JOSEPHINE O'CONNOR TEACHES French to third-graders at St. Thomas School in Delmar. (Emily Benson photo)
JOSEPHINE O'CONNOR TEACHES French to third-graders at St. Thomas School in Delmar. (Emily Benson photo)
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At St. Thomas the Apostle School in Delmar, 15 eager third-graders watch their teacher, Josephine O'Connor, with great anticipation. In her arms is a stack of red textbooks.

She turns to the class and speaks: "J'ai besoin de deux volontaires. I need two volunteers to hand out books."

Arms shoot into the air, along with a chorus of high-pitched, "Me! Me!" pleas.

For Mrs. O'Connor, the world languages teacher at St. Thomas, this is just another day of French class. Even students as young as third grade can comprehend her questions and respond in basic French.

Today's lesson is about the parts of a house. Mrs. O'Connor pulls up a video on a Smart Board: an image of a house, with the names of the rooms popping up in French.

The words "la cuisine" appear. "The kitchen," the class shouts in unison.

As a kind of scavenger hunt, Mrs. O'Connor writes terms in French on pieces of paper and scatters them around the room. She asks the first group of three students, "Where would I go to see flowers?"

The third-graders search the slips of paper until one grabs the note reading "le jardin" ("the garden") and yells, "Got it!"

"Where do you go to eat?" Mrs. O'Connor asks. Another student runs to the front of the classroom: "Guys! It's the dining room!"

Three choices
At a time when the humanities are on the chopping block in some schools, St. Thomas' world languages program might be considered a rarity. From kindergarten through fourth grade, students are required to learn French; they move on to Spanish from fifth through eighth grade.

Anyone in grades six through eight can also take Latin online through Middlebury College in Vermont.

Mrs. O'Connor has been teaching both the French and Spanish classes at St. Thomas for four years. She calls herself "the foreign language department."

When she came to the school, the only foreign language being offered was Spanish, since eighth-graders can take a Spanish proficiency exam to earn high-school credit in a foreign language.

Thomas Kane, principal, knew that Mrs. O'Connor was fluent in both French and Spanish, so students were offered the chance to learn an additional language. Now, St. Thomas students who choose to take Latin can also graduate with a high school credit.

Mrs. O'Connor believes that the earlier students are exposed to a foreign language, the more likely they are going to take an interest in it.

"Children at that age are not conscious of their filter," she told The Evangelist. "In the case of foreign languages, that's actually quite good, because they aren't as afraid to make many mistakes and they aren't afraid of looking silly."

The teacher says her students don't have trouble transitioning from French to Spanish. In fact, she says, it's better for students to have practiced one new language before moving on to another.

How it helps
"Learning and being exposed to more than one language is actually helpful to children," she explained.

Mrs. O'Connor often uses French to explain new concepts to her Spanish students. "It might seem like going from French to Spanish is confusing, but I can say, 'Hey, remember this in French? Well, it's like this in Spanish.'"

Mrs. O'Connor also says that language courses pair well with Catholic teachings. By exposing children to other cultures, she believes they're more likely to be respectful of others and really understand the concept of loving one's neighbor.

"If we bothered to learn how another culture speaks, [and] how does another culture act and why, I think it can help [students]," she said.

Loving Latin
Matt Swensen, an English/language arts teacher and advisor for the Latin course at St. Thomas, says the online Latin class is also expanding in popularity.

"Attendance in Latin as gone up remarkably since I started working here" five years ago, he said. From about four students, the class has shot up to 18.

Each week, students are assigned modules to complete. They submit their Latin assignments online for Mr. Swensen to grade. Most of the students complete the work on their own time, but for especially difficult assignments, some attend his study hall to get one-one-one help.

Billy Sherburne, a seventh-grade Latin student, says the course helps him learn the origin of English words. He thinks it was helpful to have already taken Spanish and French, since it gave him practice with learning a new language.

Mrs. O'Connor agrees. Learning a language -- or two, or three -- is "really kind of the best of both worlds," she said. "I'm really happy I get to introduce the kids to both."