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Planting Spanish

At J.D. Floyd Elementary, which sits on 18 acres of natural habitat, environmental science is reinforced in every subject, from language arts to math. So it seemed natural for Spanish teacher Gloria Soto to insert Spanish into science _ or was it science into Spanish?

Either way, the combination proved successful, as Soto's sixth-grade class used nature as the backdrop for learning Spanish. The students made signs and labeled the forest behind the school in Spanish and English, naming the palms, fungi and anything else that lives there.

"Students need hands-on activity, and this (environmental science) program is geared toward lots of field trips and hands-on activities," Soto said. "I want them to get exposed to the words in Spanish, even if it's through a glance, looking at the sign and saying, "Hey, what is that word I saw by the mushrooms?' "

The first step was a field trip to the Home Depot, where store employees helped the 70 students make the signs and stakes. Home Depot donated the wood, paint and brushes for the project.

Before returning to school to paint and label the signs, the class stopped to have a prearranged lunch, compliments of Popeye's on Commercial Way, where each child was to place his or her order in Spanish.

Kimberlynne Petracco, 11, started out with "Buenos dias" and asked for chicken, french fries and a beverage without a hitch. But her friend, Sarah, was still trying to memorize her lines and was panicking as her turn came.

"She messed it up a couple of times," Kimberlynne said, "but she got her (order) anyway."

Back at school, the signs were painted and the Spanish lesson continued. Students identified parts of a tree or types of grass, mushrooms or vegetation, and looked up the words in the English-Spanish dictionary.

One sign sported the word "grass" on one side and its Spanish counterpart, "hierba," on the other. Another sign said "fungi," with "hongo" on its reverse.

Then the class went into the forest to drive the stakes into the ground.

"That was my favorite part, actually getting the hammer into the sign," Kimberlynne said. "That, and to be part of the outback."

The sixth-grader wants to be a lawyer _ she has Harvard Law School in her sights _ and she knows the value of learning Spanish.

"In the future, you can get a better job knowing another language," Kimberlynne said.

To become more proficient, the class will revisit the forest every nine weeks and add more words on more signs.

"The more they get visually into the language through all the senses, the better they will learn," Soto said. "That's why I have them do activities where they have to speak it, taste it, feel it. The more intense that you get students to learn _ whatever it is _ the more it's in their brain, and they will get it."

As for Kimberlynne, she's happy to get immersed in Spanish because she's thinking ahead.

"As a lawyer, whatever your client's culture is, you should be able to speak the language," she said.