Second Language Program Creates Global Citizens

October 01, 2018

By Orla Dunstan, Director of Communications

Second language study “empowers our students to become … contributing members of a global society,” as our mission states, by exposing students to different cultures and broadening their thinking. In many other schools, students with learning disabilities receive a waiver, and therefore do not have the opportunity to study a second language. At MMFS, not only do we believe that our students are capable of learning a second language, we have witnessed it firsthand. “For many of them it is the highlight of their day,” according to Amanda Toomey, Upper School American Sign Language Teacher.

Traditional approaches to teaching a second language do not work well for students with learning disabilities, so MMFS teachers have developed a comprehensive program from the ground up that integrates accommodations, multisensory approaches, and assistive technology. Instruction in Spanish begins in the oldest lower school classes, and continues through the middle and upper schools. American Sign Language (ASL) is offered in the upper school. Students are required to take two years of a language to graduate, and most students take four years.


Lower school students in the Fox, Fell, Levi, and Penn Rooms get an introduction to Spanish with Head of School, Debbie Zlotowitz. They learn colors, numbers, and basic conversational words and phrases in Spanish.

All middle school students study Spanish in their homeroom groups. The emphasis is on speaking and listening skills. Students learn to read and write in Spanish and are introduced to cultures of Spanish-speaking countries. Darcy Berenberg, Middle School Head Teacher, says, “The goal is for students to enjoy the process of learning the language.” Teachers differentiate instruction and vary the modalities, using songs, drawing, flash cards, partner dialogs, and many other types of activities as much as possible to engage students with different learning styles. Games, such as bingo and Jeopardy, and online games, such as Kahoot and Quizlet that a class can play as a group, appeal to students and are great motivators to practice the language.

As students move from sixth to seventh grade, they become more proficient and start to contextualize vocabulary. In the eighth grade, students are grouped by ability in order to better target their needs. The goals are for students to complete sentences and to be able to use the language to communicate their ideas. Students are taught grammar concepts and teachers make connections between English and Spanish grammatical structures. The highlight of eighth grade study is a one-week language immersion trip to Costa Rica. Students attend intensive Spanish language classes in the mornings and experience Costa Rica’s culture, lush vegetation, and varied wildlife in the afternoons. “It is an experience that changes them,” Ginny Perrin, Spanish Teacher and Director of Outreach and Facilities says. “Students leave with an openness to culture, food, and other ways of living. They are a more inclusive, tighter community going into ninth grade than students who have not had this experience.”

Five levels of Spanish are offered in the upper school. Class sizes are small, consisting of four to twelve students. Students develop speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills, and learn about Hispanic and Latinx history and cultures. Teachers have adapted a method of teaching high frequency language through movement called Total Physical Response (TPR) that has proven to be very successful with our students. A teacher says “stand up” in Spanish and the student stands up, thus connecting language with meaning. Teachers take TPR to the next level by adding a storytelling element – actions are combined into stories that students act out. Students become so invested in rehearsing the scenes that they develop automaticity with high frequency vocabulary.

Spanish I students build vocabulary, conversational, and writing skills through storytelling and by discussing and writing about their interests and lives. Spanish II students continue to build vocabulary through storytelling; they further develop reading and writing skills through readings that incorporate the history and culture of Spanish-speaking countries. Spanish III students strengthen narration skills in past tenses and develop conversational skills through poetry recitations, song lyrics, cultural readings, and theatrical skits. Spanish IV students incorporate more complex grammatical structures and idiomatic expressions in their conversations and writings, and instruction is conducted primarily in Spanish. Spanish V is a complete language immersion class.

At every level the content is historically and culturally relevant to Spanish-speaking countries. Spanish I offers an overview of several places of the Spanish-speaking world. Spanish II engages in a yearlong murder-mystery titled Salad Stories that explores the themes of globalization and fair trade. Spanish III generally focuses on the rise and fall of the Mexica (Aztec) people, focusing specifically on the capital of the empire, Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City). Spanish IV studies the history of the Taíno peoples and precolonial Puerto Rico through to the present. The curriculum examines the deep and complicated connections between Puerto Rico and the United States.

American Sign Language

Four levels of American Sign Language are offered in the upper school. ASL is a visual-spatial language that uses a combination of handshapes, body movements, and facial expressions to convey meaning. Students are offered a comprehensive program that blends the intricacies of sign language with the richness of Deaf culture. The visual nature of ASL makes it a great second language option for students who struggle verbally. Students who may have great difficulty conversing verbally, can talk at length in sign language.

Instruction is as immersive and interactive as possible. “You can wrap anything into sign language,” Rick Caceres, Upper School ASL Teacher says. “You can engage students in conversation about music and rappers, action movies, sports, or superheroes.” Students become invested because of the subject matter and do some of their best work because they are so passionate. “I find that when there is buy-in, students relate and absorb more,” says Rick. Instruction is very differentiated and support is different for every student for every lesson. For instance a student may be at an advanced instruction level when creating stories, but need modified support in translating from English.

“One of the things that is so special about our program is the use of technology,” says Amanda. “The use of iPhones and cameras for students to document themselves in videos is an invaluable teaching tool.” Students compare videos taken at the beginning and end of the year to see their progress. Rick uses an online ClassCraft game that has been extremely successful in motivating students in his classes. Students play on teams working together. According to Rick, “They have so much fun, they don’t realize they are practicing the language.”

Over the course of the curriculum, students learn about Deaf culture and history in order to dispel myths about Deaf culture and increase students’ awareness of discrimination. “One of my favorite things is opening students’ eyes to Deaf culture and individuals who were previously invisible to them,” Rick says. “For example, when a student comes to class very excited, ‘I signed with this person on the subway today.’”

ASL I students focus on vocabulary by learning words and phrases that describe their immediate surroundings. They continue to build vocabulary and grammar as they move through ASL II. The goal for students in ASL I and II is to hold a conversation with a deaf person for 15-20 minutes. ASL III and IV are entirely project-based. ASL III students learn storytelling, write their own stories, and develop advanced signing skills to communicate complex stories. They learn the nuances of language through interpreting a song. The most advanced class, ASL IV, is an authentic voice-off Deaf classroom that utilizes all the skills from previous levels to create a truly conversational second language environment. Some class projects include personal monologues, cooking shows, ASL translation of Aesop’s Fables, and portfolio development.

Immersive projects are better than tests in assessing language proficiency in terms of communicating and understanding the language. One example is mall madness, in which the classroom is transformed into a mall with stores, bankers, and cashiers; students are tasked with purchasing everything on a shopping list. It requires that they use every skill that they’ve learned. In other examples, Amanda gives students a picture they have never seen and asks them to sign a description of what is happening, or she gives them a story they have never heard and asks them to sign it.

Every spring students in Spanish and ASL classes present skits, poems, songs and animated shorts in an impressive display of language proficiency at the annual Language Festival. Students host a cafe that raises funds to support organizations related to either Deaf or Spanish-speaking culture.

At MMFS we are giving students who have significant learning challenges the supports they need to learn a second language, and we are giving students who have the interest and talent the opportunity to excel.

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