South Dakota school district tweaks language classes’ focus

By Josh Verges
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) September 2010

Sioux Falls public schools are tweaking their curriculum to give students a greater understanding of the world’s people and help them communicate in real-life situations.

In foreign language classes, the focus is turning to conversational instruction, rather than memorizing vocabulary words. Teachers also are being asked to spend more time describing the way of life in foreign countries, not only teaching the language.

“A big part of the language is understanding culture,” assistant superintendent Fred Aderhold said.

Culture always has been a part of foreign language instruction, but it’s getting more attention because of a curriculum study finished early this year. A report to the school board says the classes should “explore and enhance the coverage of culture.”

A seventh-grade class in which students sample Spanish, French and German was revised to include Chinese lessons. And instead of colors, counting and the days of the week, the exploratory class is moving toward lessons in culture and basic conversational language.

At Rosa Parks Global Studies/World Language School, teacher Jenna Simpson has found that her students respond well to cultural lessons. She teaches Foreign Language in Elementary Schools (FLES) classes, daily 15-minute Spanish lessons for students in traditional classes, not the Spanish-immersion students.

On most days, instruction is a fast-paced back-and-forth on names, greetings, emotions and the like. But every Friday, the students take a break from language instruction to view pictures of Mexico, Spain and Peru.

Learning about history, landmarks, people and modes of transportation has sparked in students a curiosity about foreign lands, Simpson said.

“The kids really like the cultural stuff,” she said. “The parents say, ‘My kids keep asking me to go to Mexico or go to Spain.”’

The district is making globally focused changes in other content areas, as well.

At Rosa Parks, each grade level gets its own continent to learn about throughout the year. Fifth-grade students communicated with a Peace Corps member in Romania last year while first-graders compared domestic animals to those found in Africa.

“It’s just better to have kids who are globally aware,” Simpson said. “It really gives them an advantage later on.”

An effort is under way this year to infuse elementary school social studies, language arts and fine arts classes with pieces of Native American history and traditions; math and science classes will be updated next year. The goal is to make Native American students feel more connected to their schools.

Janet Martin, a Native American Connections teacher at Axtell Park Middle School, said it will benefit all students to gain an understanding of the history of indigenous people.

Her NAC classes were modified last year so that one day a week is dedicated to the Lakota language. But in folding language study into NAC courses, the district dropped its Lakota language high school class. While some students wanted to study the language by itself, the change has at least introduced the language to students at an earlier age.

Eighth-grader Curtis Barrett, who is half Oglala Sioux, learned some Lakota from his grandmother and during elementary school in Pine Ridge. He takes NAC classes to learn more about his language and culture.

“The language is dying out,” he said.

Martin said the language portion of NAC classes - taught by a different teacher - seeks to give students the skills to communicate with Lakota speakers during events and ceremonies. The focus of her classes depends on the grade level: seventh-grade classes are heavy on culture, while eighth-graders learn how to influence public policy.

An overriding theme is paying due respect to the history and traditions of Native Americans.

“We’re trying to make sure those kids understand this is a very viable, healthy, intact culture and do not confuse it with poverty,” she said.