News - Loving Two Languages: Schmidt-Gomez ’98 Brings Dual Language Learning to Middle School

Loving Two Languages: Schmidt-Gomez ’98 Brings Dual Language Learning to Middle School

by Rachel Heston-Davis Loving Two Languages: Schmidt-Gomez ’98 Brings Dual Language Learning to Middle School

Last February, a presentation by Veronica Schmidt-Gomez ’98 at the National Association for Bilingual Education conference drew excitement and curiosity from attendees. Veronica described the seventh and eighth grade dual-language classes she teaches in the Hillsborough County School District in Tampa, Florida: social studies curriculum taught in English and in Spanish on alternating days.

Although attendees were familiar with dual language programs, many had only seen it work with two teachers—a native English speaker and a native Spanish speaker—leading the class. Typically, this works best at the elementary school level, where students stay in one classroom with the same group of peers every day.

“How do you manage this program in a one-teacher format?” asked attendees.

One, Veronica is fluent in both languages. Two, she’s also determined: Insufficient English-to-Spanish textbook translations compelled her to translate much of the curriculum herself. Most of all, she’s passionate about cross-cultural learning. That passion drew her from a different career track into the classroom and motivated her to trailblaze a dual-language program at the middle school level in her district.

“It’s been a challenge, but I love it,” she says, and adds with a laugh, “I’m a total nerd for this subject matter!”

Bilingual Beginning

Born in Puerto Rico, Veronica experienced education in both English and Spanish from a young age. The private elementary school she attended taught kindergarten and first grade in Spanish, but helped students transition to learning in English by grade three. Near the end of elementary school, Veronica’s family moved to Greenville, where she continued to learn exclusively in English at school. Her mother and grandmother, however, made sure that Veronica kept up with her Spanish language skills at home.

This cross-cultural upbringing nurtured a passion in Veronica for educating native English speakers about the Hispanic language and culture. She pursued a public relations career immediately upon graduation from Greenville University, but quickly realized that public relations roles in her region did not offer those types of opportunities. She returned to school, this time to get a secondary education degree. If she couldn’t teach English-speakers about the Hispanic culture as a PR specialist, she reasoned, she could do so as a Spanish teacher.

Veronica loved teaching middle school Spanish. She settled in Florida, met her husband Luis, began a family, and established herself as an excellent Spanish teacher in the Hillsborough district.

Then, two educational achievements from her days at GU—certifications in middle school social studies and in ESL training—opened doors Veronica never expected.

A Bigger Plan

Veronica’s school district served a high population of native Spanish-speaking students. Many enrolled in dual language programs in elementary school, but once they moved to all-English instruction in middle school, they stalled out in reading and writing fluency in their native tongue. Veronica established a “Spanish for speakers” class—in other words, a Spanish language class for students already fluent in Spanish—to help them keep up with their Spanish language learning, just as her mother and grandmother had done at home for her.

Soon, however, Veronica and her colleagues decided that dual-language classes at the middle school level would benefit these students more than one language arts class could.

Since Veronica was bilingual and had achieved endorsement in middle school social studies and ESL, she assumed responsibility for developing and teaching new dual language courses in social studies, history, and civics.

Not For the Faint of Heart

Obstacles arose immediately when Veronica realized she’d have to create her own Spanish version of the English social studies material. Although states like Texas and California offered middle school dual language curricula, no curriculum met Florida’s standards. The Spanish translations of Florida-approved textbooks—usually offered online as extra resources—were subpar. They would not help Veronica’s students master correct language use.

Veronica rolled up her sleeves and translated textbooks, worksheets, and more herself. Teaching dual language programs “is not for the faint of heart,” she says.

She dusted off her social studies skills after years of only teaching Spanish language classes. Other teachers stepped up to help, offering their ideas and lesson plan examples. Veronica emerged from the process, confident in the curriculum.

Resounding Success

Some dual language classes offer instruction for one week in Spanish, then one week in English. Veronica chose to alternate Spanish and English instruction every other day. She believes the constant back-and-forth promotes better connections in students’ minds between the two languages, and these connections in turn promote better comprehension.

Her dual language social studies class enrolled a 50/50 blend of students—half struggled to write well in Spanish and half struggled in English. As the semester unfolded, students in each group improved their reading and writing capabilities in both languages and developed a strong grasp on the social studies content. The scores of both groups skyrocketed.

The same thing happened in Veronica’s dual language civics and history classes. One recent civics class, comprised only of students with low English proficiency, showed tremendous improvement.

“Students [scored] at or above the school level in their semester exams because they began to make connections between their native tongue and the English language,” Veronica says.

Looking Ahead

Veronica’s middle school program is just the start of a dual language curriculum that district administrators hope to extend all the way through Hillsborough high schools.

More elementary schools in her district now offer dual language programs, and her middle school will expand its dual language offerings to science and math courses. This will create a strong cohort of students who graduate middle school fully prepared to continue their education in two languages. The high school that Veronica’s middle school feeds into plans to have dual language classes in place when that day arrives.

“Now it’s a matter of getting the teachers,” Veronica says, since finding bilingual high school teachers with certifications in the right subject matter can take time. “We want to do it right,” she says.

She hopes many future students will share the experience she has enjoyed—loving two languages for life.

 

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This story was published on July 28, 2020




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