Recently, I had the chance to catch up with Maestra Nayeli Venegas, fourth grade teacher at Holland Language Academy. I’d be remiss if I went without saying that interviewing her was a real honor. I’ve known Nayeli now for a decade, first having met her when she was assigned to my elementary classroom as a high school assistant in the summer migrant program where I taught. Nayeli was an incredibly valuable asset to the students we served each summer because she knew their experience. She volunteered her summer days to be a part of our classroom community. She modeled the stance of a lifelong learner. While she says she’s learned a bit from me over the years, I’m almost certain I’ve learned more from her.
Talking with her for this blog was a powerful reminder of the values and beliefs we share:
- ALL students can learn when we rally behind them and provide solid care and instruction
- we’re ALL learners — regardless of position
- greatness isn’t born…it’s MADE.
Nayeli Blog Post (Interviewed on: 11.21.2016) Translation
Stephanie: Good afternoon! Here, I find myself with Maestra Nayeli Venegas from Holland Language Academy in Holland Public Schools. She is a fourth grade teacher here in the Academy and we would like to take just a little bit of her time.
Thank you, Nayeli, for your time here with us this afternoon! I would like to start this talk with you asking about how you became an immersion teacher, and to be able to do that, it would be important to talk about the past. So, can you please share with us a little bit about your childhood and what attracted you to the field of education?
Nayeli: Sure. When I was small, my parents didn’t speak English. And, during my elementary years, I had to put forth twice the effort as my peers to learn the language and the content. And, then, I started to create that desire to become a teacher and help students who were like me — those who didn’t speak English as their first language. Everyone would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I would always say, “I want to be a teacher. I want to help the students who had the same types of problems that I had when I was little.” So, from that grew my great desire to become a teacher, especially of English as a second language
Stephanie: And, Nayeli, why do you think it went that way? Because many people, no, say that there’s that dynamic between English and Spanish, especially here in the United States when we speak about the status of the languages that we speak? Your direction, originally, as you mentioned at the beginning was to go for English as a Second Language (ESL). What happened when you entered college and you started exploring the field a little more? What was it that brought you to dual language immersion as we know it now?
Nayeli: Exactly. Everything started when I entered Hope College. It was during my second
year when I started to do my, what you call “field placement” in the field of education. I had some experiences in the immersion program at Zeeland Christian and there was all of my field experience. I started noticing that it was fabulous that the students in the community today wanted to learn my native language. And, so I asked myself, “Why do they want to learn my native language?” That was how I started to change my career’s direction a bit, in my career as a teacher. I wanted to grow in my native language to improve my future as a teacher, and I wanted to know, “What can I do in my native language instead of focusing solely on English?” I wanted to learn about how I could make a difference in the field of education with my native language. So, really, it all started with that experience that I had there at Zeeland Christian with Spanish. It’s when that positive thinking surrounding my native language really began to grow.
Stephanie: So, seeing in action an immersion program with many children who are native English speakers, in the case of Zeeland Christian, the majority of the children come from homes where English is spoken. So, that seemed to honor even more the cultures and also the language [of the Spanish language]. So, you continued with both pathways [English as a Second Language and Spanish], but together, of course! So, how did you land yourself here in Holland Language Academy? What course of events happened to bring you here to this special place?
Nayeli: I say that this is one of the most special places that I could have ever found because I can return to that desire I had from the beginning — I want to help my people. I want to help students who had the same problems as I did. And, this program helps with that! I not only help those students, but I also help a community who wants to learn my language and my culture as well! And, even better, I found it in the same city where I grew up! I found it during my student teaching when I was preparing for graduation, and I knew
what pathway I was going to take and where I wanted to work. I was offered this position without knowing, essentially, what was dual immersion. I thought it was another program [model] like Zeeland Christian’s, but it’s not the same. So, Holland Language Academy and two-way, bilingual immersion in Holland Public helps two communities. It helps those who speak Spanish as their native [or heritage] language, and it also helps those who want to learn the [target language of Spanish]. For me, it’s a privilege to teach in this program with both communities that fascinate me.
