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Student-Centered: Empowering Señorita Maria as a Co-Creator

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By Nicole Ottmer, Educator, and "Maria," Fourth Grader, at Trailblazer Elementary in Colorado Springs School District 11

Over the past three years, Trailblazer Elementary has embarked on a journey of empowering students and educators through personalized learning. By engaging in this work, we discovered that our community not only wanted, but needed, opportunities for passion-based learning during and beyond the traditional school day. We also began to realize just how little say our learners had in the design of their experiences. Through a visioning process, Trailblazer staff committed to designing experiences that were both interest-based and enriching for all learners.

However, we were still missing one piece. Thanks to Maria, we found it.

Our school sits in an idyllic location, nestled up against the foothills with Ute Valley Park--an open space with miles of trails right outside our front doors. Hiking club, one of our extended-day enrichment opportunities, fills up fast! We trek along the dirt paths exploring nature, engaging in playful conversation, and discussing civic responsibilities while on a trail, all while immersing ourselves in the surrounding ecosystem. It was on one of these hikes that a third grader, Maria,* began pointing out flora and fauna, naming nature in both English and Spanish. Several students along the trail began asking her about each item we passed "How would you say that in Spanish?" This simple interaction resulted in our next big idea--born from the agency of an 8-year-old girl. 

The next day, the conversation went something like this...

"Mrs. Ottmer, I have been thinking.  When we were hiking yesterday, kids were interested in Spanish.  I know how to speak Spanish--you taught me English in Kindergarten. What if I could teach kids Spanish, in after-school enrichment?"  

This seemed like a big idea and maybe more than Maria could tackle, but I followed up with her mom. Maria's mom told me with tears in her eyes, that while it was a great idea, she felt Maria would need some practice before the club began. I was curious about the tears. Had I overstepped my bounds? Said something wrong? Maria's mom explained that lately, Maria wasn't speaking to her family in Spanish. This was a change and something of a concern. The family was not sure how to make sure that Maria didn't lose her culture, but they also wanted her to be as successful as possible in school. Maria's heritage and language was important to her mom, especially because Maria's grandmother was a Spanish speaker and called regularly.

In preparation to teach others, Maria began speaking more Spanish at home. I played a consultant role but was careful not to take over Maria's process. I knew there would be mistakes. I knew she was ambitious, but these are the skills all students need to develop. Maria invited me to co-teach (a practice she knew because of our inclusion model at Trailblazer) the after-school enrichment group with her. In reality, I had access to the teacher work room and could pull some strings in the building for meeting space. Surrounding yourself with people who can help you, while managing them toward your goals--yet another set of skills that Maria was quickly developing.

We lesson planned for a month before launching the class. Maria expressed her strong feelings that the first lessons needed to deal with manners and greetings stating, "It's important to say hello, say goodbye, and be kind to others." To build empathy and give her students voice, Maria surveyed her students about topics they'd like to learn in Spanish. She thought about Schoology, our learning management system, and how she could use it to share a video of herself sharing the lesson in Spanish, noting that if her students were practicing at home and read "llamo" from a page, they would likely mispronounce the double "l." However, if she were to provide a video model, students had a greater chance of successful pronunciation. This also enabled anytime, anyplace learning.

In reflection, this was a moment when I realized that by shifting our practice as a school, we were impacting how all of our students thought about the learning process. Maria was developing learner agency and implementing a blended model without even knowing it! But that's just my perception. How does Maria describe this experience in her own words?


I felt awesome about this experience.  When my mom said I could do it I was really happy because it gave me an opportunity to teach a class, at my age. I had to think about how I would teach and that I would have to learn that the kids all learn in different ways. Not everyone is the same and has different techniques of understanding.  

Mrs. Ottmer and I planned together, and she supervised, and I taught most of the Spanish because Mrs. Ottmer's Spanish accent isn't good. My goal as the teacher of Spanish club was for every student to learn at least one or two sentences and to learn what they wanted to learn and be excited about what they came to Spanish club for.

We gave kids a list of things they could choose from: colors, dinosaurs, the alphabet; and we would practice a certain topic each week. We found games and posted them on Schoology for practice. We read nursery rhyme books in Spanish. We brought in foods and even had a birthday party to learn how to sing "Happy Birthday." We also got paper and crayons and kids did a coloring activity where they labeled the colors in Spanish.

It's been fun and exciting because I am the first to get to teach kids. One of my students told me that I inspired him to teach an after-school enrichment. That means a lot to me that I made someone want to go teach others too. I'm not done teaching yet--I am going to have the club again in 4th grade and again in 5th grade. I really hope the students pick to learn the alphabet this time, but if they don't, I will teach them what they came to club to learn." 

When asked what kinds of problems she wants to solve when she grows up, Maria replies with a smile and says, "A kid therapist. I want to work with kids who have special needs. I think it is really cool how kids do things in their own way. I also want to have a part time job as a veterinarian."

Maria's mom knows this was an impactful opportunity for her daughter. "There is something in her that likes to be able to share and help others." She was 'seen' through this experience--for her heart, for her knowledge, for the way she wants others to be treated, and was celebrated for her culture. She felt special, and it made school an even better place to come to.

A new school year has started, and Maria is making plans for her enrichment students again.  She sets and keeps appointments for planning, thinks about what grade levels should attend and how many students would be an ideal number.  And I sit in awe as a co-teacher ready to see what comes next.

*Maria's name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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