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W.Va. students immerse themselves in Spanish

RIPLEY, W.Va. -- Building a bridge out of balsa wood is a difficult task, 16-year-old Patrick Thomas said, but it's trickier when trying to use only Spanish to communicate.

The Hurricane resident is spending his week at the state's first-ever Spanish language immersion camp.

On Friday, he laid his bridge out on the table to start gluing pieces together. The structure matched the sketch Thomas had made earlier. Above his design was a list of Spanish construction vocabulary, including the words for "saw" and "span."

Thomas said he and his bridge-building partner have to use English occasionally, especially when they don't know the word for something. After all, their conversation isn't just simple questions, such as, "How are you?" Thomas explained. "It's, 'The angle needs to be 60 degrees.'"

Thomas is one of 50 students attending Spanish immersion camp, which began June 27 and runs until July 3 at Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Ripley.

Students who have to have completed at least one year of Spanish class participate in family groups, directed-studies classes and outdoor activities, said camp director Vicki Fenwick-Judy.

The camp is the result of a partnership between the West Virginia Department of Education, the Canaan Valley Institute and the National Youth Science Foundation.

Other directed-studies classes on Friday included dance, cooking and technology activities. In one cabin, 21-year-old Melissa Gonzalez-Soto of Mexico City taught eight students the art of cartoneria, which is similar to papier-mache. The campers rolled pieces of newspaper into cones and covered them with pieces of bright pink and blue tissue paper, as Gonzalez-Soto scribbled instructions on the chalkboard.

Gonzalez-Soto decided to come to West Virginia to help with the camp because she wanted to share her language, culture and experiences, she said. That afternoon, she was going to be teaching a Harry Potter lesson to the students, dressed up as the character Hermione Granger.

"We can believe that our interests are so different between languages," Gonzalez-Soto said, but she explained that there are things like Harry Potter that cross cultures.

Elissa Filozof, a 15-year-old from Parkersburg, said one of the things she liked best about camp was having the opportunity to learn from native speakers and being held accountable for speaking the language. The students were encouraged to speak Spanish as much as they could, but many lapsed into English if they got confused or were talking with their friends.

On Friday, Filozof was one of a few campers who had committed to stick to Spanish for the entire day.

As she answered questions in Spanish, Anna Megyesi, the camp's assistant co-director, translated the answers into English.

Filozof said she came to camp because she knew it would be an immersion experience and was confident that would help her improve her language skills. The hardest part of the week, though, was speaking Spanish constantly, she said.

Not everyone working on his or her Spanish on Friday was a student. Campers were joined by state schools Superintendent Jorea Marple, who addressed the group after siesta.

Before Marple got up to speak, campers stood up to transition from the Spanish language to English. They counted down together: "Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno," spun around, and yelled, "English!"

Marple opened her remarks, however, by trying her hand at Spanish. She uttered a few sentences and then peeked up from her piece of paper.

"Close?" she asked the campers.

"Si!" they hollered back.

Marple described herself as "linguistically challenged" and said the students might not expect that because she's an adult and has a high-profile job. But she can't speak a second language.

"I think that's a real shame," she said.

During her talk, Marple said the state's curriculum needs to include world language and that waiting until high school to learn a foreign language is too late.

She urged the campers to be ambassadors to other students in their schools about the importance of learning a second language. Marple said having proficiency in more than one language will help the students raise their standardized test scores.

She also mentioned the high levels of poverty in West Virginia and then said, "Think about the magic of being able to acquire another language."

That's part of the reason Sydney Pander, 15, from Grafton, came to camp. She was another student speaking only Spanish on Friday, and she said through the translator that she wants to get a job in the biology field, and she believes she needs both Spanish and English in order to be successful.

The Hispanic presence in America is growing. People of Hispanic or Latino origin make up 16.7 percent of the nation's population, according to U.S. Census data. In West Virginia, however, the percentage of people of Hispanic and Latino origin is far lower than in the rest of the United States.

In 2011, 93 percent of the estimated 1.86 million people living in West Virginia were white and not Hispanic. Just 1.3 percent of people in the state were Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. census data.

At Spanish immersion camp Friday, however, students were taking steps to increase their knowledge of the Spanish culture, as well as the language.

After lunch, Brad Martin, a German and Spanish teacher from Elkins High School, played the guitar and led the campers in a round called "Somos de las montañas," which is about nature. The students raised their arms into peaks above their heads to symbolize mountains and waved their arms to the sides like water as they belted out the tune.

When they finished, Martin called out, "Muy bien!" and the campers and staff burst into applause.

Martin said the song is the students' favorite. The title of the song is even printed on their T-shirts, as it's part of the camp's name for the week.

"The message is that we're all here on this planet together," Martin said.

Reach Alison Matas at alison.matas@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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