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Spanish at MCS: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Lower School Tertulia

In the real world, learning is a naturally interdisciplinary process. In the Spanish program at Manhattan Country School, students engage in activities and communication that are relevant. In the Lower School, in order to plan for an upcoming celebration, students need math to understand how calendars work, music to sing, art to decorate, language arts and science to follow a recipe and games to play. In this child-centered context, with attention to emotions as well as intellect, our students are not preparing for a distant future. Age-appropriate curriculum, guided by students’ interests, encourages students to share and gain a deeper sense of self, their peers and the greater world, all while communicating in Spanish.

For example, the 4-5s are naturally curious about the animals and plants that live in our local environment, and that we grow for food at the MCS Farm. Later, science is embedded as they notice the parts of the plant used in our cooking. Young students are ready to take surveys, then create and interpret graphs. In the 7-8s, students engage in an interdisciplinary study of self and family. This follows their social studies strand and provides a framework for students to talk about their lives in Spanish. In the 8-9s, farm-city connections expand. Students draw and label maps, describing themselves weaving, cooking, milking a cow, collecting eggs, hiking in nature, harvesting potatoes and even cleaning stalls. And always, playing with friends. While in preparation for their study of Chilean arpilleras, the 9-10s create lists of familiar adjectives and pronouns such as amigable, creativo, activista y granjero to describe the people that continue to inspire activism within our school community.

In the Upper School students use the vocabulary from previous years as the Spanish curriculum continues to focus on learning by doing. For example, in fifth grade, before grammar and sentence structures are introduced formally, students begin the year learning, memorizing and performing a short Spanish play titled “Rafael, Elisa y El Tigre” about three students from Washington D.C. who run away to New York City. After they learn weather vocabulary, they create their own Spanish weather channel report, and as prepositions are incorporated they work on making a scavenger hunt around the school. Technology is introduced so that students can film and record themselves doing Spanish assignments in class. The central focus is to make Spanish useful and project-based, while also incorporating a curriculum that aligns with other middle school language programs taught in New York City independent schools.

In sixth grade students cover present tense forms and continue to create plays and skits. They also begin linking Spanish to activism by exploring their Spanish-speaking country of choice, doing research and identifying human rights issues in Latin America. In seventh and eighth grade, the program includes quizzes and tests, but students continue with project-based learning. For example, they recently studied, wrote and produced their own Spanish telenovelas, wrote poetry based on the book La Casa de Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, did a voice-dubbing project over the silent film “Oktapodi,” created their own Spanish scavenger hunt at the MCS Farm, read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Spanish, talked about Cuba’s future after the death of Fidel Castro and responded to readings about immigrant women and children in detention facilities.

We are grateful that MCS gives us the space and resources to move away from traditional teaching and allows us to engage students by teaching through art, music, activism and project-based learning. Through the achievements we have witnessed of currents students and alumni, we are confident that this interdisciplinary curriculum is successful in helping students love and retain a new language.

The article originally appeared in the 2017 MCS Courtyard magazine.