Velma Thomas Honors Culture and Community Through Our Multilingual Curriculum

Published July 18, 2019

Giselle Sanchez SantiagoGiselle Sanchez SantiagoBy Giselle Sanchez Santiago, Teacher at Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center

"Ice cream, ice cream, quien quiere ice cream?!” was a frequently chanted phrase in our classroom right up until the last day of school at the Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center in McKinley Park. Among many other topics this year, my preschool classroom studied ice cream: the transactions around it, the money involved and the design and construction of stores. As with all our studies, we used as many tools as we could think of — digital cameras, one-on-one and small group conversations, walking field trips, and parent and cross-classroom collaboration — and it was all happening in Spanish.

Velma Thomas has undergone many transformations over the years, including leadership, teaching methods and language models. We are a Chicago Public Schools child-parent center, which puts an emphasis on building deep relationships with parents by involving them in the classroom, providing them with resources, and inviting them to see children as we do: curious, capable and autonomous holders of love and theories about the world.

McKinley Park Neighborhood Restaurant Guide

McKinley Park Neighborhood Restaurant Guide

This deeply held belief aligns beautifully with the core beliefs of the Reggio Emilia Approach: a method that places children at the forefront of their education. This approach originated in post-war Italy when community members rallied to address a need for a quality education, placing children and families front and center as protagonists and co-creators of knowledge. We at Velma Thomas believe the same.

Reggio textbooks reference the hundred languages as beautifully varied, marvelously myriad ways children can express themselves, whether through drawing, clay, dance, or light and shadow. At Velma Thomas, we listen to all our students’ languages, with a recent focus on Spanish, a literal language that is the home language of more than 78 percent of our students. This dual language support in most of our classrooms is a just, more holistic way of honoring the children, families and community we serve.

80 Percent Spanish, 20 Percent English

Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center students play selling ice creamVelma Thomas Early Childhood Center students pretend to run an ice cream shop as part of their learning and play.Dual language education builds a child’s home language while supporting their acquisition of a second language. Our program follows the 80/20 model, which means that teachers speak Spanish to the students 80 percent of the time, and English 20 percent of the time. Students choose what language they respond in, but the language of instruction is Spanish, giving pupils authentic and engaging ways to practice.

As a preschool-only center, Velma Thomas has two years to work with our young students, and we want them to hear lots of Spanish. We are intentional about elevating Spanish within our school to communicate to children and parents how special their home language is, and how useful and magical it is to be able to speak more than one language.

My classroom’s ice cream study this year was a rich example of how connecting language, culture and community can create powerful learning experiences. After observing our students engaged in dramatic play about ice cream stores for the first couple of weeks at school, my teaching team and I decided to initiate a study: We would engage children in experiences to extend their ice cream play. We asked students to design an ice cream store and their own ice cream. We introduced menus, and then children started creating their own. We brought in receipt books and saw writing within children’s play blossom.

Ice Cream Traditions

During our first parent-teacher conferences, we invited families to share a memory about ice cream. Heartfelt anecdotes of being in Mexico and remembering the thrill of getting ice cream were shared alongside special family and child ice cream traditions. Later in the year, we invited small groups of students and their families on walking field trips to local ice cream stores to research menus, flavors and interior design, developing relationships with different businesses in our community.

We feel so lucky to be nestled in such a beautiful neighborhood brimming with resources. In addition to exploring local ice cream stores, we investigated the McKinley Community Play Garden and fostered a relationship with the children’s librarian at the McKinley Park public library, with students creating recommendation cards for their favorite Spanish-language books. We also put together a very fun Bilingual Family Night at the library.

Throughout our community instruction and ice cream study, our students weaved in and out of English and Spanish: “Ice cream, Ice cream, quien quiere ice cream?!”

It’s a paleta de limón.”

While teachers stay in their target language 80 percent of the time, we encourage our students to use every linguistic resource available to them- honoring their choices however and whenever they speak. As a school, these intentional choices about our language model – paired with parent involvement and our emergent curriculum – provides a very meaningful way for language, culture and community to interact.

Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center father daughter ice cream parlorA Velma Thomas student and her father conduct field research on ice cream during a walking field trip.

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