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Bilingual Grad Enlivens Elementary Spanish Classes

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Fifteen kindergarteners file into Camila Pandolfi’s classroom at Waterman Elementary School in Harrisonburg, Va., and take seats in the illustrated rows they recognize by such names as triángulo, corazón, estrella (triangle, heart, star).

They enthusiastically repeat descriptions of storybook creatures Pandolfi displays: caballo azul (blue horse), rana verde (green frog), gato morado (purple cat).

English is the second language for 48 percent of Waterman’s students, says Principal Jeremy Weaver. Most of the non-native English speakers here use Spanish as their first language, but some speak Kurdish, Russian and Arabic, plus a smattering of other languages. Yet after five weeks, Pandolfi – teaching almost entirely in her native Spanish — has this entire group responding confidently.

“Levántate“ (stand up), she requests, turning on a recording. Children sway to the catchy drum beat, singing with the song about colors. Later, waving as the class ends, the energetic group sings “Adiós, hasta la próxima vez” (Good-bye until next time.)

Pandolfi is the school’s resource teacher for its one-year-old Foreign Language in Elementary Schools program, meaning she sees every student in kindergarten through grade 3 for one hour every six days. “Parents know this is a great age to begin building language skills in their children,” says Jeremy Aldrich, Harrisonburg schools’ foreign language coordinator and Pandolfi’s supervisor.

Pandolfi named “best and brightest of Virginia’s beginning teachers” in 2012

EMU teacher education graduate Camila Pandolfi

As a student teacher prior to graduating in the spring of 2012, Pandolfi was cited as a Teacher of Promise, “an award given to the best and brightest of Virginia’s beginning teachers,” according to Cathy Smeltzer Erb, education department chair at Pandolfi’s alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).

Pandolfi discovered early in her college career that she had a gift for teaching, under EMU’s policy of sending its education majors into local schools as early as their fourth week of classwork. Having completed practicums (involving mostly observation with some teaching) with secondary-level students beginning her freshman year, Pandolfi first worked with elementary children the summer after her junior year. Following a fall semester’s study in her native Uruguay, she did her student teaching this spring at Harrisonburg’s Smithland Elementary School, with its dual-immersion program, while serving as an English as a Second Language resource person.

Pandolfi calls student teaching – in which the student, supervised, undertakes full teaching duties – her most formative EMU education experience.

After finishing her education degree, she was hired to work in a different Spanish-language program at another elementary school, Waterman.

EMU graduate Camila Pandolfi leads Spanish class at Waterman Elementary in Harrisonburg, Va.

EMU graduate Camila Pandolfi leads Spanish class at Waterman Elementary in Harrisonburg, Va.

Reflecting on her own move from Uruguay to the United States at age 12, Pandolfi says, “My English was limited to simple words and phrases. Through my experience of learning English as a foreign language, I was exposed to good and not-so-good methods of language teaching.”

Aldrich recalls teaching Pandolfi English in middle school. “Camila is a great example of home-grown talent for Harrisonburg City Schools,” he says. “I have been so pleased to see her become the poised, enthusiastic teacher she is. She is a natural with students.”

Though Pandolfi’s teaching may look “natural,” she explains she is constantly refining her work, reflecting EMU’s emphasis on developing “reflective practitioners.”

Erb explains that being such a practitioner entails reflecting on the teaching experience “to collect data, analyze the evidence, and plan for and implement change in teaching that will enhance student learning.”

Pandolfi agrees. “EMU instilled that value in me. I revise my lessons constantly. It has made me want to never be ‘at rest’ and mediocre with the lessons I teach.”

Principal Weaver – a 1995 EMU education graduate – calls Pandolfi “a phenomenal addition” to his school, adding that another recent EMU grad, Maria J. Yoder (2011) teaches second grade.

EMU is one of only five private colleges in Virginia to be certified by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

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