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The Spanish Program
at Swan Valley School

by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
March 5, 1998

Swan Valley's Spanish Program is headed up by Janey O'Brien, shown here working with students at the school. Digital photos by Kitty Logan

Learning to speak a foreign language can be one of the most important skills American children learn at school, according to Janey O'Brien, Spanish teacher at Swan Valley Elementary.

And she should know. A self-proclaimed Air Force brat, she spoke German before she spoke English. O'Brien can also speak several other Latin-based languagesincluding Italian, French, and Portugesethanks to her world-wide travels and education at military schools throughout Europe.

Learning to speak languages other than English helps people when they travel throughout America and abroad, she said.

"It's very important. Unfortunately the United States has been a monolingual country for so many years. When I lived abroad I would see (Americans) say, 'Hey, they can speak to me in English.' This is where the 'ugly American' really raises his head. This is where it comes from," she explained, adding that, "I think it's about time that the United States learned to mingle with the rest of the world, instead of the rest of the world having to mingle with the United States."

That mingling starts right at home, in the Swan Valley. "We have a Hispanic family here that does reforestation, and their crews don't speak an awful lot of English," she said. Being able to converse with them in their native language helps build friendships, and earns their respect, she said. "Any person that speaks a foreign language is going to think a little bit better of you if you try to speak their languageoffer a little more help instead of resistance."

Spanish has been offered at Swan Valley Elementary since the early 1990s, thanks to donations from the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, which pays for O'Brien's salary, teacher training, textbooks and supplies. Staff at Swan Valley Elementary chose to offer Spanish mainly because they had local expertise to help teach it, but also because it's the second most popular language in the world. Spanish is becoming more and more important to Americans, especially in the Southwest. When O'Brien returned to the United States after living in Spain for many years, she took a sabbatical from college and went to work as a VISTA volunteer, helping migrant farm workers in Northern California. Later, when she went to work for a large corporation there, she used her foreign language skills to help with international business transactions.

Learning a foreign language also helps students better understand English, geography and social studies, O'Brien said. She often uses a cross-curriculum approach to teaching, incorporating other teachers' unit studies about subjects such as Mexico or the rain forest into her Spanish classes, which she offers three days a week.

When O'Brien began teaching at Swan Valley Elementary in 1992, her first task was to develop a curriculum for Kindergarten through 8th grade. Prior to that time, Spanish had been taught in various classes by volunteers.

"I did things basically my own wayI had to grab my own boot straps and go for it," she said. There was no curriculum, and only one set of textbooks. Even though O'Brien is not a certified teacher, she quickly assumed responsibility for implementing the program in all grades, thanks to her extensive foreign language background.

"A lot of it came from my own experienceswhat I had gone through in the military schools," she said. In the lower elementary grades, students learn basic vocabulary and pronunciation. For example, kindergarten students learn their colors, numbers and the alphabet in both Spanish and English. They learn corresponding words in Spanish and English at the same time. "A equals 'ah', and airplane equals 'avione'," she explained. "It's easy recognition for them. Just the basics, and lots of review."

By fifth grade, students begin working in textbooks, learning grammar and conjugation of verbs at the same time they learn those subjects in English. "The hardest thing is to understand the conjugation of verbs," she said. It's hard enough in English, but learning it in a foreign language is harder. In English, she explained, "we learn it by rote."

By seventh and eighth grade, Swan Valley Spanish students are learning to read and write Spanish correctly, in addition to speaking it. By the time they graduate from elementary school, most Swan Valley students can use Spanish at the second-year high school level, which suits O'Brien just fine. "I'd like to see them keep it up in college," she said. "And let's hope that we wish that our children get out of the Swan Valley and get a chance to see the world knowing a second language."

The Spanish program is working, she said, although she admits not everybody can grasp it. "But not everybody can grasp math, either," she added. "But you have those few that just are so good, and there are getting to be more and more of them every year. It seems to be working better and better."

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