hour of calendar math in Spanish so we factor in the encore subjects like music and PE…math, social studies, and science are in English,” Formiconi said. “This class starts here with reading in Spanish then after lunch we switch group and they have calendar math in Spanish then they have math then encore which is whatever the subject is that day, then they have social studies, earth science, then they come back here.”


First grade dual immersion teacher Jenna Martin-Trinka is dedicated to seeing the children succeed in their everyday integrated learning.


“The goals of our program are to have students highly bilingual, achieve high levels of literacy in both languages, and become more culturally sensitive in multicultural settings. We are committed to teaching students in both languages every day,” Martin-Trinka said.


Dual immersion is not for students of one specific language. Children can be Hispanic or American, it makes no difference.

Especially for our English language learners who are Spanish-speakers, this program is meeting their needs in terms of achieving high levels of academic achievement in their home language and in academic English…the dual immersion has been proven by research to help them learn English more quickly and effectively while at the same time maintaining high levels of proficiency in Spanish.  Also, it is the best way to close the achievement gap between minority students and their English-only speaking peers,” Martin-Trinka said. “For the other part of the population, the English-dominant students, these students are learning to problem solve in a new language and building empathy and cross-cultural strategies in addition to becoming bilinguals and having more opportunities to bridge the language divide in the broader community.”


According to Formiconi, it is crucial for a child to start learning the language now.


“Kids when they learn a language they don’t overthink on grammar rules and they are more natural. Communication is more exposed, more natural communication. I think it’s important for them to start, but the earlier they start with a second language, the better chance they have to succeed in that second language,” Formiconi said. “To learn a language while learning academic content will yield better results than just learning a language when you’re an adult and learning it separately the success rate is much higher when you’re learning it in school in an content area.”


It is the choice of the parent whether or not to have their child take part in the program. Mother of current kindergartener Ethan, Katie Noll, is please with her decision to enroll her child and plans to have his siblings partake in the classes as well.


“We saw the dual language program as a great extension opportunity for our son and were excited at the opportunity for him to learn a foreign language as part of his public school experience,” Noll said. “I think the longer students have to use two languages and learn in this model, the better they will internalize the language and move towards fluency. I will be happy to have my children participate in the program as long as it is an option…It seems like a ‘win-win’ for both native English and Spanish speakers. Academics aside, Ethan has learned a lot about Spanish culture and has developed friendships with students he may otherwise not have gotten to know as well.”


Formiconi believes many parents enroll their children due to the developmental benefits of learning in the two languages.


“It’s an enrichment program [where] you definitely want your kid to succeed and [you are preparing] your child for better opportunities in being bilingual,” Formiconi said. “I think that cognitive development, high levels of cognitive development would be my selling point to parents. There’s so much research done on the high level of cognitive development of bilingual people which means better at solving problems, better at different skills that come with that, but usually in a bilingual program… [it is the amount] these students are able to achieve.”

Students should be capable of the same amount in Spanish and English by the time they leave the elementary school.


“By first grade, many students have begun to read in both languages. Students also can complete math activities and describe their problem-solving in both languages.  Spanish-speaking students act as models of language for their peers who are learning Spanish at school. Students who are new to Spanish are advancing in their listening ability (can follow almost all classroom instructions and comprehend books read to them) and are adding many new words and phrases to their spoken Spanish,” Martin-Trinka said. “We encourage students to say as much in possible in Spanish from the very beginning, often using modeling, sentence starters, pictures, actions to help.”


There is a goal for students to achieve at the end of their elementary school experience.


“There are different levels of proficiency and here at Keister. We try to follow the guidelines of ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) so we want our students to be leaving the elementary school with an intermediate-high proficiency level, which means they will be able to be able to carry out a conversation, understand academic language, and read and write at a fourth grade level,” Formiconi said.


The education has even ‘rubbed off’ on parents.


“I studied Spanish in high school and college, but have gotten quite rusty. I’ve appreciated how much reading Ethan’s work from school and helping him read his Spanish books has helped me remember the language,” Noll said.


Formiconi only speaks Spanish during her classes in order for the students’ comprehension to improve.


“At the beginning year it is hard [for the students to understand], but by October they are able to figure out what I’m saying. They do a lot of watching around and they start to develop a skill that is comprehension, so they figure it out. There are some phrases that I use [very often] to be consistent, like the routines are only in Spanish and I try to have visuals to make comprehension easier,” Formiconi said.


Although it is tough at first, the children soon cope well with the learning technique.


“Sending Ethan to kindergarten on the bus on the first day knowing that his entire morning would be in Spanish – a language he had never heard before – was a little tough to swallow. Ethan showed some frustration the first month or so of kindergarten as well simply because it was something so new and different. However, since that time, he has really enjoyed being a part of the dual language program. There is no question he is learning so much and that the opportunity to do so is amazing,” Noll said.


Students’ skills are assessed through multiple different tests, varying in origin.


“We have an oral proficiency assessment that [the teachers at Keister] created, so we give this assessment at end of each year to show the growth but we also have reading to assess reading progress and writing. The oral proficiency assessment was created by teachers from the school the other two are used in other schools as well so students are assessed in Spanish in reading and in English too, writing in English and in Spanish, but we thought it was important to have the oral proficiency component to assess what they can do when they speak so we developed it using the ACTFL proficiency guidelines,” Formiconi said.


Martin-Trinka is proud of the children’s’ achievements.


“We continue to reflect on our program and ask excellent questions to ourselves as the program grows per grade. Students in second grade (the current growth level of the program) at our school are developing as bilinguals and in their biliteracy, which is very exciting to see,” Martin-Trinka.


Formiconi hopes for the influence of the program to increase.


“What I do not want to happen is I would not like to compromise the amount of Spanish instruction at any given grade level…for the sake of standardized testing in English. What I would like to happen at the state level is the state to approve assessments in Spanish so we can take tests in Spanish and English. I would like Spanish to have a higher status in the schools overall,” Formiconi said. “I would like to see is…the attitude of Hispanic children [to reflect] not being ashamed of speaking Spanish, or [not] speaking because it’s not a ‘cool language’, so the  consequence of the dual immersion is kids are proud of Spanish and it can translate in the school so I would like to achieve would be raise the status of Spanish in the school.”


If a student is having a hard time in the school, the teachers are ready to help.


“When a student is struggling academically, we collaborate with a team of teachers to decide what kinds of interventions or modifications to their instruction need to be made. This is similar to how we make decisions for all our students at the elementary program…To me, it is extremely rewarding to see our Spanish-speakers achieve first language literacy, which is the best way for them to be successful learners throughout their school career,” Martin-Trinka said. “Students in our program thrive in the bilingual environment.  We celebrate their successes in both English and Spanish and work extremely hard to keep the program developmentally appropriate with significant hands-on experiences and authentic learning opportunities.”


Whether Hispanic or American, parents of dual immersion students can rest assured of their child’s future.


“Being bilingual will open up many doors and allow them to work with and serve others they may otherwise not have been able to communicate with thanks to learning Spanish,” Noll said. “There is not a doubt in my mind that Ethan will be well equipped for the “real world” thanks to knowing two languages.”



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