By Janet Eastman
for the Mail Tribune
Atemporary town has been set up inside Ashland Middle School’s old gym.
Here, for six days, students deposit pretend checks at a bank, get their passport stamped at the consulate office and are treated at a make-believe clinic, all while speaking only Spanish.
The exercise is the students’ final for their Advanced Spanish class.
To pass, they must show they can conduct a detailed exchange with someone other than their teacher.
Thus, Spanish World Day was created this year to help language learners advance their fluency, build confidence and have a little entretenimiento.
“The classroom experience is a somewhat artificial environment,” said Ashland Middle School Assistant Principal Ken Kigel. “The Spanish World Day activity is more active and hands-on, and more like being in the real world.”
Students complete tasks — shop for food, visit the post office, negotiate for a taxi — as they might have to in a foreign country.
But learning a language isn’t reserved just for travel, said Ashland School District Superintendent Juli Di Chiro.
Being bilingual is an essential skill for students regardless of their path, she said.
Ordering at restaurants, conversing with strangers and other immersion-type exercises give students the chance to practice their language skills and expand their understanding of the language and culture, she said.
But learning doesn’t have to be boring.
On Wednesday, eighth-grader Micah Bylsma was sporting a tiny sombrero given to him by, he explained, “mi amigo” for Spanish World Day.
Like dozens of other classmates, he was considering buying art materials at one of the 10 vendor tents.
Nearby, eighth-grader Sam Sagal was being bandaged up — and earning extra points for creativity — by explaining to a nurse his unfortunate encounter with Barney, the purple dinosaur: “Yo estoy en mi casa cuando Barney dispara a mi para cinco minutos en la casa!” Ryan Brown, another eighth-grader, who has been learning Spanish since kindergarten, found it easy to complete the day’s assigned missions in 10-minute segments.
He went to la carnicería to buy a token for a real Mexican lunch to be served later that day. He also bought onions, cilantro and limes at la verdulería. And he stopped at Ferreteria de Pepe (Pepe’s Hardware Shop) to make a craft.
“Rock and roll aqui,” he said to his friends, who then followed him to the toy store to have a present gift-wrapped.
Circling the vendor tents were Ashland Eco-cab’s pedicab and a bus-like structure made of PVC pipes and painted cardboard. Kids picked up the simulated bus and moved it past different highway signs.
If a student got off the bus or the taxi at the wrong street, he received a time penalty and had to walk a lap around the gym.
One time, the pedicab swung in front of the sprinting bus. Before the narrow miss, the passengers cried out, “chocar,” which means “crash.” Laughing at all of this was Spanish teacher Annie Tyner, who came up with the idea of Spanish World Day.
In the past, she has taken students to Crater High School to experience higher-level Spanish classes and to practice organic language acquisition, which she believes benefits learners.
During one of her high school years, Tyner, now 28, was an exchange student in Argentina.
For this exercise, Tyner and another Spanish teacher, Jennifer Gonzalez, spent hundreds of hours raising money, organizing 60 fluent volunteers and creating exercises that would enhance language, leadership, math and art skills.
The Ashland Schools Foundation gave the Spanish World Day project a $540 grant.
The Ashland Art Center allowed students to sell their art and crafts at the April First Friday art walk, where they earned $240. And students put on an 18-act talent show and sold 240 tickets, earning $1,700.
After all the shopping and stops on Wednesday, students were served tacos donated by La Tapatia restaurant in Phoenix and rice and beans from El Tapatio Restaurant in Ashland.
“This is my students’ final and for proficiency-based assessment, we wanted this to be as authentic as possible,” said Tyner, as she stood in the middle of the gym, wearing a brightly colored shirt from Guatemala.
With salsa and cumbia music playing in the background, she added: “They aren’t memorizing and repeating. They have to converse with native speakers from Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela and Mexico. It’s powerful for them and they are having fun with it.”
Assistant Principal Kigel said it’s a stretch for many students to interact with adults in these varieties of settings.
And he saw another lesson in the exercise.
“Hopefully,” he said, “it also builds empathy and understanding for what second language learners who attend our schools and live in our community have to deal with on a daily basis.”
Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.