Woodland Schools staff members learn Spanish to connect with the growing ELL population

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Staff members at Woodland Public Schools gather once a week to take Spanish classes from Milagros Wells, the district’s English Language Learner (ELL) Outreach Coordinator and native Spanish speaker, who decided to offer the free classes as a way for her colleagues to connect with Woodland’s growing Hispanic population.

Milagros Wells (second from the right) offers free classes after school for her colleagues to learn conversational Spanish
Milagros Wells (second from the right) offers free classes after school for her colleagues to learn conversational Spanish

Wells realized she could help when a member of the administrative team approached her about learning Spanish. Nearly 280 Hispanic families in the district speak very little to no English. “Ingrid Colvard, the Principal of Woodland Primary School, asked me if there was a way for her and her staff to learn Spanish,” explained Wells. “I realized right then and there that Spanish lessons for our staff could be very beneficial to give them ways to communicate with this growing population.”

Wells started offering language classes for her colleagues in October with staff members filling the classroom each week, eager to find effective methods to connect with all of Woodland’s students. “We want to encourage our bilingual students to continue to speak their native language, and one way to do this is to provide the staff with some fundamental words to interact with those students on a day-to-day basis,” said Wells. “For our staff, it’s not about picking up the entire language – it’s about learning how to communicate and validate diversity.”

During class sessions, Wells works with each staff member by practicing sentence structure, pronunciation, enunciation, and teaching vocabulary. Wells guides the class through new material by introducing different themes such as feelings and emotions; days of the week; times of the day; and how to give directions. Wells prepares binders for her colleagues containing handouts with vocabulary and sentences selected specifically for situations the staff might encounter on a day-to-day basis.

Milagros Wells works with each student one-on-one to ensure they understand proper pronunciation and sentence structure
Milagros Wells (left) works with each staff member one-on-one to ensure they understand proper pronunciation and sentence structure

Sentences and vocabulary include greetings, how to give directions, and address specific situations such as how to ask a student where they hurt themselves if they fell down or feel sick. “If we can comprehend these basic key words and vocabulary, we can really help out our students who speak very little or no English,” explained Wells. “Once someone is greeted or spoken to in a language they understand, they feel less disconnected and more comfortable in their new environment.”

Wells says her colleagues provide excellent examples as students, with many working hard to learn the nuances of the Spanish language. “Our staff members really want to learn, so, for me, it’s just a matter of sharing my native language and then giving my colleagues the time to gain a richer understanding of the Spanish-speaking community,” said Wells. “We continue to have students and families come to Woodland with little to no English fluency so it is essential for our staff to be able to communicate and welcome everyone.”

So far, the staff raves about their experiences learning Spanish. “Milagros is a marvelous teacher and serves as a tremendous advocate for Spanish-speaking families throughout the district,” said Annika Dukes, a Woodland Middle School teacher taking Wells’ classes. “It’s delightful to see the range of staff members taking part with Milagros supportively coaxing us out of our comfort zones making us willing to make mistakes in order to connect with all of our community members.”

Students in Milagros Wells' classes work together to help one another become more comfortable using their new skills
Staff members in Milagros Wells' classes work together to help one another become more comfortable using their new skills

Vicky Barnes, Human Resources Manager for Woodland Public Schools, started attending Wells’ classes so she could greet parents and visitors to the district office. “I quickly realized that Spanish-speaking parents were just looking for answers to simple questions like how to find a certain school,” said Barnes. “I decided that I want to get comfortable enough speaking Spanish that I can effectively greet our visitors and answer basic questions.”

As Woodland Public Schools’ ELL Outreach Coordinator, Wells also offers classes for Spanish parents to learn English. Now, she’s working on connecting both groups of students so they can learn from each other. “I have taught English classes for our Spanish-speaking parents for more than two years,” said Wells. “One of my goals is to bring both language classes together so they can become more confident using their new skills by speaking with each other.”

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