Love of languages starts early at SCASD

David Strock uses a fly swatter to identify color during sixth grade exploratory German class.
David Strock uses a fly swatter to identify color during sixth grade exploratory German class. Photo provided

David Strock is a Park Forest Middle School German teacher, but for a few moments, he seems more like the host of a zany game show.

Images of various objects — a leaf, a strawberry — fill a screen, part of a lesson about “die farben,” or colors. Prompted by Strock to find a color, sixth-graders rush to the screen with a fly swatter.

“Was ist grün?” Strock says.

Swatting the green leaf earns a bell ring and a “sehr gut” or “very good.”

During the lively, fast-moving period, Strock’s students also name colors in their clothes, hear about Halloween in Germany and discuss the colors of items such as the German flag.

“I learn new ways of teaching and adapt my lessons from the responses of my students,” Strock said later. “They show me what they need in order to effectively learn German and I find creative ways of bringing that to them.”

He and his Park Forest and Mount Nittany middle school colleagues share the same goal: instill a love for languages with engaging, interactive lessons.

State College Area School District’s middle school world languages program allows sixth-graders to sample French, German and Spanish with 12-week units. They then pick one for seventh and eighth grades. At the Delta Middle Level, Spanish is offered.

“I am so glad that our middle school program includes the rotation of languages,” said Park Forest Spanish teacher Kelly Corman. “The students really seem to respond and have a difficult time ultimately choosing which language. I tell them to choose the one that ‘tugs at their heart.’ ”

Creating a foundation for high school, which also offers Chinese and Arabic, the middle school curriculum focuses not only on linguistic skills, but also other cultures, teaching empathy and understanding and promoting global awareness.

“The main thing we want to emphasize on this level is, this is most kids’ first experience with a world language,” said Park Forest German teacher Rick Polka, the district world languages coordinator. “So we want them to have a positive, upbeat experience.”

Mount Nittany sixth-grader Elaina Furman enjoyed her first unit, French, especially how her classes focused on learning by ear and with fun activities.

“It makes me want to learn it — not that I’m forced to learn it, but I want to go to French,” she said.

Her French teacher, Kristina Helmerich, said she believes learning a language should be “a very interactive and dynamic experience.”

“We sing a lot of songs in French, act out partner dialogues and survey each other, and play games to strengthen communication skills in the target language,” she said. “When level appropriate, I like to incorporate authentic resources, so that students can see and hear French being spoken, or sung in many cases, by native French speakers.”

With sixth-graders, she wants them to hear and speak French immediately, starting with conversations on the first day.

“In sixth grade, it’s all about building students’ confidence with the language,” Helmerich said. “I really try to establish a safe learning environment for risk taking, so that students don’t feel inhibited by making mistakes.”

Park Forest Spanish teacher Nathan Hollister said he favors a “game-based learning approach” that fosters collaboration, but his teaching doesn’t stop with the bell.

“I really try to work on their interactional skills in the language, emphasizing an ‘Hola’ or ‘¿Cómo estás?’ in the hallway when I see them, which keeps their engagement with the language up while outside the classroom,” he said.

To provide linguistic context, teachers also incorporate cultural facts, customs and holidays into lesson plans.

“Learning a new language really forces students to look at the world in a different light and see perspectives about the world that may differ from their own,” Hollister said. “Providing students with that opportunity is so critical today when considering how interconnected the world is. Exposing students to a new world language is essential in today’s world.”

Mount Nittany sixth-grader Rhyan Garey is a believer after diving into Spanish.

“I really like that now I can communicate in a different way,” he said, noting “it’s cool” that he could talk to a Spanish speaker. “It’s not something I’m just going to leave in the classroom. It’s something you can take with you outside to your adult life.”

Chris Rosenblum is the communications director at the State College Area School District.

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