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Teaching Language With Culture In California

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Think about the best teachers you had in school. You'd probably think of some who you just felt like were going out of their way to get to know you. Well, kindergarten teacher Ron Morris of Riverside, Calif., certainly takes into account his students' backgrounds and culture. Many of his students have Mexican heritage. And Morris taps into that to guide his teaching. Reporter Deepa Fernandes takes us inside the classroom.

DEEPA FERNANDES, BYLINE: Ron Morris' classroom at Stone Avenue Elementary school looks a lot like kindergarten classrooms all over the country. His students learn simple math and basic spelling, only they do so almost exclusively in Spanish. This is what's known as a dual-language immersion school.

RON MORRIS: (Singing in Spanish).

FERNANDES: Today, they're learning "Cielito Lindo," which translates roughly into lovely sweet one.

MORRIS: (Singing in Spanish).

FERNANDES: Morris draws on his own childhood to teach his students. He was raised by a stepmother from Mexico.

MORRIS: When she came here, she had to spend her days in the burning sun, picking strawberries with her back breaking.

FERNANDES: Morris tells this story to parents each year at back to school night. Gabriella Santiago is from Mexico. She says she chose Stone Avenue for her son because of Morris.

GABRIELLA SANTIAGO: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDES: "Our culture's beautiful," Santiago says. She loves the memories of home that she has when her son performs what he's learned in school. Rommel Baiza, a Stone Avenue parent with Honduran roots, says he appreciates the cultural element in Morris' teaching, even if it isn't his culture.

ROMMEL BAIZA: Oh, I love it, love it 'cause I grew up with it, too.

FERNANDES: Ron Morris knows if kids can relate to the material, learning is a much more natural process. And it's more fun. For NPR News, I'm Deepa Fernandes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.