Educating the 21st Century Child

Traveling to Machu Picchu — from desks in a classroom

Technology helps students learn foreign languages, understand other cultures

Students in Christine O’Neill’s Spanish class at Mepham High School in North Bellmore used virtual-reality technology to tour Machu Picchu, in Peru, on Dec. 7.
Students in Christine O’Neill’s Spanish class at Mepham High School in North Bellmore used virtual-reality technology to tour Machu Picchu, in Peru, on Dec. 7.
Nadya Nataly/Herald

Part 6 of the “Educating the 21st Century Child” series.

Students held the Google Cardboard virtual-reality glasses to their faces on a recent Thursday. “Let’s get ready to explore Machu Picchu,” Spanish teacher Christine O’Neill said.

A contagious laughter erupted across the room.

The students were sitting in a classroom at Wellington C. Mepham High School in North Bellmore, but virtually they were roaming around Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Inca fortress set on a mountain ridge in Peru.

The days of traditional textbooks, Spanish dictionaries and 45-minute classes spent mindlessly conjugating verbs are practically over. Foreign-language teachers are now tapping into new, innovative ways to make learning a second language fun. Whether through virtual trips, music or social media, foreign-language teachers say they are excited to be implementing new technologies to keep their students interested and engaged.

“The students get really excited when they get to use the V.R. glasses to travel around the globe,” said Rosa Kaplan, World Languages chairwoman for the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District. “They really look forward to using the technology. It really brings things to life.”

Virtual-reality glasses are bringing Latin American cultures to life for students in foreign language classes across Nassau County. The Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District is just one of the many districts adding technology to their curriculums.

The Freeport and Island Park school districts are also tapping into emerging technologies to engage students. This school year, all 2,000-plus Freeport High School students were given Chromebooks. For the world languages teachers, this meant being able to teach students on a different level.

“Freeport is a bilingual community,” said Sue Greca, World Languages chairwoman for Freeport Public Schools. “Our students have a unique opportunity to go into our own community and practice Spanish. That’s why it’s important for them to learn the language, so that they can engage with their neighbors.“

Though foreign-language education is often neglected, with only minimal college requirements taught, the Island Park School District requires students in kindergarten through eighth grade to take Spanish. In a typical school week, students at Lincoln Orens Middle School may receive two 45-minute periods of Spanish instruction, with extensive assignments and projects, while Francis X. Hegarty Elementary School children are taught for 25 minutes every other day. In addition to basic vocabulary and conversational skills, teachers reinforce what the students are learning in Spanish through other subjects like science, math and social studies, said Dr. Rosmarie Bovino, the Island Park Public Schools superintendent.

“The goal is to make sure the students become proficient speakers,” she said.

By the time the students reach high school, according to Bovino, the hope is that they have learned enough Spanish in the lower grades that they will continue the subject through high school and be prepared for college-level foreign-language studies.

“I use Google Classroom to give them good visuals of what they’re learning,” said Irelanda Feil, the Spanish teacher at Lincoln Orens. “I also use music before every class to preview what we will be learning that day.”

Schools offer language-learning opportunities in not just the traditional Spanish and French, but also in other languages. The Oceanside School District offers an American Sign Language program, for example, while the Bellmore-Merrick School District offers Italian, and will soon start teaching Mandarin.

The diverse selection of languages provided in the school districts allows students to select languages they’re curious about, and thus they tend to be more engaged, Kaplan said.

Though textbooks are still issued, students are more into using their computers, tablets and phones. At Freeport High School, Advanced Placement Spanish teacher Claretha Richardson is adamant about teaching Spanish to her students through a reality-based curriculum. Richardson said she teaches about everyday situations that they might encounter out in the world.

“We can’t just sit around and conjugate verbs every class,” Richardson said. “They need to speak it, hear it and practice it.”

In Richardson’s class, students can use Snapchat or Instagram to practice and demonstrate their language skills. Through the use of social media, Richardson said, she is able to connect her students with native Spanish speakers from around the globe through hashtags and video posts. Students, she said, are usually self-conscious about their accents because they are not able to speak Spanish properly, but she said that’s all part of learning a new language.

“It’s OK if they make mistakes,” Richardson said. “The point is, they’re practicing. They’re speaking.”