EAST BOSTON – On a recent snowy Saturday morning, a group of elementary-age students gathered in a classroom, their foreheads creased in concentration as they created animals from yellow and purple play-dough.
But this was not your average art class. As they worked, a graduate student from Harvard University read them a poem in Spanish by Pablo Neruda called 'Oda al Gato.' It was all part of a Harvard curriculum called Pre-Texts that aims to expose students to Spanish and encourage Spanish literacy through the arts. The curriculum uses popular Latin American practices to introduce students to literary texts, induce a love of learning, and create a sense of pride in Latin American culture.
Getting them to see that Spanish is a language of culture is a victory. It reminds me that what I’m studying is a living language and a growing language, and it's not going to die anytime soon.
- Obed Lira, Teacher
“We are not making anything up that is academically sophisticated,” said Doris Sommer, professor of romance languages and literature at Harvard and director of the Cultural Agency Initiative, which fosters the arts and humanities as agents to promote social change. “Whatever we do in Pre-Texts also honors the everyday integrity and aesthetic of the ambitions of working people.”
The need to create such a program was born when Eileen de los Reyes and her colleagues at the Boston Public Schools noticed that native Spanish speakers –most of them born in the U.S. or immigrants from Latin America who arrived at a young age– were losing their grasp on Spanish.
In 2002 voters in Massachusetts eradicated bilingual education, replacing it with one-year English language immersion. And although over 70 languages are spoken by English Language Learners statewide, Spanish is the most spoken language.
The Spanish Heritage Academy was piloted over the summer in East Boston and drew 50 students from diverse Latino backgrounds. De los Reyes, assistant superintendent for English Language Learners, said that the response from the community has been overwhelming.
“You see the changes in the students,” she said. “They are more self-assured and proud of who they are and they are mastering the classics in Spanish.”
On that Saturday, only 20 students showed up at the Mario Umana Middle School Academy, where their teacher, Lucía López-Kodis and Harvard graduate student, Obed Lira, started the day with warm-up exercises.
The students giggled and spoke English amongst themselves as they tried to follow instructions.
“That’s boring!” the students complained at one point, when one of them was imitating another in what’s called the mirror exercise.
“¿Cómo se dice eso en español?” Lira asked.
The students didn’t hesitate.
“Aburrido!” they called out in unison.
The summer program started with students reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 'The Little Prince' in Spanish. Now the focus is on reading work by some of Latin America’s most celebrated poets, like Neruda, Rubén Dario and José Martí.
Lira, who chose the poems, said he wasn’t initially convinced that the Pre-Texts method would work.
“I was skeptical because I thought the texts would be too challenging for these kids,” he said. “But I’ve been proven wrong.”
López-Kodis said she likes how Pre-Texts empowers kids to participate in what they’re reading through the arts.
“They represent the reading in their own way and with their own words,” she said.
But the program is not meant to foster a traditional way of teaching Spanish, said Veronica Robles, the program’s director.
“We are not going to be a Spanish school,” she said. “We are going to expose kids to Spanish so that they can improve their academic level of Spanish. We are trying to preserve Spanish and the culture for these young people and their parents.”
Yessenia Martínez, a native of Honduras, said that her 10-year-old daughter, Amy, looks forward to the program every Saturday.
“She loves it,” Martínez said. “I hope it continues and keeps growing.”
But in order to keep growing, the program will need funding. The program relies on three teachers and volunteers, like Lira, to carry out the curriculum. De los Reyes said that enough seed money was raised to get it off the ground, but plans are being put in place to get private funding for next year, with a goal of eventually expanding to other languages.
And it has been a challenge to deal with the students' varying levels of Spanish proficiency, said de los Reyes, which is why some parents want the program to start as early at K-5. Currently, students are divided into three groups according to their proficiency levels.
Still, the program has already produced concrete results. Lira offers the example of one boy who memorized a poem and now readily recites it, and another, who told teachers that he didn’t speak Spanish because it was an “alien” language. But soon after participating in the program, the boy started speaking in Spanish.
“Getting them to see that Spanish is a language of culture is a victory,” Lira said. “It reminds me that what I’m studying is a living language and a growing language, and it's not going to die anytime soon.”
Tanya Pérez-Brennan is a freelance writer based in Boston.