Panamanian students at Wilkes University teach Spanish to autistic kids

By Mark Guydish - [email protected]
Wilkes University students Cristobal Palacio and Yuliana Stalin teach students how to speak basic Spanish words at the Graham Academy in Kingston. - Sean McKeag | Times Leader
Wilkes University student Maricela Quiroz teaches student Da’Saun, 8, basic Spanish during a class at the Graham Academy in Kingston. - Sean McKeag | Times Leader
Wilkes University student Cristobal Palacio shows students where Panama is on a map at Graham Academy in Kingston. - Sean McKeag | Times Leader

KINGSTON — They came all the way from Central America to teach two foreign words: “hola” and “adios.” But they found many of the children knew — or wanted to know — much more, including “bano” (bathroom), “por favor” (please) and “de nada” (thank you).

They also learned something about teaching autistic children, something still new in their native Panama.

“It’s been very moving for them,” Wilkes University dean of education Rhonda Rabbitt said of this week’s visit to the Graham Academy by Panama students attending Wilkes this spring. This is eighth cohort of Panamanians to travel to Wilkes under that country’s MEDUCA-Bilingual Panama initiative.

The Panama cohorts have made a visit to the Graham Academy part of their itinerary for some time, a point of pride for both the university and the academy because prior cohorts have responded favorably to the visits on surveys taken after their stay here.

But until this week, they visited as observers, not participants, Rabbit said. The experience is important, she added, because autism has not become as well recognized in Panama. “They may not get diagnosed, or parents may simply keep them home.”

Because autistic children learn at very varied speeds and with different methods, with some being non-verbal, the Panamanians — this group was all 18-year-olds about to train to become teachers —learned some “manipulative” teaching techniques.

In one class, that involved making cut-outs of dinosaurs, frogs, butterflies and a fish. Each sported one of the four words in the lesson: “hello,” “hola,” “goodbye” and “adios.”

Da’Saun (the academy generally does not want last names to be used) had a blast with his cut-outs. “Maybe the fish wants to swim!” he said as he slid it around the desk. He noticed “hello” and “hola” both started with an “H,” then started asking questions of the visiting Panamanians, Maricela Quiroz and Gabriel Merel.

“When you were a baby, were you this small?” he queried as he got out of his seat and put his hand a foot above the floor. Quiroz and Merel laughed.

In Leigh Ann Knauer’s classroom, the students had not only mastered the two words on the agenda, they craved more.

“I can count to five in Spanish!” Michael offered, promptly doing just that. “I know lots of Spanish. Si, Americano! Adios amigos!”

The class was so enthused by the lessons they learned other Spanish words for familiar English terms, including “silencio.”

“How do you say quiet?” Knauer asked, evoking nary a word and prompting her to smile.

“Well, you don’t have to be quiet!”

Wilkes University students Cristobal Palacio and Yuliana Stalin teach students how to speak basic Spanish words at the Graham Academy in Kingston.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_TTL041918Graham1-1.jpgWilkes University students Cristobal Palacio and Yuliana Stalin teach students how to speak basic Spanish words at the Graham Academy in Kingston. Sean McKeag | Times Leader

Wilkes University student Maricela Quiroz teaches student Da’Saun, 8, basic Spanish during a class at the Graham Academy in Kingston.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_TTL041918Graham3-1.jpgWilkes University student Maricela Quiroz teaches student Da’Saun, 8, basic Spanish during a class at the Graham Academy in Kingston. Sean McKeag | Times Leader

Wilkes University student Cristobal Palacio shows students where Panama is on a map at Graham Academy in Kingston.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_TTL041918Graham2-1.jpgWilkes University student Cristobal Palacio shows students where Panama is on a map at Graham Academy in Kingston. Sean McKeag | Times Leader
Program involving Wilkes U visits Graham Academy

By Mark Guydish

[email protected]

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish