Lorin Sorenson compares her method for teaching Spanish to circuit-training body conditioning, with Kent City Elementary students learning vocabulary in fast-paced learning “centros.”
At the “Señor Potato centro” (center) during a recent fourth-grade class, a student-turned-“maestro” — teacher in Spanish — passed out Mr. Potato Head parts to students who repeated Spanish anatomy words as they assembled the toy.
In the “calendario” center, students answered questions about days and months with another maestro in charge. Another group matched Spanish and English vocabulary words.
Sorenson’s interactive approach allows second- to fifth-grade classes take ownership in learning Spanish by placing the children in charge of activities. The mini-sessions serve as a way to hold students’ attention and improve vocabulary retention.
Putting Students in Charge
Kent City Elementary students have one Spanish class per week to help prepare them for middle school and high school programs. Michigan high school students are required to have two world language credits.
Sorenson said she was having a hard time helping students retain knowledge as they advanced in grades.
“On top of vocabulary retention, keeping them excited and teaching them new information all in one 50-minute session was becoming daunting,” Sorenson said. “I felt like I owned the class and information, not the students. They weren’t invested enough.”
So, she started the centros to cover a lot of material in fun ways that encourage high-level thinking.
Students with strong Spanish skills serve as maestros and change with every class session. Another student is chosen to don a sheriff’s hat and badge to serve as “policía,” maintaining classroom order and passing out red tickets to students doing well on activities.
To keep things moving, a student holds a timer and the police officer rings bells when it’s time to switch.
Sorenson said in a way it’s like a “P90X” workout, which combines a variety of exercise techniques.
“It’s like circuit training for the brain,” she said.
Students are also learning what it’s like to be a teacher, a new perspective for them. With maestros leading the centers, Sorenson is able to work quietly in a guided instruction group without having to worry about watching the clock and constantly monitoring student behavior. At the end of class, students reflect on the maestros and provide feedback on what worked well in their centros.
The students have gotten used to keeping their groups on task.
In one session, maestro Brian Martinez-Alcocer handed out the Mr. Potato Head parts, enunciating words like “la boca” (mouth) and “los ojos” (eyes) to his group.
“We have all our body parts,” said one group member while fitting a plastic arm into the toy.
“We’ll still keep going,” Brian responded.
“I have seen an amazing change in student behavior, confidence and skill levels,” Sorenson said. “I have watched students go from not being invested and hiding in the back of the room to now becoming star students who want to be experts, because they like the confidence they feel when they are assigned to help a struggling group.”
Student Emmalyn Geers said she likes the feeling of independence.
“We get to move around the room, and (Sorenson) trusts us to do what we are supposed to do,” Emmalyn said.
Sorenson said her initial goal was to improve Spanish abilities, but there’s a broader theme evident.
“I am seeing that the system is not only improving them academically, but it is affecting the way they act as people in my classroom,” she said.