Stephanie: The school began in just a pair of classrooms in one of the other schools [in the district], in West K-7 [and a] trajectory for the program began within that building. And the program grew! And now you’re in your own school. This is the first year of this school’s existence. So, how has that experience been, beginning with the program in another, larger building, the growth and support that you’ve seen in the community from both populations that you mentioned? That support and energy grew so much that now you’re in your own building!
Nayeli: Yes, we’ve grown quite a bit. This is my fourth year working in the two-way, bilingual immersion program and I’ve seen big and positive changes. The great majority is positive. It makes me so proud that the community is so interested in this program and I believe that they’re interested because they see the great benefits that the students reap because they speak two languages. And, as you said, we’re in our own building now because of quantity of interested families. I would love to see it continue to grow! And, I want for people to continue to truly believe in the the program because it really does work! Many parents ask me how it works and, more than anything, the parents who worry most are those who speak Spanish in the home. They worry that their children won’t learn English, and the only thing that I have to say is that, “Yes, they learn English. They’ll learn it a little bit later, but they’ll learn it WELL.” So, it works like magic! It works like magic, this program! It’s excellent. It’s one of the programs that I’ve most liked to see in action. I’ve seen various programs, and this one is unique. It’s unique in our community, and hopefully, it’ll continue to grow!
Stephanie: Hopefully, yes! And, with all of the support that you’ve received from your Administration office, from your principal, you’ve got support from many sides. What are some of the benefits you’ve had as as a result of what you’re doing in partnership with add.a.lingua in what you’re doing here at Holland Language Academy?
Nayeli: Exactly. Excellent question. This is my fourth year, and in my first year we didn’t have much direction. We were a little bit lost with what way to take with respect to grammar, with language, and how and what we were going to teach. As a result, we were grabbing lessons out of the air. And, thanks to add.a.lingua, we have more direction especially with the language development. add.a.lingua has helped us and supported us greatly with respect to the grammar, the language, and the culture, too, and how to teach it — and how to develop it across the content areas. Also, thanks to add.a.lingua, I have seen huge changes. I see a huge difference in the students from my first year up until now. Their interest in speaking the language, above anything, has improved greatly. Their fluency has improved immensely! And, I was talking with another teacher recently about how surprised I am that we can have a conversation with the students ABOUT the language with grammar terms, and they understand so well. And that’s thanks to the fact that we use the curriculum [frameworks] from add.a.lingua, and that we use them with fidelity. Because, if we use them with fidelity, the students are hearing it and they are valuing the language, too. And that is the biggest change that I’ve noticed this year.
Stephanie: How exciting! Yes, because it’s really tough to be a teacher in any immersion program because we’re doing TWO! We’re teaching all of the content from each subject area, and furthermore, we have to take into account the special characteristics of each language that we’re teaching. So, that necessary balance between language and content is really challenging. And, unfortunately, in our pre-service teaching studies [as part of our undergraduate work], for example when I became a teacher, there weren’t classes in the university dedicated to immersion-specific teaching, per se. So, it’s wonderful that your program’s alliance with add.a.lingua as an outside organization has been a positive experience. Great!
Well, Nayeli, to close, I would imagine that many people like you are listening, right? Maybe they’re thinking about what to do with their two languages — they’ve learned more than one language in their elementary years or secondary years, or they have the same visions and goals that you had to arrive at the university to study what their passions are. What would you say to a future teacher about this journey to become an immersion teacher?
Nayeli: Well, I would say to future teachers, especially those who plan on becoming bilingual teachers, that they should think about the future! Think about how they want to see their futures and the future of education! That’s what motivated me most to become a teacher, and especially bilingual. I want the students to value the diversity in our community, our state, and in our country. So, it’s excellent to incorporate a second language in education. Definitely, being a bilingual teacher is to signify a great change for our students so that they feel united. So that the environment grows among them, and that they notice that we have many similarities. We have similarities. We often focus on differences, but we have similarities. And, language is something that can bring us together. So, teachers who are listening, think about that. The difference you can make by teaching in a second language.
Stephanie: Nayeli, it couldn’t have been said better. Use the language as a tool to unite the population instead of divide it. Thanks so much for your time today.
Nayeli: Thanks to you.
Stephanie: Thank you.