It's a long way from Latin America to Homer, but for one group of Homer students, the distance seems a lot shorter.
At Otter Beach Education Center, an East End Road learning center for students in grades kindergarten through three, not only the lessons but the physical surroundings, food, games and music are tinged with the Latin culture this spring.
A Spanish immersion program began in early March with a passport ceremony where students got their documents stamped and "officially" entered another land. Their school was then transformed over spring break with arched doorways, murals and mosaics.
"We're in a different place when we come to school," said Jeanne Parker, the teacher and program director.
Last week, students clustered around a table playing bingo in Spanish. Cards with pictures coordinated with images on the bingo cards were held up and students were able to answer whether they had the specific item in Spanish.
"Bingo," however, sounds the same in both languages.
In an adjacent room, students listened to folklore and sang Spanish songs, preparing for an upcoming performance. While they conceded the lyrics needed work, all the students knew the words of the chorus, despite the fact that it was in another language.
According to Sally Oberstein, one of the immersion program organizers and parent of 7-year-old Alex, an Otter Beach student, parents helped organize many other ways students could experience the Latin American world.
In addition to lots of Spanish flavor during regular lessons, like math and art, guest tutors are working with students in various areas. Argentinean Ana Pelligrini comes to tell Spanish stories, sing songs and work on vocabulary with the students. Claudia Tapia from Mexico cooks special meals, and Luis Cosio, also of Mexico, plays traditional games with the students in the afternoons. Others come to talk about culture and the environment, and much of the time, these presenters are speaking to the students in Spanish.
Students have also focused on Latin American art and are putting together a program that will culminate the immersion program for Cinco de Mayo.
"Our first goal for them is a better understanding of world cultures," said Oberstein. "They are broadening all of their foundation with regard to just what goes on in the world."
For Hannah LaRue, 9, lots of new things have come up during the immersion program that might not otherwise have come up.
"We've learned that people make houses out of rocks and mud and eat different things that we don't eat, like monkeys and birds and guinea pigs," LaRue said. "We did reports on tribes, and animals. It's very fun, and teaches us a lot of Spanish."
Oberstein said for some students whose families travel to Mexico occasionally, some of the lessons are familiar. For others, it may be an eye-opener.
"They are learning that we are not the center of the universe," she said. "They are learning that some people live different lifestyles, but that kids everywhere in the world play similar games, but a little differently, that people use different money, wear different clothes and have different customs."
Parker said Otter Beach has taught using themes before, even locations, but the duration of the Latin American focus is longer, and having the parent-organized guest tutors come to share their experiences has added another level to the program.
"We're basically trying to give the kids a good dose of being in another country without traveling," Parker said.
Oberstein said the students likely will have to pull out their passports again in the near future once their Latin American experience is over.
"I think we have enough of an international community here to go to any number of places," she said.
Carey James writes for the Homer News.
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