The teacher gave a quick command in Chinese.
The 6- and 7-year-olds quickly gathered into a straight line to exit the classroom.
“He said, ‘Line up,’” Jonas Banks, 6, tells a class visitor. “I get to learn things like speaking new languages. Then I can have more friends because some people don’t speak the same language.”
As the next set of first-grade students at Carver Elementary in Georgetown entered to the classroom, some drew a few of the core characters of the Chinese language on the dry erase board.
About 12 weeks into the language program at the school, many of elementary school children already know the basics of the language, including how to say greetings, introductions, colors and where they live.
The language immersion classes at the school are taught by students at Southwestern University, a unique collaborative project between the Georgetown school district, the university’s department of modern languages and Snead Institute, an organization started by Georgetown philanthropist Ned Snead, who came up with the idea and helps fund the program.
University students with advanced language skills in Spanish and Chinese teach the extracurricular course, with training from the University’s Chinese professor.
Mitchell Elementary Principal Rob Dyer said he jumped at the chance to offer languages at his school when Snead, who he knew from the Rotary club, told him about the idea more than two years ago.
“Our goal at Mitchell is to provide as many opportunities as possible,” Dyer said. “It’s critical that every kid learns a foreign language. Those who speak two or three languages have more opportunities when it comes to jobs. And the preschool and elementary years are the perfect language learning time, it’s the most easily acquired.”
About 100 students on three campuses take the classes, meeting for 45 minutes twice a week during the school day for about 25 weeks, following the college’s schedule.
“It’s helpful for the teachers teaching the class,” said Arun Jacob, a political science major with a minor in Chinese. “It helps improve their proficiency.” Jacob, who served eight years in the Marine Corps, said he hopes to become an interpreter for a federal agency. Teaching is diversifying his experiences and sharpening his language skills, he said.
The college students are paid $10 an hour, including preparation, travel and teaching time. The Georgetown district is paying $6,000 for the language program, which covers the majority of the wages for the 16 teachers. The Snead Institute, which once funded the entire program, pays the rest.
Patricia Schiaffini, assistant professor of Chinese at Southwestern who herself speaks Spanish, Chinese and English, in 2010 began a partnership with Snead to better teach elementary students by mimicking the language immersion model taught in college. She began to train her students, many who have studied language in other countries, how to teach language and helped them create lesson plans. It also helps the college students to become fluent in the second language they study.
“Some have come back from China or Spain or Latin America and have made great progress,” Schiaffini said. “They don’t want to lose that. By teaching at the (elementary) schools, they are really engaging in the language on a daily basis.”
Schiaffini said she would like to expand the program but would need more funding. She also hopes the college students are able to get a course credit for teaching, which would be an incentive for more students to volunteer.
The college students not only give the elementary students linguistic lessons but also give cultural training, part of why the children take on common first names in the languages they are learning.
“I really like teaching Spanish,” said Jacob Brown, who is majoring in English and Spanish and studied in Seville, and plans to teach English in Spain one day. “I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to get experience. Considering they’re first graders in their first semester, they’ve learned quite a bit.”