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Service-learning Students Teach Spanish at Local School

Service-learning Students Teach Spanish at Local School

On a cloudy December morning, 13 NMH Spanish IV Service Learning Project students stepped on to a warm school bus below Beveridge Hall. Their destination: nearby Gill Elementary School, where they planned to use their language (and personal) skills to teach first- and second-graders. 

This dynamic course was initiated about 20 years ago by Bea Garcia, now assistant head of school for academic programs and dean of faculty. The class has since been stewarded and nurtured by Spanish teacher Lisa Yates. It offers students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the language and Hispanic cultures and to develop written and oral communication skills – but that’s not all. 

An NMH student makes "cat ears" with her hands over hear head, to encourage elementary students to say it in Spanish

“The class is unique in that it is both an academic course and a workjob position,” explained Yates. It is also distinctive in that students have to be recommended to participate. “Not every student is good at working with young children,” Yates said. 

The class is primarily populated by juniors, seniors, and postgraduates. Occasionally, an exceptional younger student is recommended. Last semester, that exception was Alex Baron ’26. Baron was taught to speak Spanish from a young age by a caregiver and at the International School of Brooklyn. He felt called to service-learning, he said. “Rather than learn more passively through a textbook, I wanted to go out into the real world and apply my Spanish skills to something that would mean something or help someone.”

The NMH students develop weekly lesson plans, which they submit to Yates a few days before their weekly Friday visits to Gill Elementary. At the school, they are divided between the first and second grades.

On a recent visit, the NMH students would say a Spanish word for the younger students to act out. “Someone else can be ‘el gato,’ the kitty,” said one NMH student. First-graders Emma and Jalen crawled on the floor, meowing. Everyone, including the teachers, giggled. Meanwhile, other NMH students sat on colorful foam mats and at desks with small groups, leading flashcard games. The second-graders eagerly raised their hands, wiggled fingers to get noticed, and leaned in to see the illustrations.

For Zach Wells ’25, teaching nurtured authentic connections with his students. “I enjoyed playing fun guessing games or activities while incorporating Spanish vocabulary,” he said. “Towards the end of our work at Gill Elementary, we developed close bonds with the kids; they looked forward to seeing us on Fridays. I also learned a lot about teaching through this experience, and especially being patient. I would highly recommend it to someone who has a passion for Spanish and wants to build on their teaching skills and experience working with kids.” 

The experience of connection and appreciation also resonated for Lelaini Aires ’24. “It was an honor to participate in this course,” she said. “It taught me that teaching is truly one of the greatest ways to learn and brought me closer to my younger and older peers. Language has an extraordinary power to bring people together. To help enable that connection is a gift.”

Yates hopes her spring semester students expand on the foundation built by the fall semester students. Even if the elementary students don’t learn extensive language skills, she said, the experience is still valuable. “They are at least exposed to the fact that English is not the only language in the world and that other cultures exist,” she said. “[This class]is a very rewarding experience for my students. Quite often, they write about their experience in their college application essay. I often hear their comments on how hard teaching is and how they appreciate their own teachers' abilities to keep them engaged and interested in the material they are learning themselves. 

“It's sort of a ‘come full circle’ moment for them. That,” Yates continued, “is rewarding for me to witness.”

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