Kids plunge into Spanish at camp

The Baltimore Sun

Since their animal hike was canceled because of rain, some of the children at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville came up with a backup: They sang while doing their best crustacean imitation.

The children opened and closed their hands like claws and sang, "Yo quiero cangrejas, mama! Yo quiero cangrejas, mama!," which in English means, "I want crabs, mama!"

"They remember a lot of what they learn here because of the songs," said Jodie Hogan, director of last week's Spanish immersion day camp for kids in grades one to five.

Many of the campers at El Campo del Bosque (or The Camp in the Woods) don't know any Spanish, but they learn through pictures, animated presentations and typical camp activities such as skits, arts and crafts and hikes. The children also swam, crabbed, canoed and seined during the weeklong camp, which cost $225.

The counselors are county Spanish teachers who spoke almost entirely in Spanish except when they taught water safety.

Meredith McMahan, a Spanish teacher at Southern High School, wasn't sure at first if her group of second-graders was picking up what she was teaching. But by Thursday, they were able to say the Spanish names for foxes, rabbits, raccoons and other animals on the pictograms she showed them. They could answer her questions about whether the animals swam, ran or flew or had short or long tails.

"They have this wonderful energy and amazing willingness to learn," McMahan said. "I'm exhausted every day."

Although some of the children have Hispanic backgrounds, most of the 60 kids who attended did not, Hogan said.

Allison McClare, 10, who will enter the fifth grade at Folger McKenzie Elementary, is not Hispanic, but she takes a Spanish class at school. Her brother had so much fun at the camp last year that she decided to attend this summer.

Allison talked excitedly about seining the day before.

"I caught 24 fish and a jellyfish," she said.

County Spanish teachers started the camp four years ago. It usually attracts the same number of kids every year, many of whom are return campers. When the students checked in on Monday, they got pretend passports stamped. They spent their mornings doing language activities and games and then typical day camp activities, such as swimming in the afternoon.

At one pavilion on Thursday, first-graders sang "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" in Spanish and crafted spiders out of pipe cleaners. They sat amid a collection of construction-paper cutouts of human bodies, which were suspended from clotheslines hung between each pillar. The body parts were labeled in Spanish. Inside the outdoor education center, another group of children practiced a skit. On the floor below, McMahan went through flash cards as students colored pictures of animals.

Although the children seemed to pick up the vocabulary lessons, they didn't always soak up the culture. Each day, a different restaurant provided a Mexican lunch, but students could opt out and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

On Thursday, at least a handful of kids at each table chose the PBJ over the chicken and rice burritos with three different salsa dips.

"I like the food, but Mexican food for five days a week is a bit much," said Diana Otis, a 10-year-old from Severna Park. She had eaten a PBJ the day before, so planned to try the burritos.

Diana's paternal grandparents are from Spain, and she spent a year in school there. Her father wanted her to come to the camp to reinforce those language skills. Sometimes they practice speaking Spanish, she said.

Momo "Margarita" Pennington, 9, wanted to come to the camp so she could talk to her father in Spanish. His mother emigrated from Honduras.

"When he comes home ... he says, 'Como estas?' and I say, 'Bien,' " Momo said.

High school students who take Spanish serve as paid junior counselors or unpaid counselors-in-training. They stand alongside children and help them with activities and answer questions.

Stephanie Fila, 17, applied to be a junior counselor because she is taking Advanced Placement Spanish at Northeast High School in Pasadena. "I did it last year to brush up on Spanish," she said. "And besides, little kids are so cute."

A caption with a story of Sunday's Anne Arundel County section of The Sun incorrectly identified teacher Meredith McMahan.
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