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Learning Spanish in the Real World

By Jennifer Post Stoudt

Sitting in a classroom learning how to conjugate verbs is no longer standard practice in Kathy Ozment’s intermediate Spanish class. Helping children with their studies, recording the life histories of the elderly and riding in police cars with bilingual police officers is on the syllabus these days.

In the spring, 24 students were placed with four community organizations, each spending three hours a week working in Spanish language environments.

Reading’s large Hispanic population is the perfect environment for this kind of project, says Ozment, chair of the Modern Foreign Language and Literature department. “We have a great resource here in the Reading community,” she says, “and we don’t take education outside the classroom enough at the college level.”

Most of the students in her class, she says, are dual concentrators who take Spanish as a minor because it will help them in the job market. “The program teaches students what it means to be bilingual and allows them to experience the language in a way that they can’t experience it in a classroom,” she says.

At Reading’s Hispanic Center, freshman Dannae Sewell and sophomore Joseph Palmer worked with Spanish speaking senior citizens to record their life stories.

Carmin Santo and Daulfin Vega didn’t know each other when they lived in Puerto Rico, and they left their country at different times in their lives. But, they both came for the same reason…a better life, says Palmer and Sewell.

Lyndsay Wargo '05 helping a student with his English“They are so happy to be in this country,” says Sewell. “They believe it’s the land of opportunity. They respect and love their own country, but they love being here.”

Although they said it hurt to leave many family members behind in Puerto Rico, Santo and Vega both found love in America and raised families of their own. But, says Palmer and Sewell, they talked a lot about their childhood and reminisced about memories of home.

With the rise of the Spanish language in our country, Palmer, a psychology major, says he was eager to expand his Spanish background and found working with the senior citizens a valuable and fulfilling experience. “When we first started working at the Center, one woman was trying to tell a story in English and it was funny so I laughed. She turned to me and asked, ‘You understand me?!’ When I said yes she started to clap and jump up and down. She was so happy because I could understand what she was saying.”

“They always try to speak English,” says Sewell. “They deserve a lot of respect for that.”

A Spanish and education major, Sewell taught English as a Second Language courses to young kids while she was in high school. “So I was eager to get out there and work with the senior citizens,” she says. Planning to continue her work in the community all through her college career, Sewell says the program was especially helpful in “enabling us to learn the different kinds of Spanish like Caribbean and Mexican. A lot of Caribbean Spanish cuts off endings so we got confused sometimes because we learned Mexican Spanish in class. But it’s a lot easier to learn the differences when you’re out there speaking it.”

Freshmen Emma Reilly, Lyndsay Wargo and Dominic Viola worked with a slightly different generation. They were placed as tutors in a second grade classroom at Lauer’s Park Elementary School in downtown Reading.

Standing at the front of the classroom, Mrs. Crooks pointed to several words on the board. Slowly she sounded them out, taking time to enunciate each one… mop…top…pop…knot. The students in the class repeated the words with the same precision. But Luis, Christopher and Maria, off to the side at a separate table, were working on their own project.

“By being exposed to the language you’re forced to speak it.”
Lyndsay Wargo ’05

Reilly, Wargo and Viola were working with them, helping them to understand the English language. Although challenging at times, says Reilly, it was also extremely gratifying. Maria didn’t speak any English at all in the beginning is now able to say several words in English, she says. “I can only imagine how difficult it must be to come into a class and speak no English.”

Wargo, who came into the class not knowing how to speak Spanish very well, says talking with the students in Spanish has really helped her grasp the language. “It’s the first time I’ve used it outside of the classroom,” she says. “By being exposed to the language you’re forced to speak it. It makes you understand it better.”

Working with fourth graders at Lauer’s Park convinced freshman Gabby Martinez to pursue a dual major in elementary education and Spanish. “Almost everyone in the class was of Hispanic decent,” Martinez says. “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but seeing how many students were bilingual really convinced me to change my major.”

“I’d really like to become fluent,” she says.

As sirens blared, freshman Joseph Sarno had a slightly different experience.

Learning SpanishSpending time with bilingual police officers and observing arrests and interrogations conducted all in Spanish convinced Sarno that a job in police work is definitely for him. In fact, the criminal justice major recently switched to accounting at the urging of the officers. “They said I should learn another skill in college because I can learn about police work on the job,” he says.

Other placements included Berks Women in Crisis in which students sat in on group therapy sessions. One student who was assigned to a social worker at the Hispanic Center even went on state-mandated home visits.

Pleased with the students’ reactions to their experiences, Ozment says, “The education the students are getting is immeasurable. A lot of the students are from small towns so they’re not only learning Spanish, they’re also learning about society.” In fact, much of class time, she says, was spent discussing some of the issues that evolved during the course of the semester. Issues such as breaking down stereotypes, the welfare system, marginalization and why there’s a large Hispanic population in Reading were common themes. “I really hope that we’ve broken down some barriers,” she says.

Some of the students were shocked at some of the things they saw, Ozment says. “They have seen many of the situations on TV but didn’t realize that things like that happen in real life.”

The students know that they are learning so much in just three hours a week, Ozment says. “It’s really the best kind of learning. Life learning is so important.”

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