Denfeld News

February 12, 2012
Duluth News Tribune

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 together.”

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 program.

“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 Kucinski said.

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, too.

“They are wondering if we have any hardship here,” he said. “I want her to know we’re just like them.”

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 school year.

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 can’t lose.”

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