Between the bin of jumbo-sized workbooks tough enough for a toddler's handling and the miniature plastic chairs sturdy enough for a four-year-old's squirming, you might think Valerie Alves's classroom at the Family Museum is just your usual preschool learning environment — if it wasn't for the large index cards taped throughout the room.
One reads "Las mariposas," near a glass display of butterfly taxidermy. Another: "La cocina," by a plastic play oven and stove.
As for the card outside the door? "Bienvenidos a la clase de Español."
"They're incredibly intuitive at such a young age," says Alves of her eight four-year-old students, whom she teaches for an hour on Monday and Wednesday mornings from September to May.
As sponge-like as their brains may be, Alves—or "Maestra Valerie" as she’s known to her students—says she tries to not place too much on the kids: "The program is not a complete immersion. It's more of an introduction for the vowel sounds, the alphabet, the numbers, the colors."
The classroom doesn't just have the look of a typical preschool. It also has the feel: as class begins, Alves helps her kids release some of that boundless preschooler energy by leading them in a stretching exercise—but in Spanish of course.
"Derecha! Derecha! Derecha! Derecha!" the kids chant as they lean to the right. To the left: "Izquierda!" To the back: "Detrás!" To the front: "Delante!"
Alves, who has taught Spanish at the Family Museum for around 10 years, incorporates culture into her curriculum, too.
Part of that includes geography: after the early-morning aerobics, Alves passes around pictures of the Mexican cities of Querétaro City and Mérida, and the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itzá and Dzibilchaltun.
Another part of the culture component: cuisine.
"Tengo una sorpresa!" Alves announces. "I have a surprise!" And a tasty one at that: after the kids wash their hands, she serves them a caramel-like candy called Obleas de Cajeta, which she brought back from a recent trip to Mexico.
For all the tasty treats and pictures of faraway places, it's clear that above all else Alves emphasizes the spoken word: after she has her kids count up the calendar to the day’s date, she finishes the hour by reading the kids a book about household chores called "Cómo puedo ayudar?" ("How can I help?"), with her students repeating each line out loud.
"When you speak a different language, your muscles in your mouth—they develop differently. So, if they develop early on, they don't have a problem with communication later."
Joe Miletich of Princeton, Iowa,whose four-year-old son Liam takes the class, knows that problem firsthand: "I didn't take Spanish until high school. It was really difficult for me at that age to try and learn, so we wanted to get him going as early as possible."
For Liam, early as possible meant last year, when he was three. That's the youngest age Alves teaches, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the Family Museum.
The oldest are eighth-graders, whom she teaches at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School in Davenport.
To Alves, there’s no such thing as being too young to start learning Spanish, or too old to stop: "You want to teach them a love of learning forever."