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UW-Eau Claire Spanish faculty, students host Spanish literacy event for area families

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Blugold Halle Smith (right) works with an Eau Claire-area family on an art project during the first UW-Eau Claire campus-community Spanish Literacy Event. This spring, UW-Eau Claire Spanish students and faculty spent an evening reading and doing other activities with Spanish-speaking families and families with children enrolled in the Eau Claire Area School District’s Spanish immersion program. (Photo by José E. Chávez-Santiago)

As Dani and Greg Mahr watched their kids read and laugh with University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students during a spring literacy event at their elementary school, it didn’t matter to them that they couldn’t understand the stories or conversations being shared in Spanish.

What mattered was that their kids — students in the Spanish dual immersion program at Longfellow Elementary School in Eau Claire — were enjoying their time with the Blugolds during the first campus-community Spanish Literacy Event organized by UW-Eau Claire Spanish students and faculty.

“Our children enjoyed an evening of Spanish storytelling, laughter, hands-on art, reading and engagement with college students,” Dani Mahr says. “Large group interaction was followed by small group reading time, which further fueled their excitement and love for books, stories and reading.”

That excitement is exactly what she was hoping for when she and her students planned an event with a goal of building a sense of community among people in Eau Claire — on and off campus — who have an interest in the Spanish language, says Sara Echarri Recarte, a senior lecturer of Spanish at UW-Eau Claire.

Blugold Ally Wendt reads with a young student during a community event organized by UW-Eau Claire Spanish students and faculty. (Photo by José E. Chávez-Santiago)

Blugold Ally Wendt reads with a young student during a community event organized by UW-Eau Claire Spanish students and faculty. (Photo by José E. Chávez-Santiago)

This spring, Echarri Recarte and her students invited families with children enrolled in the Eau Claire Area School District’s dual immersion program and families who are native Spanish speakers to join them for a night of reading and other Spanish literacy activities.

With 35 university students and an “amazing” number of families participating, the event was a success by every measure, Echarri Recarte says, adding that “no one wanted the night to end because the kids and my students were having so much fun.” Several parents who don’t speak Spanish told her that while they didn’t understand what was happening, they were thrilled to see that their kids clearly did.

“It was cool for them to see firsthand their kids’ progress with the language,” Echarri Recarte says. “We hope this event motivates and reassures the kids that what they are doing is amazing, and for the parents to see what their kids are experiencing is amazing.”

Kerry Benedict, a second-grade dual immersion teacher at Longfellow, agrees, saying the event taught her students that “literacy matters and is fun,” and that other people in the community also are striving to be bilingual and biliterate just like them.

“There were so many smiles around the gym, so it was easy to see that people were having a blast,” Benedict says. “A highlight was hearing the university students complement our emergent bilinguals on their bilingual skills. Sometimes our young kids don't realize just how amazing they are.”

For Hispanic families, being included in events like this one reassures them that they are a valued part of the community, and that “we care about them and see them,” Echarri Recarte says.

The event also was an opportunity to remind students of all ages that language skills are valuable outside of their classroom regardless of where they live, Echarri Recarte says. They need to know that there are people in Eau Claire who only or mostly speak Spanish, she says.

“It can be hard for people to wrap their head around the idea that is a reality in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,” Echarri Recarte says. “They need to understand that Spanish is not just found in Hispanic countries, but it’s found in our own community.”

The Spanish literacy night started as a small idea, with students in the university’s Spanish Club planning to get together with a few of the youth from the dual immersion program. However, the more her students talked about it, the bigger the idea grew, Echarri Recarte says.

The UW-Eau Claire students who participated in the event all are studying Spanish but also have a variety of other majors and minors. Some are native Spanish speakers, and others learned the language during their youth.

José E. Chávez-Santiago, a first-generation college student and first-generation immigrant from Mexico, was among the UW-Eau Claire students who was eager to be part of the campus-community event.

Since he’s “a heritage speaker and a big advocate for Hispanic people in our community,” Chávez-Santiago’s presence at the literacy event was especially important to the Hispanic families who attended, Echarri Recarte says. He helped them to feel represented, Echarri Recarte says of the native Spanish speakers.

A psychology and Latinx studies with a language emphasis major and Spanish for health professionals minor, Chávez-Santiago moved to the U.S. at an early age, which allowed him to simultaneously learn both languages. Since he learned to speak and read English as well as Spanish, he often translated English documents for his parents, he says.

“Although I was faced with such pressure at a young age, an asset I gained is flawlessly switching between both languages when needed and an ability to auditorily translate both languages,” Chávez-Santiago says.

He enjoyed meeting community members during the event who grew up having similar experiences, Chávez-Santiago says.

Nolan Buss, who graduated in May with majors in marketing analytics and Spanish and was a leader in UW-Eau Claire’s Spanish Club, also was eager to be part of the event, especially since it was the first time in two years the student organization could be active in the community because of COVID.

During the event, Buss and others acted out a story as Echarri Recarte read it aloud, helping the children and parents learn new Spanish words. However, Buss says his favorite part of the night was interacting with the parents of students in the dual immersion program.

“They showed great curiosity in what their children were capable of,” says Buss, a native of Mauston who fell in love with the Spanish language when he studied abroad in Spain during high school. “Many of these parents were solely English speakers, and now their children could navigate bilingual English-Spanish situations. They all seemed very proud.”

UW-Eau Claire students Julia Thompson (second from left) and Greta Westermeyer (right) read to children during the Spanish Literacy Event this spring. (Photo by José E. Chávez-Santiago)

UW-Eau Claire students Julia Thompson (second from left) and Greta Westermeyer (right) read to children during the Spanish Literacy Event this spring. (Photo by José E. Chávez-Santiago)

Julia Thompson, a political science major with a Spanish minor from St. Paul, Minnesota, enjoyed partnering with kids during the event as they learned new Spanish words and had fun with art projects.

“I love working with kids, so I thought it would be super fun, which it was,” Thompson says. She also “loved talking to the immersion students and seeing their ability to switch from Spanish to English so effortlessly at such a young age.”

Thompson began speaking Spanish as a young girl thanks to a Spanish-speaking day care provider who was from Mexico.

“My first words were a mix of Spanish and English,” Thompson says. “My parents, who only spoke English, were amazed that I was speaking two languages at 3, so they enrolled me in a Spanish immersion school in St. Paul. I continued in Spanish immersion classes until high school and graduated with the IB bilingual diploma.”

Thompson was happy to be part of an event that celebrates young people who also are excited to speak Spanish.

Given the wonderful feedback from UW-Eau Claire students, families in the community and dual immersion teachers, Echarri Recarte and students in the Spanish Club plan to make the Spanish literacy night a regular event. Their current plan is to host an event every semester, Echarri Recarte says, adding that her students already are thinking about “bigger and greater” ideas.

Benedict says teachers and families in the dual immersion program already are looking forward to the next Spanish literacy night.

“Families and community members were having so much fun and I heard a lot of people talking about ‘next time,’” Benedict says. “We would love for even more people to attend events in the future.”