SILER CITY — Inside Siler City Elementary School last Wednesday, teacher Shirley Rojas drizzled several drops of purple dye into one of eight bowls of half-baked slime. Around her, a group of rising 1st and 2nd graders eagerly waited their turn.
“It’s purple!” one student shouted in delight.
The scene wasn’t from a school-sponsored mad science summer camp, as you might think. It was from Chatham County Schools’ first-ever Dual Language camp.
“En español,” Rojas reminded them.
“¡Morado!” the kids enthusiastically answered back.
After more than a year of online Spanish, CCS held the camp last week at Siler City Elementary and North Chatham Elementary to help participating students build confidence, acquire more vocabulary and help recoup lost learning time.
The four-day camp, called “Aventuras de verano” (summer adventures), ran from Aug. 2-5. Only K-8 dual language students from SCE, North Chatham, Chatham Middle School and Margaret B. Pollard could attend. About 170 students registered for the camp, though not all attended.
Though organizers created the camp to provide extra Spanish practice, it wasn’t supposed to be Spanish boot camp. It was supposed to be fun. While teachers taught Spanish in standard ways, like reading stories or writing personal reflections, they also got creative.
Depending on their grade levels, students practiced their Spanish by making slime, talking about their emotions and building things like rafts, or bionic hands. Others played Kahoot!, matching which flag represented which Spanish-speaking nation.
Some even created their own countries.
“And so, they were kind of creating because we also want to look at the whole cultural piece,” said SCE curriculum coach Carmen Gaby-Walencik. She added with a laugh, “I think I saw one country, I don’t know if it was the country name or the language, was ‘unicorn,’ I think. I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s in Spanish,’ but maybe it’s cognate. I’m not sure.”
Maria Elena Vivanco, a 3rd grade teacher who helped plan North Chatham’s curriculum, also taught her students how to make slime. She gently reminded each student to ask for slime supplies — such as glitter, water and glue — in Spanish, and waited for them to do so before doling them out.
“They’re very interested. They’re learning Spanish. In class, they’re speaking Spanish,” Vivanco said. “I’m talking to them in Spanish and they understand me. Little by little, they will talk. They’ve gotten better. … They think they are just having fun but they’re learning.”
Along with many other 2021 summer learning initiatives, this camp traces its roots to COVID-19 and remote learning, according to Gaby-Walencik.
Normally, Chatham’s dual language students spend half of the instructional day immersed in Spanish and the other half in English. That’s approximately three hours of each language per day — and 15 hours per school week.
Remote learning cut that time in half.
“When they were at home from March to November, they were only Zooming for a certain amount of time, and that cuts down on how much time (they had),” said Gaby-Walencik. “They were still doing 50/50, half in English and half in Spanish, but if you’re only Zooming for three hours a day, that’s an hour and a half (at a time).”
So, with help from extra federal COVID-19 relief funds, the district decided to create a summer Spanish immersion camp to help students make up for lost time — something that concerned many dual language parents, according to Chris Poston, CCS’s executive director of elementary and middle grades education.
“They felt like their students were not gaining in the oral expression and the oracy that we do every day in class during our Spanish dual language time,” Poston said. “And so this camp is an attempt — it’s only four days — to help support oracy and to bring additional cultural responsiveness to our students who are in dual language.”
But it’s also about providing opportunities to students who may not be able to practice or maintain their Spanish skills over the summer.
“Those parents that have their students in the dual language program, they’re doing that because they want their students to be biliterate,” said Gaby-Walencik. “ … We have families that can support their children in Spanish at home, but we have families that cannot support their families in Spanish at home. They get it here, so they really want them to be here.”
On the first day of camp, middle school teacher Tabetha Vegas noticed many of her students hesitated to speak and write in Spanish. By the third day, however, most of her students showed more confidence — demonstrating to her that the camp was working.
“We also Zoom with Chatham Middle, so they get to present what they have done, and then the other group goes. And so yesterday one of the students was like, ‘I don’t feel comfortable,’” she said. “But today, he’s like, ‘I want to make sure I have what to say so that I can talk.’ So I want to say that, yes, it has built up some confidence for many of them.”
While many of the camp’s activities were meant to be more fun than a “typical” school day, Vegas said the day was still structured around all components of learning a language: speaking, reading, writing and listening “constantly.”
North Chatham’s site coordinator, Mandy Evans, said the goal for camp was for it to be “100% Spanish,” even when doing things like making and talking about slime.
“They’re supposed to try and speak back to the teachers in Spanish and teachers help support them trying to speak in Spanish,” she said, “but the teachers for the most part, are always in Spanish. But that’s the goal, complete biliteracy — bilingual, biliterate and bicultural.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done.
“It’s very hard for our students, no matter their background, they all want to speak English,” Gaby-Walencik said with a laugh. “ ... We keep reminding them, “En español!”
Jordan Truesdale, a rising 4th grader who attended the North Chatham site, said camp was fun because it wasn’t just “learning throughout the whole day.” She especially enjoyed making the slime.
“My parents don’t really buy me the real slime,” she said, “so it was fun to make.”
Still, though Truesdale didn’t feel like she spent the whole day at school, she said her time at camp was helping her Spanish.
“It helps me learn before I go back to my classroom because when I don’t use Spanish or anything, then I don’t really know what to say,” she said. “So this Spanish camp is helping me keep up with Spanish.”
Teachers and coaches at both schools said they’d seen similar improvements for middle school students. That first day in SCE’s middle school camp, Gaby-Walencik recalled, “you could have heard a pin drop walking in there.” No one wanted to participate.
By Wednesday, that class was unrecognizable.
“It was loud,” she said. “They were talking to each other, they were talking in Spanish. I know there was a little candy bribe in there, but it is OK because they were participating and they were really into it.”
Though she’d just finished six weeks of summer learning the week before, Vegas wasn’t ready for the dual language camp to end.
“It’s been good, they enjoy it,” she said. “… I just wish it was longer.”
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