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Young, older students pair to celebrate bilingualism superpowers

Godfrey-Lee — Kindergartner Sofia Vizcarra couldn’t sit still in her seat recently and kept looking at the classroom door.

She was waiting for her high-school friend, 10th-grader Claudia Raymundo Sanchez, who visits her class once a month for a special event.  

Her favorite thing about Claudia’s visits: “getting to give her a hug and speak Spanish with her,” Sofia said. 

Lee High School students visit Char Walsh’s kindergarten class at the district’s Early Childhood Center to connect with the younger concerning something they have in common: a shared language and/or country of origin. 

The “Language is my Superpower” program connects kindergarten students who are either monolingual, speak one language or new to the U.S. with a high-school student who is also new or from the kindergartner’s country of origin. 

“(Speaking multiple) languages is an additive, not a risk behavior,” Walsh said. “It’s something special about each student that they can share with us and the community.”

Kindergartner Sofia Vizcarra and her 10th grade partner Claudia Raymundo Sanchez present their finished jack-o’-lantern

Strengthening Superpowers 

The program meets at the ECC and consists of a craft or activity both high schoolers and kindergartners can enjoy making together. 

ECC EL Coordinator Katie VanHaven also shows a slideshow presentation in Spanish and English highlighting a different country of origin. 

Program leaders work with the Refugee Education Center to ensure they’re providing resources and support for new students. 

“The melting pot is no longer really a thing; it’s a salad,” said Andrea Donovan, district EL coordinator. “Each ingredient holds their own identity instead of melting together into one. We keep our originality, language and culture while coming together.”

In 2021, then-Godfrey-Lee assistant superintendent Carol Lautenbach was one of 15 Steelcase Social Innovation fellows. She formed a committee with the district’s EL team to develop projects that reframed bilingualism from a deficit to a strength. 

 To develop the project, Donovan said the committee decided to focus on belonging, authenticity and meaning, using $5,000 in grant funds from Steelcase.

“This program has been three years in the making,” Walsh said. “Our first year was a planning year, seeing what the needs of the students were and figuring out how to make it work beyond our grant funds.”

‘The melting pot is no longer really a thing; it’s a salad.  Each ingredient holds their own identity instead of melting together into one.’

– District EL Coordinator Andrea Donovan

The following year, they launched a pilot program for students to meet monthly. Godfrey-Lee also partnered with Celebration Cinema to take the kindergartners and their high-school friends to see “Encanto” and discussed their individual gifts and superpowers.

Snacks follow the craft with a presentation led by Katie VanHaven on Mexican music, food, sports and culture

Parents of kindergartners and high schoolers have become very involved in the program’s parent nights. “It’s so fun to see our families from all different backgrounds come together,” Walsh said.

Added Donovan: “Bilingualism is a superpower. Language and literacy open doors and set people free. Students come to us with that gift and we want to recognize and celebrate that.”

Amigos, ملګری, Friends 

During their October meeting, the students worked together to cut out paper pumpkins, fold paper accordion style to make arms and legs, and make jack-o’-lantern faces. 

Tenth-grader Ahmed Afghan taught the class how to say “pumpkin” in Pashto: “کدو,” pronounced “kaddu.” 

“Our high schoolers really enjoy the program; it’s good for them,” Lee High School EL Development teacher Jackie Kuck said. “At the beginning of the year in a new place, they mostly keep to themselves. This program helps them feel a sense of belonging and purpose when they’re new and don’t speak a ton of English.” 

VanHaven read at the end of her presentation: “’Usando mi bilingüismo tengo el poder de hacer nuevos amigos.’ Using my bilingualism I have the power to make new friends.”

Students meet for the ‘Language is my Superpower’ program
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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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