Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Uruguay teachers observe valley schools

Express Staff Writer

A student enrolled in a dual immersion program understands that a window is more than a window. Through the bilingual program a student discovers the same object can be described by different words.

"For a kid with two languages, it is a window, but it's also a 'ventana,'" said Silvia Correa, a dual immersion teacher from Uruguay. ("Ventana" is the Spanish word for window.)

Correa believes that dual immersion programs enhance children's view of possibilities through language. Correa arrived to Blaine County in February to expand her own horizons through a Fulbright educational exchange program. She arrived with Leticia Tourin, also of Uruguay, to shadow Blaine County teachers and administrators.

"The purpose of the Fulbright is to promote exchange and knowledge between cultures," Tourin said.

The Fulbright Program originated after World War II, led by the initiative of the former Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright as a means to foster understanding and tolerance. With the goal to strengthen cooperation among the U.S. and foreign educational institutions, the Fulbright commission invited 34 Uruguayan educators to the United States last month.

The Blaine County School District welcomed the two teachers Feb. 11 to Feb. 24 for an educational exchange designed to compare dual immersion programs. The teachers' South American homeland, Uruguay, is situated west of Argentina and east of Brazil.

Both women teach English in Uruguay's dual immersion program, which started as a national program eight years ago. In Uruguay, the dual immersion venture offers a Spanish and Portuguese program and an English and Spanish program.

The visiting educators both teach in the English and Spanish elementary dual immersion program, which invites students to learn half the day in each language. The program is surprisingly similar to the Blaine County School District's dual immersion program, which started in 2001.

Presently, there are approximately 300 students enrolled in Blaine County's dual immersion programs. The district offers dual immersion classes for kindergarten to fourth-grade students at Bellevue and Hemingway elementary schools.

Because of the district's vibrant dual immersion program, school officials decided to apply to host bilingual teachers through the Fulbright exchange, said Blake Walsh, Blaine County School District director of student service.

As the host, the district introduced the teachers to the American educational system and way of life. Before the trip, neither guest had ventured on a plane or visited an English-speaking country. During the visit, district employees Tod Gunter and Penny Thayer agreed to host the women, offering housing and tours of the valley.

The visitors toured all Blaine County schools, conversing with administrators, attending a school board meeting and talking with dual immersion classes.

Both found the structure of Blaine County's dual immersion program to resemble their curriculum. The differences emerged in the student-teacher ratios, school supplies and facilities.

"The resources here are unbelievable," Tourin said.

The visiting teachers recalled a project they observed at Bellevue Elementary. For the project, the south valley students celebrated 100 days of school by making a display that involved gluing candy to a poster. The teacher professionals remarked they would improvise stones for candy.

"We have to adapt everything, because we don't have the resources you have here," Tourin said.

Both women teach at underprivileged schools, where the dual immersion program offers a chance for disadvantaged children to learn English.

"It's the only opportunity they have to learn another language," Correa said.

To support their English studies, the educators gathered a large box of English books to take home. The women also arranged for their students to exchange letters with a Bellevue class. For practice, the Uruguay students will write in English and the Bellevue students will write in Spanish.

The project aligns with the Fulbright requirement to create an active international link between schools.

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