Bowdoin College students help Brunswick elementary school kids learn foreign languages in the ‘Wild’

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BRUNSWICK — “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak has been a staple of children’s literature since 1963.

At Coffin Elementary School, however, one teacher is helping students see the book in a new way.

In February, reading teacher Annie Young launched a lunchtime program in collaboration with Margaret Boyle, associate professor of romance languages and literature at Bowdoin College.

The initiative is temporarily being referred to as “Lunch Bunch,” although Young said she is working on coming up with a new name, due to different school programs with that name.

By any name, however, it brings Bowdoin students to Coffin four days a week to read “Where the Wild Things Are” aloud in different languages.

The Bowdoin students are each proficient in their foreign languages. On Mondays the book is read to Coffin students in Chinese, Tuesdays it is read in Ukrainian, Wednesdays it is read in German, and Thursday is Spanish day.

Coffin students are selected to attend the lunch session in small groups. Young said so far all first- and second-graders, and about a third of the kindergarten class has attended a foreign-language session.

“I’m keeping the groups small; I only have four or five kids, because I don’t want it to get too big. It’s much more powerful when it’s just a couple kids,” Young said.

She added she has run small reading groups during lunchtime in the past, which were also facilitated by volunteers.

“These kids need to get read to all the time,” she said. “And it doesn’t always happen, so at lunch is a prime time.”

Young said the idea for the new program, however, partially came from Boyle, who is also the parent of a Coffin student. Earlier this year, Boyle approached Principal Steve Ciembroniewicz and asked if foreign language could somehow be implemented at Coffin.

“Steve kind of said to me, ‘Annie, what can we do?’ And I was like, we’ll tie those two programs together,” Young said. “So (Boyle) created an internship at Bowdoin College, looking for students who spoke English as well as their native language, and we got more people than I thought. It happened super fast.”

She added Bowdoin volunteers have exceeded her expectations, saying “they’re all amazing people.” She also said the Bowdoin students take the lessons beyond just reading the words on the page.

“They all do a really good job; I’ve heard different ones say, ‘let’s count the monsters,’ and they count in the language. And they say, “this monster’s jumping – do you know how to say ‘jump’ in Spanish?” she said. “So it’s just that exposure to the words, to the listening to a story, there’s stories about their country, they give little bits of that.”

Erika Kiem, a Bowdoin student majoring in German, read to a group of first-graders on March 28. Kiem said her father was born in Germany, and she attended a German school on Saturdays while she was growing up in Seattle.

Early exposure to German, she said, was “very important” for her to learn the language.

“For these kids, even though it’s like 30 minutes, they may retain a word or two, but it’s more about just this idea of just exposure to different languages,” Kiem said. “Just seeing their faces, they’re just in awe that you can read this book and it’s not in English.”

Tana Sherman, one of the first-graders in Kiem’s group, said after attending the session she wants to learn German.

Before Coffin students attend a foreign-language session, Young goes into their classroom and does a reading and analysis of  “Where The Wild Things Are” in English to familiarize them with the material.

She said she thinks the benefit of the program on the young students goes far beyond simply being read to more often.

“I’ve had parents email me and say all of a sudden their talk at the dinner table was all about different cultures, and different countries, and going to college,” Young said. “(It’s) really broadening their world.”

Boyle echoed that sentiment, and said she has read in Spanish to Coffin students in the past.

“I was surprised to see that some students had no prior experience encountering any foreign language,” she said.

Young and Boyle have plans to expand the program next year, which was made easier recently through funding from the Brunswick Community Education Foundation. Part of that expansion might mean reading a wider range of books in the other languages.

Boyle said she would like to see the program focus on one or two languages in the future, so there would be an opportunity for “more depth” over the course of the academic year.

“In that model, we would develop deeper relationships between students and classrooms, and have more consistent opportunities for language and cultural learning,” she said.

Young said she is also open to getting more bilingual volunteers from the community to read to students.

“If we had more volunteers and more space,” she said, “the sky’s the limit of what we could do.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Erika Kiem, a Bowdoin College student majoring in German, reads “Where the Wild Things Are” to a group of Coffin Elementary School first-graders March 28 in Brunswick. Kiem is part of an internship program designed to bring foreign-language exposure to the young students.

Coffin Elementary School in Brunswick uses “Where the Wild Things Are” in five languages for its new lunchtime reading program.

Coffin Elementary School reading teacher Annie Young, above, launched the lunchtime foreign-language program in February in collaboration with Margaret Boyle, an associate professor of romance languages at Bowdoin College.

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