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February 26, 2013
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Summit School District: Hands-on English learning

The smell of peanut butter overwhelms the cafeteria at Silverthorne Elementary. At one of the long tables, a group of third-graders are up to their elbows in dough, with cooking ingredients spread out around them. They mash the dough with their fingers, then grab rolling pins and begin rolling it out. The whole time, they're chattering away with each other.

"Can we eat this?" one boy asks, holding the mass up to his nose and sniffing it.

The dough - a mixture of peanut butter, milk and flour - is safe for human consumption, but people are not its intended recipients. The children are baking treats for dogs, and they're doing it during their schoolwide winter break.

These students didn't sign up for a canine cooking class, however. They are the first participants in a new program set up by the school district called Language Camp, which is aimed at English-language learners in grades three through 12 throughout the district.

The goal behind the camp, said Robin O'Meara, director of instruction and curriculum, is to provide students with low English language proficiency an opportunity to further practice English during the school break.

"The whole idea behind the camp was to give kids more time immersed in the English language - reading, writing, speaking English," O'Meara said.

It's a long-term strategy, said superintendent Heidi Pace.

"I think any opportunity to have our English-language learners continue their English proficiency and to practice their English language will serve them well," she said.

The need is there, O'Meara said, for extra instruction for students in this situation.

"Always, and this is across the state and across the nation, there is an achievement gap between an English-language learner and your non-English learner," she said. "In order to get them proficient in English, they need more opportunities and time to learn. That's what makes a difference."

O'Meara and her colleagues saw the February winter break as the perfect opportunity to add more instruction time for the students that needed it.

"It just takes more time and immersion in the language, and that's it. It's not paper and pencil stuff, it's speaking, listening, understanding, lots of visuals," she said.

So rather than have the students simply sit in a classroom and fill out worksheets, the camp organizers decided that having a central theme and hands-on activities would better benefit the students.

"They might as well be doing something that's fun and continuing their language learning," Pace said.

School district administration and teachers came up with the camp's theme, "How do dogs impact our lives?" over several months of planning.

O'Meara said that dogs were not only easy to center the camp around as a topic, but their universally friendly nature provided a non-threatening presence and generated interest among the students.

"We're just building the language of the kids and trying to give them authentic experiences so they can read and write and talk about them," O'Meara said.

On Monday, the camp's first day, students listened to a presentation by Summit County Rescue Group and met Race and Recco, two avy rescue dogs. They also started construction on a dog house, which they intend to donate to the Summit County Animal Shelter at the end of the week. Tuesday saw the students in the cafeteria, putting together ingredients for dog biscuits.

These activities have been planned to interact with the students on a physical as well as mental level. Take the dog biscuits, for instance. First, the students must read the recipe, written in English. They then follow its instructions, talking with each other in English throughout. Finally, they write thank you notes to slip into the treat bag and deliver to the rescue group and animal shelter.

"It's authentic," said English language acquisition coordinator Liz Pursley-Bush. By giving the students a project with physical components and highly visual results, the language learning is enhanced.

"Every time you have hands-on learning, and it's content that's integrated, kids don't feel like they're learning; they're having fun," O'Meara said.

It's not all just baking and building, however. Reading and discussion is also a large component. Each student is reading the same text, a story about a dog in the Iditarod race, and discussing it in their individual grade levels.

Fifth-graders, under Silverthorne Elementary teacher Kristi Hart, took turns reading passages from the book out loud, with varying levels of ease. Periodically, Hart stopped them to ask questions about the text, such as what they predicted to happen next, or to describe to their partner what they had just read.

Hart said the key was getting the students to talk and discuss as much as possible, while gently correcting any vocabulary or grammar mistakes she might overhear. Although she teaches fifth grade, none of the students in her camp classroom were her usual ones, which she said is a good thing.

"It can give them a different perspective, having a different teacher," she said, in addition to giving them a preview of middle school, where they will have several different teachers at once.

The students seemed to be enjoying themselves and were eager to talk about what they had learned about dogs in the past few days.

"My favorite is when the people with the dogs came in here and talked to us," said David Lopez, a fifth-grader from Dillon Valley Elementary.

Fifth-grader Ricardo Martinez was impressed by the variety of jobs the rescue dogs could do and how willing they were.

"They have a lot of jobs too, and they don't get paid," he said. "It's hard for the dogs to train to rescue people."

O'Meara said that she and her colleagues are pleased with the success of the program so far.

"These kids are pretty courageous, to get on a bus, sometimes a stop that's not even theirs, come to a school that they don't even know, to work with teachers and other kids they don't know," she said. "I just think it's really wonderful of the students, it really touches my heart, because I think, you're taking a risk, and the fact that they trust us to have them learn and be safe, it just was awesome to me."


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The Summit Daily Updated Feb 26, 2013 10:18PM Published Feb 26, 2013 10:17PM Copyright 2013 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.