A world of languages at Aspen Middle School
October 2, 2011
ASPEN – The kids at Aspen Middle School would have certainly laughed if they saw Tom Heald sauntering around the high school seminar room like Cindy Crawford, or flexing his biceps in a muscle suit a la Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And when their principal pretended to eat like the aforementioned celebrities, it would surely have been a highlight of their year.
Add in Heald – and a dozen other people gathered for an introduction to how the middle school teaches foreign languages – trying to mimic and act out simple sentences spoken, like “eat like an elephant” or “walk in circles,” and the scene was certainly an interesting one.
The antics were examples of how Aspen Middle School, and the Aspen School District, is teaching students foreign languages.
“We are now teaching in a way that we know really works,” said AMS Spanish teacher Shawn Rios, in introducing last week’s class. “And we wanted to let the community, and the parents, know about it.”
The class – called Fluency Fast, which is based on the Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TRPS) method – continues this week. Teachers can take the training Monday and Tuesday, while the public – and parents in particular – are encouraged to enroll Monday through Thursday.
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“Do you remember studying advanced language as a 2-year-old?” asked Karen Rowan, who is teaching the Fluency Fast classes. “No, but you learned the language because you started simple. That is how we do it.”
Sponsored by the school district and the Aspen Middle School Parent Council, the classes are designed to let those outside the school’s world language program learn more about how foreign languages are taught in Aspen, and at AMS in particular.
At AMS, fifth-graders take a semester of French and a semester of Spanish. Students then choose one language to study from middle school through high school.
At the middle school level, they use the TRPS method.
“With TRPS, students are immersed in useful, high-frequency vocabulary and phrases. Fluency is acquired through engaging oral and written stories,” notes the AMS world languages brochure.
Active learning – like that which Heald participated in – is a cornerstone of the program.
“Turn off the part of your brain that wants to turn this into work, wants to memorize, wants to study, wants to analyze,” Rowan said. “Have fun. You must be relaxed and not feel pressured to speak or perform. That is how you learn.”
In fact, it is parents’ concerns about how much students are actually learning in the Aspen School District’s foreign language classes that prompted AMS to offer the Fluency Fast classes to others.
“We realized there was some misunderstanding about our foreign language curriculum,” said Superintendent Dr. John Maloy, referring to a survey that showed parents were concerned with the program. “And we always try to address such issues head-on.”
While Maloy, other district administrators and the board of education took note of the survey results, they also realized they needed to do a better job of educating parents on what the intended and expected results of the foreign language curriculum should be – which is not necessarily complete fluency.
For example, elementary school children take Spanish. However, they go to Spanish class only once every six days. The goal is to simply expose the students to the language.
As students advance in their language studies, so does the curriculum. And the foreign language teachers at AMS have found the TPRS method to be the best.
“Kids are inspired by the material and the method,” Rios said. “And each year we see them doing better and better. That is our goal.”