A Special Thanks to Our Language Leaders

  • Esta es Caperucita Roja.  Ella tiene capa roja, ojos azules, y pelo rubio

    The above snippet was my first elementary school exposure to a foreign language.  In third grade, my Spanish teacher, Señora Brewer, walked into the classroom, uttered, “Hola” and proceeded to place a copy of the excerpt from Little Red Riding Hood on our desks. (Translation:  This is Little Red Riding Hood.  She has a red cape, blue eyes, and blond hair).  Now I don’t know about you, but I’m hard pressed to believe that one’s success at holding a meaningful conversation in a Spanish speaking country rests on his or her ability to recite Little Red Riding Hood. Yet, my teacher obviously thought that a gullible, granny-loving-soon-to-be-gulped-up-goody-two-shoes-girl would get us excited to learn a new language.  The exercise was indeed novel, exciting, and thoroughly foreign to this eight year old Nebraskan.

    I have never excelled in learning other languages. While Spanish basically shared the same alphabet as English, the rules regulating letter sounds baffled me.  E said long AI demanded a long E sound.  D was a close cousin to TH. And what was with R? While other classmates trilled away to their hearrrrrrrrrrrrrts content, I could only trip over my tongue and make gagging sounds.  I was good at memorizing words and could tell you where to find a cuarto de baño (now those are words that come in handy abroad), but ask me to read a passage or write a sentence, and I quickly asked to be excused to visit the cuarto de baño!

    Imagine how excited I was to learn that help was only two doors up the street from where I lived in the guise of Yvonne Greenberg.  Yvonne was a good friend of my parents, mother to my buddies Paul and Brant, and spoke Spanish fluently. During the summer between third and fourth grade, the world became fascinated with our neighboring country to the south. Herb Albert and his Tijuana Brass saturated the air waves, the Olympics were in Mexico City, and Yvonne offered to teach Spanish to any adult who was interested.  My mom and dad signed up and volunteered to share their knowledge with me. 

    When they returned from their first lesson, I was glad to discover that they knew nothing about Caperucita Roja. I wasn’t so happy to discover that Yvonne would be using phonograph records as a teaching tool (yesteryear’s Rosetta Stone).  My parents handed me a box set of LPs and sent me to the record player in our basement to listen to an hombre instruct me in conversational Spanish. In a year that saw the release of the Beatles’ White Album, and who knows which other seminal rock and roll records, the Spanish recordings immediately lost rotation status on my play list. I do vaguely recall the instructor asking his listeners to repeat the phrase, “It is very hot in Madrid.”

    My foreign language trials and tribulations did not stop at Spanish.  I had to learn to speak and read enough Hebrew to be able conduct a service for my Bar Mitzvah upon reaching the age of thirteen. Hebrew is an ancient language with enough guttural sounds to clean out one’s larynx for a lifetime.

    In law school, I wrestled with an ample share of Latin quid pro quos and stare decises. Latin still remains a mystery to me, but I can tell you that I am humbled to stand in loco parentis (in place of parents) while executing many of my duties as principal.

    You may be surprised to know that I eventually did learn Spanish. I studied it for four semesters at the University of Wisconsin where I learned to conjugate verbs, read quality literature, and converse with my excellent teachers.  Then I proceeded to forget everything because I spent a year in Israel and immersed myself in extensive Hebrew where I learned to conjugate verbs, read quality literature and converse with my excellent teachers.  Then I proceeded to forget everything because, in America, one doesn’t need Hebrew to order a hamburger and fries at McDonalds. 

    Which brings me to the meat and French fries of this article. Learning languages is a difficult task for many people, and learning English is no exception.  Students struggle on a daily basis to master our quirky language which serves up spectacular vernacular challenges, exceptional rules with exceptional exceptions, odd idioms, and other literary and linguistic hurdles. Whether it’s reading, writing or conversing—students, like a certain red-caped character, must navigate their way through a forest of frustrating and sometimes frightening obstacles as they seek a way to “deliver the goods.”

    Accordingly, it’s time to acknowledge a plethora of Island Park professionals who guide our children through the language labyrinth.  Our amazing classroom teachers offer excellent instruction that addresses the individual needs and skill levels of each student.  From an early emphasis on phonemic awareness and letter sense, to an increasing focus on reading comprehension, fluency, vocabulary development, writing skills, and speech delivery, children are given ample opportunities and strategies to acquire and master linguistic benchmarks. In tandem with our classroom teachers, our wonderful ELL (English Language Learner) team of Kristin Kim, Kanako Kashima and Anne Cameron, nurture, instruct and support students acquiring and solidifying their English skills.  They are also invaluable in providing translation services to many students and their families.  Our  LAP staff of Gayle St. George, Cyndy Carfi, Carol Durst and Perry Alexander, as well as all of our hand-in-hands: Heidi Arvish, Sandra Chow, Anne Hritzay, Mindy Moore, Crystal Taitague, Cindy Weber and Libby Wotipka and support staff, Kristin Brintnall and Andy Hamp, provide that little extra attention that some students need to be successful in reading, writing and math. Our phenomenal PLP staff, Jim Berrington, Kathy Jones, Belinda Mertz, Lisa Peterson, Dawn Schiller and Michelle Van Hamersveld under the tutelage of Christy Kenyon successfully teach their young charges how to communicate in non-conventional ways. Kris LaFramboise, our Speech and Language Pathologist, expertly works with students, sharpening their articulation and language processing skills. Kristin Bedard and Nicole Nelson, Island Park’s Occupation/Physical therapists help children develop the motor skills necessary to form legible letters. The terrific learning center staff of Allison Fiser, Lisa Elefson, Patrick Frost, Kanako Kashima, Katy Neale, and Nicki Winder create and deliver effective, individualized instruction to students. Our school psychologist, Patty Shipman. school nurse/health room staff Shelley Sage and Jane Dieckman and other key staff do whatever is warranted to identify and address the language needs of our students. 

    Finally, our stellar librarian, parent volunteers, reading buddies, and other learning community members provide additional support, instruction, materials while acting as safety nets for students taking the leap toward language acquisition.

    To all, muchas gracias!  Agradezco sinceramente su esfuerzo y trabajo. 


    David Hoffman