Our Neighbors.... Maria Strom

When Maria Strom accepted the position of kindergarten teacher at Queen of Peace School in Cloquet this school year, she envisioned big things for all students. Actually, she imagined "grande cosas para todos estudiantes."...

When Maria Strom accepted the position of kindergarten teacher at Queen of Peace School in Cloquet this school year, she envisioned big things for all students. Actually, she imagined "grande cosas para todos estudiantes."

That's right, Maria Strom has brought the Spanish language with her to Queen of Peace, and she's been teaching the whole school what it's all about. Studies have shown kids are more apt to retain knowledge of a second language than adolescents and adults - making Queen of Peace's situation with Strom almost ideal.

"When you're younger you're able to be resilient and take in so much," said Strom, "which is exactly why I wanted to present the idea to [Queen of Peace principal] Bill [Hoffman] if he wanted to take me up on teaching some Spanish. It's so beneficial to get the kids learning Spanish at such a young age."

Each class at Queen of Peace gets "Sen?ra Strom" for a half hour a week to learn the Spanish language, various Latin American cultures - and have fun. When she teaches Spanish to the various grades during the week, her kindergarten students spend that half hour with other teachers in the school for regular classwork. According to Strom, it works out quite smoothly, and she feels her kindergartners get nice exposure to future teachers they may have at Queen of Peace - and good exposure to new learning opportunities.

"It's really nice it worked out with the other teachers coming down and teaching my kindergartners for that time period, whether it's a reading corner, science or a music," said Strom. "On a smaller scale, it's a little challenging when you just have a half an hour a week, but they still have a lot of fun in that short amount of time. Like anything, it would be nice to have more time, but this is actually working out great."


Queen of Peace School seems to have truly embraced Strom's ideas of teaching Spanish language and culture. Around the school are makeshift "Spanish-translation" signs under the regular English ones. For example, under the sign that says "Library" is another sign that says "La Biblioteca."

"It really helps the kids to see the Spanish translations for everyday things around the school," said Strom. "We have a set room I go to for our Spanish instruction where I've put up the different school objects with the Spanish words on or near them, but having the rest of the school embrace it has been wonderful."

Strom is big into interactive learning when teaching her students a foreign language. Her Spanish classes involve a lot of singing, hand motions and games, all of which keep kids completely immersed in the language. Anybody can sit and read from a book, according to Strom, but real learning comes when you're actually "living the language."

"I try to do an activity where we're up and moving when we're not doing language skills," said Strom. "Yes, the students do a good job trying to stick with 'Spanish only,' however, reading out loud and sight words and being able to see it and comprehend it should come before any of the 'book' stuff. Even when I was teaching older students, it was a lot of me doing the commands and the students doing a lot of the actions around the room, and for about a month and a half they were just listening to me as they were acting things out. You just don't open a book and do translating. That's not as fun and the kids don't learn as much, which is the ultimate goal. And besides getting the grammar and all those fun activities, there are days where we focus more on culture.

"For example," she continued, "right around Halloween is 'The Day of the Dead' in Mexico, and it's a huge holiday there. So instead of just doing grammar, it just provides them with a good background on culture. I really enjoy bringing that to the school."

"I also quite often hear the students singing our Spanish songs outside of class to themselves," added Strom, "and that's nice to hear. Even though it's a small amount of time of Spanish instruction I'm giving the other students, seeing them maintain it week in and week out, or listening to them greet me in Spanish in the hallways is very nice."

A life in "Spanglish"

Strom's entire life has been one step ahead as far as learning the Spanish language is concerned. She grew up in Hibbing, which, like most of Minnesota, isn't exactly a Spanish-speaking hotbed. However, she had one major advantage - her mother. Strom's mom was born and raised in Chile and made no bones about her pride in South America, Chilean culture and the Spanish language.


Strom, her sister and mother made several trips to Chile, sometimes spending up to six months at a time in her mother's homeland. Strom's father was a physician in Hibbing, and he would also attempt to follow his family on their trips to Chile when he was available.

"My mom's whole family is still in Chile, and she's the only one of them living in the United States," said Strom. "I grew up spending a lot of time in South America. Even better than that, my grandmother would come visit us in Minnesota because my mom was her only child living in the United States. She would come about every six months. So, in between visiting Chile and being visited by my grandma, my sister and I kind of had the 'Spanglish' thing going on. My grandma would speak straight Spanish to my sister and me, which would force my sister and I to communicate that way. My grandma could speak very little English."

Strom attended a parochial elementary school in Hibbing much like Queen of Peace. She said the nice thing about her school was they allowed her mom, who she describes as "vibrant and full of energy even today," to come in and bring some of her Latin American language and culture to the classroom.

"My mom volunteered at my school and would teach for an hour or so," she related. "When I was smaller, my classmates really enjoyed having her come in. She would bring her guitar, and she was an enthusiastic person whom the other kids just adored," said Strom. "In the 1970s, in a smaller town like that, to have her come in was a nice addition to the school."

Strom claims she was quite fluent in Spanish by the time she reached her teens. She feels she's one of the lucky ones, but during Chile's period of unrest in the early 1980s with Augusto Pinochet coming to power, she didn't visit Chile for nearly six years - and her Spanish actually got pretty rusty.

"Until my sister and I began taking Spanish classes in high school, we didn't realize how rusty our Spanish had become after not going to Chile," said Strom. "We were a little down in some of our vocabulary and verb usage. But as far as understanding the movies that were played during class, there was no problem there. We got our Spanish skills back rather quickly, but I think that's the best thing about the Spanish language. What you learn will stay with you. I think my sister and I are both living proof that when you're that little, you can retain it into your adolescence and adulthood."

Teaching Background

Strom worked in fields outside of teaching for several years but knew she wanted to go back to teaching. She taught Spanish in the Twin Cities for four years. One of those years was at a Spanish "immersion school," where the entire school was focused on being, well, immersed, in the Spanish language. For example, subjects like math and science were taught in Spanish.


Strom then decided she wanted to move back up to the clean - but cold - northern region and accepted a high school teaching position at Mountain Iron-Buhl High School in Mountain Iron. She lived in Duluth while teaching in Mountain Iron, but said budget cuts forced the school to cut Spanish down to a half-time position.

She had to make a decision.

"I felt it was time to move on to the Duluth/Cloquet area to look for a full-time position," said Strom, who's licensed to teach both elementary education and Spanish in all grades. "It was a great experience in Mountain Iron and the students were very receptive. I moved to Duluth and planned on staying, and after subbing at parochial schools all year last year, I landed the job at Queen of Peace, and it's working out wonderfully. This is my first year as a kindergarten teacher, but I'm also confident the Spanish is going to stay."

A Good Reception

Strom said she's heard only good things since she's introduced Spanish to Queen of Peace, and that's very reassuring to her.

"The parents who have approached me, or the ones I've talked to at the home and school meeting before school even started, have had nothing but positive things to say to me, which is a great feeling," said Strom. "It's been really nice to be welcomed like this. And when the students are in Spanish class with me, I see nothing but smiling faces. I think it's nice for the kids to have something a little different. Learning Spanish really has an upside - only good things can come out of learning it. It's an easy language to learn and the kids have really had fun with it. Seeing the kids getting something good out of this makes it all worthwhile."

Writer Mat Gilderman is the former editor of the Pine Journal.

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