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Vol. LXIII, No. 15
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
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PRS Language Program’s “Impressive Production” Cited for Helping State Win Goldman Sachs Prize

Ellen Gilbert

The Princeton Regional School (PRS) district’s world languages program is a winner.

In recent weeks it was designated — not for the first time — the only K-12 World Languages Model Program in the state, and it was cited as one of the three (out of 600) leading programs responsible for New Jersey’s success in winning the Asia Society’s 2009 Goldman Sachs Foundation Prize for Excellence in International Education.

In its commendation, the state cited the “strong cross-content connections” of the district’s K-5 program, numerous “best practices” throughout the program, the “use of a thematic approach to creating curriculum,” student-centered classes, and “impressive language production from even the youngest learners.” The Asia Society award recognized “outstanding achievement by educators and others in promoting cultural awareness, world history, and a global curriculum as crucial to the development of students as they prepare to enter the 21st century workforce.” The award carries a $25,000 prize to be used for international education initiatives at the state level.

Guiding the district’s program to its successful heights is Priscilla Russel, supervisor of World Languages, who actually used pretty ordinary words like “nifty” and “quite a surprise” to describe her reactions to the awards. A veteran of 24 years in the Princeton Public Schools, Ms. Russel is equally plain-spoken about her multi-faceted title, simply saying that “there’s lots for me to do.” With her base at the high school, she usually rides her bike from school to school as she goes about her supervisory duties. Her husband, William B. Russel is Princeton University’s Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Chemical Engineering and Dean of the Graduate School, and he, along with the two sons she raised in Princeton, comprise one family; the public schools, she says, “are my other family.”

PRS’s commitment to world languages begins at the elementary level, with what Ms. Russel describes as “a very meaningful Spanish elementary program,” characterized by “time and intensity.” Her use of the word “meaningful” in describing the program is not incidental. Rather than by-the-books rote learning, classes use paired and group activities that often have to do with real-life experiences, like speaking with relatives in Latin America, or planting native vegetables in school gardens.

Another success has been the pairing of Spanish classes with lessons being learned in other subject areas. Third-graders learning about the solar system, for example, discuss Aztec creation myths in Spanish. The geography of South America is taught in Spanish, as is a fifth-grade unit on explorers. Ms. Russel describes this functional process of learning as FLES, or “foreign languages in the elementary schools,” touting its obvious superiority to simply learning vocabulary lists.

Students in grades K through two have Spanish instruction for 15 minutes a day, four days a week. In grades three through five the length of each class is ratcheted up to 30 minutes, four days week. “These are immersion classes where teachers only speak Spanish,” Ms. Russel noted. “As soon as the teacher appears, the children break into the Spanish welcome song they’ve learned. It’s amazing to watch.”

Six languages are offered to students at Princeton High School: Spanish, French, Latin, Japanese, Italian, and the newest addition, Mandarin, which has been taught for the last three years. Many of the teachers are native-speakers, Ms. Russel noted, saying that they add a “cultural richness” to their classes that far exceeds anything done in AP (Advanced Placement) French and Spanish. A Latin American cinema class taught by Marti Hayden, for example, studies the history of the Cuban Revolution using films, making connections with current Cuban artists via email, and going to New York City for special events. In a tenth-grade Spanish class students studying Peru were asked to create proposals for eco-businesses that could be presented to a bank.

“The emphasis is on communication rather than grammar,” said Ms. Russel. Students study verbs that have a function. Rather than doing conjugation, lessons might focus on “narration in the past,” and authentic texts from songs, advertisements, and folk tales provide the materials with which students work.

Folk tales are of particular interest to Ms. Russel, who is the author of Unos animalitos astutos and Mitos del mundo azteca, both folktale-based curricula. Urban parks became another taking-off point for language lessons, when the state commissioned the creation of four online learning scenarios in 2005. A seasoned traveler, Ms. Russel identified parks in 12 countries and created a unit that evokes a rich vocabulary as students are asked about transportation, activities, designs, buildings, benches, schedules, concerts, grass, trees — all the components of a park experience.

Collaboration is a big part of world language teaching, and Ms. Russel cites her pleasure in working with supervisors and teachers from other N.J. districts, as well as playing host to the many visitors who come from different parts of the country, for two or three days at a time, to learn from the Princeton School District’s language-teaching successes.

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