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Summer Language Program Brings International Flavor to Gonzaga

Gonzaga University/Spokane Public Schools

Spokane is not exactly a city known for its great ethnic diversity, which is why it was fun this week to visit Gonzaga University to take in some of its annual summer language program. Dr. James Hunter is leading the session in its 19th year. More than 400 refugees and immigrants have come for some or all of the last three weeks to improve their English skills.

“We have people who have just arrived in Spokane and the United States who speak nothing, not a word of English up to kids who you would say why are they even here," Hunter said. "They don’t sound like foreigners.”

Hunter directs the university’s Master of Arts in Teaching-English-as-a-Second-Language-Program.

In many Washington communities, people from Latin American nations are most prominent. And it’s true that there are many Spanish speakers here this week. But Hunter says the groups most represented come from other parts of the world.

“I think the biggest pre-registration group this year was from the Marshall Islands, Marshallese. We’ve had before Russian speakers for a long time,” Hunter said.

In all, Hunter says people from more than 50 nations are represented. They speak as many as 60 languages. They are guided by about two dozen professional teachers and teachers-to-be, students in Gonzaga’s graduate programs in education. Tara Parley is one of those. She was in the third-grade class. Some of her students were born in the U.S., others have arrived just within the last month.

“Some are still in what is called their ‘silent period’, where they don’t really speak, and some that are very fluent. They’re able to write and read and very active in the classroom," Parley said.

“That must be difficult, trying to teach that many levels of children,” Nadvornick said.

“It can be at times, but we have really good teachers who have taught us how to scaffold our teaching and differentiate our materials," Parley said. "My lesson that I’m teaching today is on magnets and so I have different papers and levels, sentence frames for our students to use. No matter what level they’re at they can all learn the same material.”

Across the hall in the second grade classroom, the students are learning about gravity. Maybe you notice a pattern here. The theme of the lessons is related to science, math and technology. One of the lead teachers in this second grade class is from Poland, here as part of a teacher exchange program with Gonzaga. She helps the students retain what they’ve learned by leading them in song.

“Gravity is falling down, falling down, falling down. Gravity is falling down, all around you,” the students sing.

When Gonzaga’s summer language program began 18 years ago, there were eight children and 10 teachers. Now, as we mentioned, there are more than 400 students. Hunter would love to see the program grow, but there are potentially limiting factors. One is money. Two-thirds of the cost of running this program comes from a state refugee impact grant. Hunter says, if that for some reason goes away, so would the summer session. But there’s another issue, finding enough teachers who have the requisite experience and credentials to teach students from different cultures, also known as English language learners, or ELLs.

“In this school district, probably only about 7% of teachers have any training in language and culture, have an E-L-L endorsement or anything like that," he said. "The chances of having an ELL in your classroom at some point is virtually guaranteed. So there’s a huge gap between what teachers are prepared for and what they actually have to encounter.”

Gonzaga student Maggie Diehl is in her second year of teaching at the summer session. She says she’s much better prepared this time.

“This is like a whole other monster because we have people from different language backgrounds, different education backgrounds, different ages, different goals. And we’re trying to provide a service with expectations all over the place," Diehl said. "So the first day we always do a needs analysis and we ask them what do you want to practice, what do you want to improve. We can we do to help you with your life.”

For some of the students, it’s a chance not only to practice their English, but also to meet new people from outside their immediate social circles. Nikolai, a 16-year-old who came to the U.S. from St. Petersburg, Russia, says he’s made a few new friends.

“I met one, a guy from Ukraine, we speak Russian," Nikolai said. "And also I meet Wellington. He’s also a cool guy, he’s from Colombia. And we spoke English between each other and he is really cool.”

You note that Nikolai has picked up on a little of the English vernacular. That has been a challenge for him.

“I knew words but, for example, ‘how’s it going?’, I didn’t know what does it mean and phrases like this which you use like every day and I was confused about it, but I think right I don’t have this problem,” Nikolai said.

Erin Meuer, an English-as-a-Second-Language faculty member at Gonzaga and the Community Colleges of Spokane, says this session is a chance to these new residents to feel a little less isolated in their new homes.

“They get a chance to not be the minority for once," Meuer said. "They take over the classroom. We’ve done research at the camp that students produce three-to-four times the language that they usually produce in a mainstream classroom. So we really see through that research that they get to express themselves, interact with the teacher and their peers and really be experts on their language and their culture.”

Though the sheer number of immigrants and refugees to Spokane hasn’t been great, the breadth of their diversity has made Spokane a much different place than a generation ago.