Learning from each other

Upper School Spanish teacher Lucy Hand ’80 parks the school van and 10 seniors in her Spanish 5 class unload, making their way through the January drizzle to a modular building at Baltimore International Academy (BIA), where 4th grade Spanish immersion teacher Jose Pernia-Mora is winding up a geometry lesson. A native of Venezuela with more than 25 years’ teaching experience, Pernia-Mora calls students up to draw isósceles and triángulo agudos, peppering them with questions they readily answer en español before releasing them to the seniors for a scrum of hugs, handshakes, and high fives.

It’s a scene that has played out dozens of times since October, when the Upper School’s modern language department launched a year-long community partnership with BIA, a “total immersion” K-8 public charter school where students are taught all core academic subjects in one of five languages – Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian or Spanish. Twice a month, level 5 French, Russian, and Spanish classes head to BIA where they pair up with 4th, 5th (French), and 6th grade (Russian) students for a 40-minute shared language immersion experience – one that seeks to provide “real world context and authentic motivation for reading and conversing in the target language while fostering deep and meaningful connections between language learners across the city of Baltimore,” according to the partnership description.

Based on Friends’ popular 5th grade/Pre-Primary reading buddies program, the BIA initiative is unique in that the older students don’t call the shots: The BIA students, in many cases, have been speaking the target language since kindergarten and have “impressive conversational skills,” according to Hand. “Our students, in turn, contribute their critical thinking skills and nuanced grammar, maturity and leadership skills.”

On this day BIA students proudly present their country research projects to the seniors, who listen attentively and ask thoughtful questions (“¿Cuántas tribus hay en Namibia?”). Upon completion, the buddies use the remaining time to catch up and talk – about sports, music, and in the case of Bri Bri Page ’19 and her buddies, both girls, values and self-worth. “One of them asked me why I don’t have a boyfriend!” a somewhat shocked Bri Bri explained. “I told her ‘I don’t want one and I don’t need one.’ It was interesting.”

For Hand and her modern language colleagues, it is interactions like this that shape students’ lives and deepen the learning. “Through a shared love of reading, especially stories about immigration, friendship and identity, these two very different learning communities have built deep and meaningful connections.”
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