Community-based Spanish course explores importance of diverse books in early education
Claire Reid | Tuesday, February 22, 2022
Professor Rachel Parroquín’s 30051 Spanish course — a community-based learning course offered through the Center for Social Concerns — is unique among college courses at Notre Dame. Students are required to read at least 1,950 minutes of children’s books during the semester, and they spend one class period each week volunteering at a local elementary school.
The official title of the course is “Once Upon A Time: Children’s Literature and Community Connections,” but it is often referred to as the “LIJ” course. LIJ stands for “literatura infantil y juvenil,” Spanish for children’s literature.
Students in the course meet twice a week in the classroom to critically study various aspects of Spanish children’s literature, including diversity, representation and educational equity. Then, for an hour each week, they apply what they learn as Spanish reading buddies for students in the two-way immersion (TWI) Spanish and English program at Holy Cross School, an elementary school in northwest South Bend.
Parroquín started teaching the course in 2016 after developing it for over two years. A Spanish and elementary education major in college, she spent the early portion of her career teaching in elementary schools in Mexico and the U.S.
“I did a lot with children’s literature as an elementary teacher, and it’s something I just love,” she said. “Doing the LIJ class was a way for me to combine three different things that I really enjoy — Spanish, children’s literature and community-engaged learning.”
A large portion of the course is spent discussing the importance of selecting children’s books that feature diverse characters and perspectives. Parroquín said this is particularly important at Holy Cross, where the student population is quickly becoming more diverse.
In the TWI program, students receive 90% of their classroom instruction in Spanish and 10% in English from preschool through third grade in order to build a strong academic foundation in Spanish. Beginning in fourth grade, Spanish and English are used equally.
Prior to the implementation of the program in 2017, Holy Cross was a traditional, English-only Catholic school that primarily served white families. Dr. Katy Lichon, an associate professor in the University’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, co-founded the TWI program with Dr. Luis Fraga, director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, in response to 10 years of declining enrollment at Holy Cross.
“The Latino population is the fastest-growing population in our Catholic Church, so in many ways, it’s the future of our Church,” Lichon said. “If Catholic schools are to continue to thrive, they need to find innovative ways of inviting and serving Latino children.”
The TWI program not only attracted Spanish-speaking families, but also a diverse range of English-speaking families, including Notre Dame families and residents of the westside South Bend neighborhood where Holy Cross is located.
According to the school’s immersion coordinator Clare Roach, about half of TWI students come from Spanish-speaking homes and the other half from English-speaking homes. Since the implementation of the TWI program five years ago, the school’s population has grown by over 160 students.
“Now, the school’s demographics are basically 30% white, 30% African American, 30% Latino and 10% mixed race,” Parroquín said. “If you still only have books that represent white families … many kids don’t see themselves represented.”
Additionally, she said research has shown it is important that all children are exposed to diverse perspectives in literature so that they achieve a rich and balanced understanding of others and do not develop an overinflated sense of the importance of their own culture.
Branden Kohnle, a junior political science and Spanish double major, worked in a childcare center for five years prior to taking the LIJ course last semester. Although a highlight of his job was selecting books for and reading to the children, Kohnle said he had not fully considered the importance of diverse children’s literature before working with his reading buddy at Holy Cross.
One afternoon, Kohnle shared a story called “Los Invisibles” with his reading buddy. The story features a middle-class girl who moves with her family to a lower-income neighborhood after their financial situation changes. Understandably upset at first, the girl eventually embraces and works to brighten her new community.
“The kid I was working with … came from a working-class family, and he was able to connect and talk about his own experiences living in that kind of situation,” Kohnle recalled. “It was cool that he got to see himself represented in the book.”
Inspired by this experience, Kohnle returned to the childcare center over winter break and had a conversation with its director about the center’s need to increase its selection of diverse books.
Roach said Holy Cross teachers have reported students making great progress in literacy with the help of individualized reading support and enthusiastic mentorship from LIJ students like Kohnle. Parents are also excited about the reading program, Roach said.
“They like knowing that college students are interacting with their children in meaningful and fun ways,” Roach said. “The more college students the children know, the more they can envision themselves one day being a college student.”
Fabiola Dominguez, a mother of four, has a third grader and a preschool student in the TWI program. The family speaks Spanish at home, and Dominguez enrolled her children in the program to help them retain and strengthen their Spanish fluency. Her third-grade son Nathan worked with a reading buddy from the LIJ course last semester and enjoyed hearing his buddy’s stories about Notre Dame.
“The program helped [the children] because the [Notre Dame] students motivated them to read,” Dominguez said in an interview in Spanish. “It helped the children to have a mentor so that they do not give up and continue studying.”
Lichon’s daughter Mary, an avid reader, also felt encouraged by the program last semester. As a parent, Lichon said it felt like a “complete win” each time Mary came home enthusiastic not only about engaging with a text, but also teaching her Notre Dame reading buddy new Spanish vocabulary.
“There were instances where some of our Holy Cross students were teaching some words to our students from Notre Dame,” Lichon said. “It’s a really good feeling for a 9-year-old to become the educator. It’s really empowering.”
For Parroquín, moments like these are what make community-based learning such a beautiful experience. In fact, she tells her students to expect these moments.
“The Holy Cross students are our teachers,” she said. “We are learning from them as much as they are learning from us.”