International cast teaches language and culture at Dillon Valley Elementary
Ryan Summerlin November 13, 2012
Dillon Valley Elementary may not be considered the biggest school, either in size or population, but it can certainly be called the most diverse, especially where the teaching staff is concerned. Dillon Valley currently employs 12 teachers with an international background, all of whom are bilingual and come from Spanish-speaking countries.
Six of the international teachers hail from Spain (from northern, central and southern areas), three are from Mexico, two are from Columbia and one is from Guatemala. Most did not know each other before meeting at Dillon Valley.
Carolina Lopez de Blas of Spain has been here the longest – nearly three years, teaching first grade. She’s been enjoying herself immensely, and is hoping to extend her stay. The newest teacher is Eva Nunez, who just arrived from Spain this summer. Though she has at times felt a bit overwhelmed working and living in a foreign country, she says that she, too, has been having fun.
“I love it so far,” she said. “I’m really happy here.”
The learning climate and class structure at Dillon Valley is unique. Each of the foreign teachers pairs with a native English-speaking co-teacher. The students, from kindergarten up to fifth grade, trade between the two teachers, learning subjects in both Spanish and English languages. No matter what language they speak at home, students spend time each day speaking both languages.
Harriet Hoffman lives in Blue River, but she brings her daughter, first-grader Lucia Hoffman-Farmer, across the county every day to attend Dillon Valley. Hoffman cites the dual-language program as a main reason for doing this.
“I think it expands their concept of the world around them,” she said. “They get more of a global perspective, they hear different accents. … It expands their learning ability and how their brain works.”
Hoffman says her daughter sometimes speaks Spanish at home, though her accent has shifted a bit toward that found in Spain. Hoffman views this as an interesting example of cultural learning.
Just as American accents are different from British and Australian, so are accents between Spain, Mexico and South American countries. The teachers relate occasional difficulties in understanding between themselves, and between students who are native Spanish speakers.
“Sometimes we don’t understand each other, and we’re speaking the same language,” said Isabel Rodriguez, who is from Mexico and teaches second grade. “Their vocabulary is so different (and) we have to figure out, ‘how do you say this in this country, how do you say this in that country?'”
Though certain difficulties arise, for the most part, the teachers say that their students at all levels understand them very well. Communication does not lie in understanding every single word spoken, but in understanding the concept that is put across. Once the concept comes across, the words and the grammar follow.
Rather than be discouraged by differences in accent or expression, the teachers have found an opportunity for teaching about culture. When an expression is used that not everyone knows, it’s discussed and compared with others. The teachers also say that the cultural angle can be found in nearly every aspect of the classroom.
“When I am teaching something, I try to compare with the way we do it (in Spain), and let them know that things can be done in several ways,” said Eugenio Perez, who teaches fourth grade. “I try to put in cultural aspects from my home country.”
This practice is particularly pervasive in math class, according to Perez. Though often considered a universal language, math between U.S. and Spanish culture can be difficult, because the style and layout of math problems differs between the two.
“They just really help bring some authentic global perspective to what we try to do in the building every day,” said Dillon Valley principal Cathy Beck.
Deborah Hage, whose granddaughter attends third grade, agrees.
“I think education is more than book learning, it’s more than memorization of facts. I think it has to be very experiential,” she said. “Having these different, diverse forms of thought and expression in the school is more important to the kids than memorizing or getting a certain bit of facts.”
Cultural learning takes place both inside and outside of the classroom, which all of the international crew have come to recognize. Not only are they teaching the children about their home culture, but they are learning about American culture at the same time.
When asked to share something that they found in America that was unexpected, they brought up volunteer work and the overall sense of openness and generosity.
“People (here) are really warm,” Lopez de Blas said. They’re really open-minded, more than we’ve heard. … The things that arrive in our country about the United States are always negative, and it’s so sad.”
“That’s why teaching culture is so important,” Rodriguez added. “because the culture here is so giving.”
“But I think we can change that,” said Nuria de la Cruz Mena, a first-grade teacher from Spain. “When we go back, we will teach the culture in that way.”
“The purpose of our program is to teach Spanish here, and to teach our culture, and also to create links, and teach back the culture we have learned here,” Perez said. “I think it’s important … to create a bridge between the two cultures.”
In addition to discussing the culture of the United States, the teachers also explained that Summit County was special.
“I think we are very happy in being in this spot in particular,” said Perez. “I think we would have a quite different experience if we went to Denver, or a different school in the state. I think we are in a very different and special, unique spot.”
The other teachers nodded, agreeing, pointing out that colleagues in other cities and states have since come and gone, fulfilling only the minimum requirement of program time.
Nunez, the newest arrival, spoke up for all of them. “I feel that we have come to the right place.”