Eliza Vesga, 11, has been able to understand some Spanish since she was little. Klei Stanford, 10, started learning Spanish this year when he moved from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Charlottesville. 

Eliza and Klei might never have known each other if they had not been chosen to emcee El Espectaculo, an annual Spanish showcase by fifth-grade students at Walker Upper Elementary School

“I was a little nervous at first,” Klei said. “[But] I thought it would be a great thing to do in my spare time. I could learn more Spanish … and my mom thought it would be great.”

Eliza and Klei introduced each act of the showcase on Wednesday in Spanish and English. The evening included orchestral and choral performances and an appearance by the Walker Jazz Ensemble.

Stacy Diaz, who teaches Spanish to Walker’s fifth-graders, said the performance demonstrates how Spanish language and culture reaches all content areas in fifth grade.

El Espectaculo comes at the end of five years of Spanish for most students in the Charlottesville school system. All students in the first through fifth grade take two 30-minute blocks of Spanish a week.

Rather than convening in a designated Spanish classroom, students learn Spanish in their math, social studies, science and language arts classrooms. El Espectaculo showcased that teaching format with videos of students reading and writing Spanish sentences about these subjects.

Diaz said the interdisciplinary approach helps students like Eliza learn both Spanish and their other subjects better. 

“Her language arts teacher was actually telling me that her scores have gone up, because she’s been working on her reading in Spanish,” Diaz said. “Once she gets through her nerves, you just hear this wonderful, fluent Spanish come through.”

Each student also performed a set of Zumba, a fitness dance, which Diaz had choreographed with help from Walker gym teacher Rachel Phillips.

“I made more connections with kids, which means they gave me more effort in the classroom,” Diaz said. “They ask me, ‘What does this word mean in the song?’ And then we take it upstairs and we work on it.” 

Eliza’s grandmother, who is Spanish-speaking, noticed her improvements, too. 

“She was like, ‘Oh, mi mami, you speak so well!’” Eliza recounted. 

Eliza practiced her lines for the show in her room with the door closed. 

“I turn everything off, and then I turn on my lights, acting like it’s the spotlight, and then I practice my lines,” she said. “I have a karaoke machine at home, so I practice with that.”

Klei practiced his lines with a neighbor, who is from Colombia and is also new to the neighborhood.

“They’ve become great family friends, because he’s been tagging over there with his paper to practice his lines,” Diaz said. “Plus, he’s reading his lines like a rock star.” 

Fostering new friendships is one of Diaz’s goals as she teaches the fifth-graders Spanish. She said that when she teaches grammar, students sometimes dismiss putting the adjective after the noun as “dumb.” Diaz discourages that kind of comment.

“Learning a language is also about learning about people who speak the language and being more open to the idea that people say things differently, and that’s OK,” she said. 

In her closing remarks at El Espectaculo, city schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins explained the thinking behind the division’s switch eight years ago to teaching all students Spanish. 

“We are doing an exceptional job in helping students who come from other countries to our school system to not only be able to learn the English language but to understand the culture, the art, the sciences in the English language,” Atkins said. “Isn’t it important that we invest in all students to help them to learn a second language, to help them to be bilingual?”

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Emily Hays

Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.