In a classroom at Dedham High School, the conversations among the teacher and the students switch almost seamlessly from Spanish to English, then back again.
A world map with five yellow flags marking where the students’ families come from is tacked to the wall. The students tease teacher Alison Reilley just as often as she teases them.
After Reilley asks a question in Spanish about arepas, or corn cakes, Veronica Arango replies in English, “Oh, those are so good,’’ earning her the nickname “Señorita Spanglish” from Reilley.
This isn’t a typical language class where students are taught Spanish phrases and their English translations. Instead, it’s a class of five native Spanish speakers learning more about Spanish.
Reilley proposed the Spanish for Native Speakers class last year after Dedham High principal Ron McCarthy asked teachers to write new curriculums so the school could offer more electives. For this course, the first semester is focused on learning about the cultures of Spanish-speaking countries. During the second semester, students will explore immigration and their own family histories.
Her goal is to help reach a growing population of students who may not be benefiting from traditional Spanish courses.
“The population of Latinos in the US is soaring, and if we are going to focus on teaching the whole student, we need to make sure we are reaching the needs of those Spanish speakers,” Reilley said.
According to 2012 Census data, Massachusetts is home to 627,654 residents who identify as Hispanic or Latino, 1,353 who reported living in Dedham. Those are increases from the 428,729 statewide and 567 in Dedham reported in the 2000 Census.
Dedham High School has 784 students, according to its Massachusetts school profile, with nearly 10 percent identified as Hispanic, many of whom already speak a variety of Spanish dialects. While the school doesn’t have comparative data, Reilley said she has seen an increase of Hispanic students in the past decade.
The Dedham High program appears to be unique. Many schools have English as a Second Language courses that teach English grammar, language, reading, and writing skills to non-English speakers, but don’t encourage native languages.
Some schools, such as Brockton High, have two-way language programs with half of the class made up of English speakers, the other of Spanish speakers, and students are taught in both languages.
The two-way program at Framingham High School allows native Spanish speakers who have recently arrived in this country to participate, but only if they can write and read in Spanish at a proficient level.
What makes Reilley’s class different is that she doesn’t focus entirely on language. That happens, but it comes along with the main goal of having students explore their own cultures and backgrounds.
Her students speak three dialects of Spanish — from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. It means that sometimes they don’t pick up on something Reilley or another student says, but she’ll write out versions of the phrase or word and point out how it differs from the others.
Reilley spent many years traveling and volunteering in Spanish-speaking countries. Through learning first-hand about various cultures, Reilley said, she realized there was plenty to teach students who already knew the language.
“Designing this course was a dream for me,” Reilley said. “I love to travel and tap into other cultures, and I could work all of that into this class.”
About 90 percent of the class is taught in Spanish, but English is sprinkled in to help explain concepts or teach the students translations. All five students still take the required math, language arts, and social science classes in English, a key difference from language-immersion programs.
Arango is a senior whose family immigrated to Dedham from Colombia five years ago. Arango spent her first four years in the Dedham Public Schools’ ESL classes, but transitioned out of that program this year. She wanted to find a class where she could learn but also hold on to her first language.
“I don’t want to forget my language,” Arango said. “A lot of my friends know Spanish, but they don’t speak it anymore.”
Reilley’s lesson plans so far have included a variety of presentations and projects about Spanish-speaking countries. During a recent class, students were putting together slide shows about Costa Rica to present to students at the nearby Avery Elementary School.
Having the students teach the younger grades not only helps them learn more Spanish, Reilley said, but also helps with their English, and they love it.
“They are all excited now. When I pass by, they say hi to me,” junior Ivan Nova said about the partnership the class has with Avery fourth-graders.
Other projects have included reading children’s books out loud in Spanish then translating them with the help of the younger students.
“This class is more about culture than regular [Spanish] classes, more about presentation, spelling, research projects, and what they take from this will give them a huge advantage,” reilley said.
It’s the additional challenge that Arango and the others want to capitalize on.
Karen Rivera is a sophomore and began speaking English at age 7. She speaks both languages at home but said she’s never focused on writing or reading in Spanish — a large component of her class at Dedham High.
“I’ve always spoken Spanish, but that doesn’t mean I know how to spell or where to put the accents, and I’d like to learn to read it a little better,” Rivera said.
It’s a benefit that, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, couples with the fact that many native speakers, like Reilley’s students, speak varieties of Spanish that are considered “non-standard.”
“Some students may already use oral Spanish in familiar context but need to develop their academic Spanish and reading and writing skills,” a pamphlet from the linguistics center said.
Some critics of programs like the one in Dedham say that the students would do even better learning more English but, according to McCarthy, there’s a chance for them to do that here, too.
“The students are able to not only speak their native language in a classroom setting for a year, it helps with those speaking skills and learning English,” he said.
Looking forward, Reilley is hopeful that next year will bring more students and more opportunities.
Students will read the book “La Travesía de Enrique” by Sonia Nazrio and discuss their own journeys while trying to disprove common misconceptions about Spanish-speaking countries and immigrants.
“I want them to be proud of their native cultures and customs,” she said.
Natalie Feulner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.