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SD Department of Education
Nov. 2017  

  Image of Mercia Schroeder. TEACHER FEATURE: Bringing cultures together in a small South Dakota town

I have no idea what I want to do with my life, but boy, I want to speak this language. That’s what Mercia Schroeder remembers thinking as a 5th grade student in Brazil, when a teacher stood in front of her class with a guitar and sang a short song in English.

Schroeder teaches Spanish and supports 7th-12th grade English learners in the Plankinton School District. Nine years ago, the district hired her as a bilingual paraprofessional to assist elementary school English learners.

While her career to that point had been in banking and trading, she quickly came to love the work and began studying to earn her teaching certificate and English as a New Language endorsement.

“Mrs. Schroeder has done so much to bring the ELL program in Plankinton to life, from becoming EL-certified to building an English Acquisition program to meet the needs of our newcomer population in the junior/senior high,” says Plankinton Elementary Principal LeeAnn Nussbaum. “The district recognizes the unique needs of our EL population and has dedicated professional development for staff to help address these needs within the regular classroom.”

The road goes both ways
Neither English nor Spanish is Schroeder’s first language; it’s Portuguese. She’s also studied a bit of Italian. So she’s very familiar with language acquisition.

She actually encourages English learners to take her Spanish classes. While most English learners in Plankinton are fluent Spanish speakers, they benefit from learning the grammar fundamentals and writing skills.

But beyond that, Schroeder says, they bring a richness of perspective to the class. “They are empowered, because this is an area in which they can help their native English-speaking classmates,” she says. “Our English learners are from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, they have different accents, and they use some different vocabulary, which everyone can learn from.”

It also helps native English speakers empathize with their English learner classmates.

“We start on the first day talking about kindness,” Schroeder says. “You need to be kind to yourself. You’re going to be frustrated sometimes learning another language. And you need to be kind to others because they are also learners here. Whatever it is, everybody’s here in the same boat, trying to learn something.”

student standing infrom on photo collage. His t-shirt says WE ARE JUAN

And teachers have discovered that strategies to help English learners can also help native English speakers. Schroeder gives the example of an English class exercise: finding a sentence’s missing punctuation. The high school English teacher helped students by letting them know how many items were missing. “So that’s a little scaffolding piece that teacher would have picked up through the SIOP [Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol] training,” she says.

In the community
Community members regularly contact Schroeder wondering how they can help English learners and their families. Individuals, churches and other organizations frequently offer donations to help families new to the area.

In addition, Schroeder serves as a sort of informal liaison to help new families feel welcome and encouraged to participate in community events. She often translates promotional materials and when needed, provides cultural context:

“It might be a Halloween party, and a new family may need to know, what is Halloween? Or a family might ask me, why is my child supposed to wear a red shirt to school? And I explain, well, in that case, we’re like, saying no to drugs. We demonstrate things by using a colored t-shirt. It’s a cultural thing. They don’t know that, so they need to be informed.”

Hispanic Cultural Fair
This fall marked the third year of a schoolwide event hosted by Schroeder’s Spanish students. Students choose an aspect of Hispanic culture to study and develop poster boards, interactive presentations and papers.

It all comes together in a Hispanic Cultural Fair in the school commons area. Elementary students attend, and the past two years, it has been open to the public. Parents also get in on the fun, preparing ethnic foods (some from their own home countries).

Image from the cultural fair. People sitting at tables. Table of different types of ethnic  food.

Last summer, Schroeder took students on a trip abroad for the first time, heading to Costa Rica. The students who took the trip put together their presentation on the stage. Visitors could do scavenger hunts in model rainforest and crypt tunnels and take dance lessons, all things the students learned about during their travels.

Image of young students walking through a paper display of a rain forest.

Passion for Plankinton
It doesn’t take long to pick up on Schroeder’s passion for her work and her community: “It’s good every day,” she says. “I don’t have a bad day, I’ll tell you that. I have busier days than others.” She laughs as she says this, but it’s no exaggeration. Recently deciding that school days weren’t enough, Schroeder has started a Sunday class teaching English to adults.

Image of two students wearing WE ARE JUAN t-shirts standing by skeleton wearing ethnic clothing. Behind of them is a disply with photos and text L Catrina and La LLorona.
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