Maryland School Teacher Launches Pilot Program for Foreign Languages

Here’s a great article about Sherri Harkins, a public school French teacher and 2010 Maryland Language Teacher of the Year, and her efforts to teach foreign languages to elementary school children. The article is written by Calum McKinney for The Daily Times of Salisbury, April 8, 2011:

A portable classroom at the edge of Pittsville Elementary and Middle School is on the leading edge of world language education in Maryland.

There, French teacher Sherri Harkins is heading a pilot program introducing foreign languages to elementary students.

Named Maryland Language Teacher of the Year in 2010, she was recently awarded the title of Teacher of the Year by the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages — the largest regional organization representing teachers of foreign languages.

“I love that I teach in what appears on a map to be a tiny dot,” Harkins said. “But for me, Pittsville is the happening place for world language.”

She said early world language instruction fits in neatly with other initiatives such as Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) programs that are aiming to prepare U.S. students for competition in a global market.

Susan Spinnato, a director of instructional programs with the Maryland State Department of Education, said Maryland was the only winner of the federal education reform grant Race to the Top to include world language education on their RTTT application. While most were already doing it, she said a law passed in 2010 will also require all Maryland school systems to provide foreign language instruction at the middle school level.

As Harkins has already been able to speak to Maryland Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, Spinnato said her recent award will give world language even more of a voice in a state that already has some of the oldest language immersion programs in the country.

“Every level of recognition gives you more access to the people who make decisions,” Harkins said. “The title isn’t just best language teacher — so many teachers are incredible — it’s about getting to be the voice that shouts from the mountaintops.”

Indeed, she will get a chance to do just that when she goes to Denver in November to compete for the title of National Language Teacher of the Year, as named by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Spinnato said Harkins is a good choice for the representative role.

“We were thrilled when we heard. I do a lot of work with school systems on the Shore,” she said. “I’m glad a teacher on the Eastern Shore is being recognized. She’s very articulate and an outstanding public speaker. She’s very passionate about what she does.”

Spinnato said she had worked with Harkins and knew she was an excellent teacher, but was further impressed by her ability to communicate the importance of language education when she heard her speak at the recent NCTFL conference.

Wicomico and Worcester are the only counties on the Eastern Shore to have world language programs at the elementary level, but Harkins and other educators are cautiously optimistic such programs will expand.

“In our county, Pittsville has the only elementary program, which was started with the idea that we would run the pilot for three or four years and look at the data,” said Ruth Malone, director of curriculum and professional development and Harkins’ former world language supervisor.

She said they were documenting students in the program to see how it affected their language skills and performance in other areas before they attempted to expand the program.

Diane Stulz, coordinator of instruction for Worcester County public schools, said they have elementary foreign language programs in four of their schools and hope to eventually offer it for all primary students.

Though tough budgetary times make it difficult to expand a program that requires more teachers and training, Spinnato said she is hopeful that world language funding will remain level and won’t be endangered by getting rolled in with other programs when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — currently called No Child Left Behind — gets reauthorized.

While Harkins, Malone and other educators said brain science clearly shows kids learn languages best at early ages, Malone said you can’t just shift resources from high schools to elementary schools as many students would lose what they’ve learned by the time they would really be using it.

Arlene White, a French teacher at Wicomico High and Salisbury University who also served as chair of the NCTFL teacher of the year selection committee, said textbooks would also have to be revamped to prepare teachers for instruction at the elementary level.

Using SU as an example, she said there is only one chapter of their textbook devoted to strategies for teaching elementary students a foreign language.

Knowing such challenges exist, Harkins, a former business owner, said she isn’t afraid to talk to people about how language learning fits into education.

“In a time frame where everything is global — politics, education, commerce — you can’t truly participate in a global marketplace without it,” she said, noting parents should let their kids decide what language to learn, as they all have benefits and it is important to be interested in the one you’re learning as it will be a lot of hard work.

She said she is excited to see next year how the first students to begin her program in third grade perform when they begin the middle school language curriculum.



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