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Head start for language

The Baltimore Sun

The fourth-graders from Youth's Benefit Elementary School filed into the Spanish classroom at Fallston High School.

After some brief announcements, the 20 children were divided into four groups, where they made a craft project, completed an interactive PowerPoint presentation, played musical chairs and did a writing lesson.

"We tried to create activities that were multidimensional," said Mary Beth Nelson, the Spanish teacher at Fallston High. "We wanted activities that would keep the kids moving and, at the same time, keep them learning."

Nelson was talking about the activities for the World Languages Program, which were designed to introduce them to foreign languages. The program is divided into three four-week sessions -- one each for German, French and Spanish.

The premise of the program was simple. Each of the foreign language teachers at the high school created a four-week curriculum taught by their students. Each session offers activities such as making a craft, working on the computer, learning vocabulary, playing games and learning dances from the native country.

To participate, the pupils pay $30 to offset the cost of transportation -- the remainder was paid by the Youth's Benefit Education Foundation -- and are bused to the high school for the after-school program.

More than 30 high school students volunteered to help, Nelson said. Each one had a different reason for wanting to participate.

Laryssa Olson volunteered because it was an opportunity to share French with young children, she said.

"I like to teach young children and see them get really happy when they get an answer right," said Olson, a 16-year-old junior. "It makes me feel good to know that I helped them learn something."

Becky Dotson recognized the importance of being exposed to a foreign language at an early age, she said.

"I have taken five years of French, and I wish I was more fluent," said Dotson, 18, a senior. "I wish there had been a program at an earlier age for me to take. It's easier to learn a foreign language when you are young."

Amanda Perkins saw it as an opportunity to share her German heritage with the students.

"My entire family is German, and I go home all the time and tell my mother things she didn't know about Germany," said Perkins, 18, a senior. "This country is a melting pot of people and I love the idea of teaching people about another culture."

Elementary school students were selected on a first-come, first-served basis, said Brad Stinar, assistant principal for Youth's Benefit. Letters were sent to parents and the first 20 to respond were selected, he said.

The first four-week session focused on German, under the direction of Rick Jones, who has been teaching the language for about 30 years. The benefits of the program are numerous, he said.

"The key to the entire program is students teaching students," Jones said. "It has the older students interacting with the younger kids. It also has children being exposed to a language other than Spanish."

But it wasn't without its challenges, he said.

"There is a lot that you can do in a high school foreign language class," he said. "But youngsters have shorter attention spans, and if they are not involved tactilely, moving around, you lose them."

Jones said he wanted to participate in the program because children have the least exposure to German. Three county high schools -- Havre de Grace, Joppatowne, and Edgewood, do not offer the language, he said. And often people are focused on learning Spanish, he said.

Kim Banks, the French teacher at Fallston High for the past seven years, concurred.

"This is an outstanding opportunity for the students to be exposed to multiple languages," she said.

Banks started the first French session by speaking the language to the fourth-graders and asking basic questions, she said.

"The children were speaking beautifully pronounced French in a matter of minutes," said Banks, who has spent 14 years teaching French.

A key to the program's success is making it fun. During the German sessions, the fourth-graders played a game where numbers were thrown down a hallway and when the high school students called out a number in German, the children had to run and find the number, said junior Jennifer Darland, 16.

"Kids don't like to take notes," she said. "They like to be up doing things, and we tried to come up with activities that kept them active."

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