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Model Middle Spanish students test skills with native speakers

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Model Middle School Spanish teacher William Carvajal asked his students, who were at their desks opening up their Chromebooks, to raise their hands if they were nervous. Nearly every hand in the room shot up, and rightly so, the students were about to test their second-language skills on two native speakers, with over 2,000 miles between them.

On Tuesday, middle schoolers in Carvajal’s class asked questions to Julian and Kelly Viana, of Bucaramanga, Colombia, through a Skype video call. The couple appeared on the SMART Board and students were selected to come to the front of class and ask two questions — one open-ended and another closed-ended — while Carvajal assisted with translation.

The experience touched on one of Carvajal’s main teaching points, that to gain proficiency in Spanish, students must overcome the fear of speaking the language they’re learning, especially when conversing with native speakers. He did not assess the students on their conjugation or if they had precise pronunciation, but focused in on their willingness to go before a class of their peers and pose their questions in Spanish, while introducing themselves in the language, as well.

“Is there a volunteer before I have a victim,” Carvajal joked with the class, using the Spanish word for “victim.”

The topics of questions touched on cuisine — which included fried ants — pets, Netflix, holidays, America and President Donald Trump, who Julian Viana said looks like he is angry all the time. The kids were surprised to hear that Christmas songs are already on the radio and the stores are decorated.

The learning target for the activity was, “I can use my language skills and cultural understanding to interact in a cultural context other than my own.”

Carvajal is a strong believer in the power of learning a second language to tear down prejudices, generalizations and misconceptions, to foster the growth of cultural understanding.

And Kelly de Viana, in one of her responses, aimed to clear up the misrepresentations of Colombia and its people. She said when people think of Colombia, they think of cocaine, narcos and war, and the notion prevails that tourists coming into the country will be kidnapped. But this is not the country she knows, she said.

The country has taken strides to overcome its past, with the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, an insurgent group, reaching a peace deal last year after over 50 years of armed conflict. The Vianas, who are both accountants, said they support the peace accord and its attempt to reconcile the differences that fueled the war that killed at least 220,000 people. 

Bucaramanga is one of Colombia’s largest cities, modern in its design, and it’s known for its many parks, often elaborate in their design, Kelly de Viana told a seventh-grade class. The city’s inhabitants are what Colombians call berracos, or skillful and hard workers, of the industrial city.