Legos & Language

Several third-graders crowd around the table, each of them vying for a moment to control the hand-made robot. If they offer the right command, it will say “Hi” or maybe even repeat their names.

Sometimes, their robot only speaks frog: “ribbit, ribbit.”

“It does not speak English!” one girl exclaims.

In that way, these students relate quite well to their Lego® machines.

Their experience with English is fresh enough that many can recall the frustration of not speaking the language of a new community. Here in a classroom at Gonzaga’s Summer Language Program, they represent 10 languages, and new hope for their families.

Marrying Words and Science with Robots

The Summer Language Program, run by Gonzaga for the last 16 years, provides a necessary skill for children trying to integrate into their new Spokane schools and neighborhoods. It has grown from a handful of kids to nearly 300, with a teaching staff of Gonzaga students in the Master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language (MA/TESL) program and experienced teachers from Spokane Public Schools.

Learn more about the Summer Language Program!

With rave reviews from local schools and a high demand from the area’s refugee service organizations, the program has been a great success. But as educators know well, there is always another tactic to try, another avenue to pursue to make learning more engaging and fun.

This year, the language program adopted a STEM focus, so while the students (ages 6-18 in grades kindergarten through 12) are learning English, they receive
a healthy dose of science, technology, engineering and math. What better way to enhance language learning and some engineering concepts than through the use of robotics in the classroom?

Homemade robots, crafted with Legos® and small computer screens, were stored on shelves until, at last, the students could play with them. The local high school students who created and programmed the simple yet ingenious tools were themselves recent immigrants for whom English is a second language.

“The kids are picking up vocabulary, they’re discussing how robots take pictures of planets and they’re writing about what they learn.” Holly Clouse

Sarah Fadhil, a recent graduate from Ferris High School and a native of Iraq, says, “I did not know about robots only one year ago, but became very interested.” Her goal was to show the students how to use her robots, then let them build their own.

Success in Space

While the children represent more than 30 ethnic groups around the globe, they are grouped by age, not by native language. As they write, speak, listen and play, they are experiencing English through total immersion.

This summer, lessons centered on the solar system, and from classroom to classroom, the conversations grew from the Earth, moon and sun to galaxies and meteors and atmospheric gases.

Everything students learned in a traditional classroom format was complemented by art, games, presentations and music. While students don’t take tests, teachers are constantly measuring their success through reading and writing exercises.

Hollie Clouse, a Spokane Public Schools teacher leading the third-grade class, says that while studying space exploration, “the kids are picking up vocabulary, they’re discussing how robots take pictures of planets and they’re writing about what they learn.”

The Summer Language Program presents great opportunities not just for the children but for the student teachers as well. In the morning they’re learning about theories of language education, and in the afternoon they’re putting them into practice. Every day, they debrief with their lead teacher, “exercising reflective teaching at its best,” says James Hunter, director of the MA/TESL program.


“There was every kind of evil,” says Lucee. “My dad and I were so fortunate to make it out.”

A beautiful young African, Lucee spoke nearly perfect English accented with an almost Jamaican lilt.

When she came to the United States, she was eager to finish her high school education because the family had been unable to afford tuition for school in its native land. For a time though, her primary responsibility would be to accompany her dad and translate for him as he sought work and medical care.

Spokane is home to more than 33,000 refugees from across the globe. They are men, women and children from the interior of China and India – Nepalese, Bhutanese, Hmong, Karen (from Myanmar) – and from many nations in Africa. Some were displaced by natural disasters, others were escaping human rights atrocities of every kind: child labor, systemic rape, human trafficking and genocide.

Naturally, many arrive in their new home country with great needs. Not just homes and food, jobs and education, or medical treatment. They need companionship. Healing. A sense of community. And yet, that can seem unattainable for those who don’t speak English. Trapped by the fear of not being able to communicate, many avoid using the bus system or going to the doctor or participating in their children’s school activities.

Fortunately for Lucee, that wasn’t the case in her household.

“It was hard for my parents when we came,” she says. “But they adjusted by going to adult education and learning English. My father would read the paper and ask me questions. Before long, he was saying, ‘Only talk in English, Lucee.’ ”

With that hurdle overcome, she turned her attention again to her studies and completed high school, then went to college to major in international affairs. She has adjusted to life in Washington so well her father says she is “just like an American girl.”

He, on the other hand, still hates the colder temperatures and wears hats and three layers of clothing more often than not. But that’s not the point. He has flourished in his new homeland, too, using English with confidence for business, as well as camaraderie. That’s vital for a man seeking his new place in this world.