Elgin teacher inspires students through language
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Using hand and facial gestures, body movement and singing, Juan Perez communicates words in an animated manner, helping students connect the dots and pick up language more easily.
Love for Spanish is what motivates Perez to come to work every day teaching 28 first-graders in a dual language classroom at Otter Creek Elementary School in Elgin.
"That's music to my ears," said Perez, 40, of Pingree Grove, who comes from the small town of Nerja in southern Spain. "I think Spanish is the most beautiful language of all."
Perez studied to become a physical education teacher, but couldn't find a job in that field when he moved to the suburbs. He is one of the pioneers of Elgin Area School District U-46's Dual Language Program, which started in 2011 with five teachers at a few schools.
"Otter Creek was one of the first schools to start the Dual Language Program," said Perez, who has taught in U-46 schools for 17 years, the past seven at Otter Creek.
Today, U-46's 80:20 Dual Language Program serves Spanish-speaking English learners from prekindergarten through eighth grades at 33 elementary schools, including two early learning centers, and five middle schools.
The program was implemented in eighth grade this school year, and is expected to be rolled out at the high schools in coming years.
It offers a bilingual educational environment in which students are taught literacy and academic content in English and Spanish starting in kindergarten, where 80 percent of classroom instruction is in Spanish and 20 percent in English.
As students move up in grades, English instruction increases by 10 percent per grade until both languages reach parity by third grade. Its goal is to foster bilingualism and bi-literacy, which officials say has proved to help students improve academically, while incorporating awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity.
"You have a new generation that's more prepared for the future," Perez said.
Perez said he himself didn't begin learning English until he was in fifth grade in Spain, which put him at a disadvantage for competing in a global economy.
"It was a little late," Perez said. "I didn't have the resources I needed. Learning (English), for me, was difficult. It took me quite an effort to learn what I needed to make the jump from there to here. I want them to have the opportunities that I never had when I was a child."
Learning multiple languages at a younger age enriches and adds value to students' educational portfolio, while opening doors to more careers, he added.
Perez's two-way dual language class is split between native English speakers, or English-dominant students, and native Spanish speakers. He teaches in Spanish 70 percent of the time for most subjects, including mathematics, while social studies and science are taught in English. Ninety percent of his students already are bilingual, he said.
Teaching native Spanish speakers who predominantly come from different South American countries can be tough, as Perez must adjust to variations between regional dialects.
Similarly, bridging the language barrier with English-speaking students who don't understand Spanish also is challenging at first, as it's easier for them to disconnect and get distracted, Perez said.
Within a couple of months they start gaining familiarity with Spanish words and understand how they relate to and connect with the English language, he said.
"As time goes by you see them learning and becoming proficient in Spanish ... that's amazing to me," he said. "It's my inspiration."
To reinforce what they learn in class, Perez records sounds, words, and texts -- from simple sentences and passages to entire books in Spanish -- with students in their own voice after school. Students can play back the audio recordings -- accessible on a CD or through a cellphone app -- and practice reading. They also can listen to recordings of other students' reading.
"We have recorded more than 200 books," Perez said. "It's been really successful and I have a waiting list."
Perez has also recorded books with other second-, third- and fourth-graders at the school. "I'm seeing that it helps them continually build their language proficiency," he said.
Perez also get parents involved in the education process by sending video recordings of students and pictures of charts they create in the classroom so they can stay informed about what their children are learning. He coaches parents on learning strategies they can use at home.
"That really makes a difference and keeps them engaged," he said. "When you teach students you also have to teach their parents, because they also want to help their kids but don't know how."