By ANDREW HANSON
KEARNEY – When Briana Orellana learned she could get a head start on her teaching career, she jumped at the opportunity.
Yohana Lopez was instantly drawn in as well.
Orellana and Lopez, both junior elementary education majors, are two University of Nebraska at Kearney Office of Multicultural Affairs scholars getting hands-on experience teaching Spanish through The Language Project.
The Language Project, which originated in Nebraska, is a national program designed to integrate Spanish language teaching in elementary schools.
“When I started the program in Kearney two years ago, I thought that working with the native Spanish speakers who were on campus, particularly if they were education majors, would be an excellent fit,” said Lisa Brown-Olsen, director of curriculum for The Language Kids.
Brown-Olsen reached out to Monica Mueller, UNK’s assistant director of multicultural affairs, to see if she knew of any students who might be interested.
“I have this whole group of students who fit what she was looking for,” Mueller said. “It was really exciting for our office and UNK because it has been a really great opportunity for us to partner with this project.”
With The Language Project, UNK students teach in pairs at five different elementary schools within Kearney Public Schools. The students teach through the Kearney Community Learning Center’s after-school program.
“Kearney has a wonderful system where we have a lead teacher and what we call an intern teacher,” Brown-Olsen explained. “The lead teacher is responsible for planning the class, and the intern teacher is their assistant. The intern then steps up if the lead teacher has to be gone for some reason.”
The students go through a training program that helps them learn the curriculum.
“Since it’s 100 percent immersion, it’s a challenge,” said Orellana of Cozad, now in her second year with the program. “I didn’t know how I was going to be able to speak Spanish the entire time, but after going to workshops and observing a teacher last year for a semester, I got the experience first-hand.”
Lopez of Lexington, also in her second year teaching, felt similar walking into the job.
“At first, I thought it was a little bit scary. I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “My first semester, I interned with Briana. Then the beginning of this fall semester, I was a lead teacher.
“I was actually really nervous, but then we went to the summer workshops where they helped us out. We basically learned how to teach Spanish to kids.”
Orellana and Lopez typically work once a week together, with Orellana serving as the lead teacher and Lopez her intern. Lopez then has the chance to act as lead teacher at a different school later in the week.
Another aspect to the program has been introducing kindergarteners to Spanish during the school day at Central Elementary School. That class is taught by Orellana and sophomore Odalys Cruz of Schuyler.
“Not all students are in the after-school program, so I think that it’s huge to be able to provide this to more and more students,” Mueller said.
The Language Project benefits children, such as Mueller’s second-grade daughter, who participates in the after-school program.
“My daughter loves it,” she said. “They do a lot of learning through songs and movement, so she’s always coming home singing different songs and things like that. As a parent, I’m really thankful for it.”
The program also enhances the experience for the UNK students who are honing their craft on the way to becoming teachers. “All of them are already bilingual,” Mueller added. “This is such a unique opportunity for them to get at this point in their career to make them more marketable and really give them this whole other skillset.”
It has reaffirmed the students’ decision to pursue education, too.
“I think it’s very important,” Orellana said. “I’ve had a lot of experience, and I think it’s definitely my career goal to be a teacher.”
“Before I learned about The Language Project, I was like ‘should I do this or not?’” Lopez wondered. “I didn’t know if I wanted to teach. I thought if I joined it, this would give me some experience. I went and the light turned on. This was what I wanted to do.”
Brown-Olsen said she’s seen immense success working with UNK students. “I have such a strong team in Kearney,” she said. “They are a model for us in many other cities that we are in because they are invested teachers.”
Writer: Andrew Hanson, UNK Communications, 308.865.8454
Source: Monica Mueller, Assistant Director Multicultural Affairs, 308-865-8127, firstname.lastname@example.org