February 12, 2012
For Denfeld students, immigrant children,
learning a 2-way street
By Jana Hollingsworth
Denfeld High School junior Matthew Johnson stayed
after class Thursday to perfect the Dr. Seuss quote he spelled out
on a bookmark in both Spanish and English.
The bookmark is for Jessica Romero, a fourth-grader
from Henry D. Lloyd Elementary School , a predominantly Latino school
on the northwest side of Chicago. He, along with the rest of his
level-four Spanish class, had written letters on Valentine’s
Day-themed stationery and made fancy bookmarks for fourth-grade
students with whom they’ve become pen pals.
“Be who you are and say what you are because
those that mind don’t matter and those that matter do not
mind/Se quien eres y di que sientes por aquellos que materia no
me importan,” Johnson wrote for the young girl whose parents
are from El Salvador.
The exchange, begun this semester by Spanish teacher
Ann Kucinski, was designed to give her students a chance to practice
conversational Spanish and for the Chicago students of her daughter,
Micaela Kucinski, to practice English. All of Micaela’s students
speak Spanish first, and have parents who come from Mexico, Guatemala,
Peru, Ecuador and El Salvador.
“You can’t write this in a textbook,”
Ann Kucinski said. “This is real. Their families are new immigrants
to this country.”
The fourth-graders know about as much English
as the mostly junior class at Denfeld knows Spanish.
“It’s not like you are talking to
someone six years younger than you, because they are at about the
same language level,” junior Nicole Wrazidlo said.
“They have been learning English just about
as long as we have been learning Spanish,” she said.
Most of the students in the Spanish class began
learning the language in eighth grade, and they will go on next
year to take the college-level Spanish V.
Conversations between the students have been inquisitive
on both ends, including asking about favorite foods, sports and
class subjects. The older students have tried to provide advice
and support to the young ones, who face an important English language
test in a few weeks and have expressed concerns about taking it.
“They know if we can do it they can do it,
too,” Johnson said. “And we can relate on being confused
Students have exchanged photos, and plans are
in the works to hold Skype conversations. The fourth-graders are
already seeing their pen pals as friends, said Micaela Kucinski,
and they love to share what letters say.
“It works, because my kids have an audience
to write for,” she said. “And they get something back.”
And, like most children, her students are intrigued
by teenagers. They enjoy helping the Denfeld students better their
language skills, she said.
“Both of them are being vulnerable,”
she said, “writing in a language they don’t know.”
The Denfeld students get a chance to be role models
to a group of kids who attend a school with a population of 1,300
students, 95 percent of them on the free and reduced-price lunch
“To have positive role models motivating
them to keep going. … For some of them, it might be the only
contact they have with someone who is going somewhere,” Micaela
Jessica Romero has told about the level of poverty
in which many of the Chicago students’ families live, Johnson
said, and he’s written back that Duluth has its share of poverty,
“They are wondering if we have any hardship
here,” he said. “I want her to know we’re just
Both groups of students have found mistakes in
letters and enjoy seeing the improvements, they said.
“I think it’s fun writing to high
school students in English because we can learn more English,”
said 10-year-old Krestal Gomez, whose parents emigrated from Mexico.
As for the Denfeld students with their English-language limitations,
“they write OK in Spanish,” she said.
Mother and daughter formed the project over Christmas
break, and they plan to start a new exchange at the start of next
For the Denfeld students, “it’s making
them very intent on what they are saying,” Ann Kucinski said.
“It’s a real Spanish speaker that will know and understand
what they are saying, so it really justifies the learning. They