Top left to right Richard Kinnebrew, Evanston children’s outreach librarian, teen instructors, Leslie Martinez and Noah Toborda teach a lesson in Spanish. Photo by Mary Mumbrue

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 A new Spanish-language literacy initiative for preschoolers takes advantage of a bond that often forms between preschoolers and teenagers, said Rick Kinnebrew, children’s outreach librarian for Evanston Public Library.

“Preschoolers love teenagers,” said Mr. Kinnebrew. “There is a lot of mojo there for some reason – I think because teenagers are ‘grown-up’ but not really ‘adult’ yet.”

 Consequently, teenagers are the ones doing the teaching in the Companeros program, a collaborative effort between Youth Job Center and Evanston Public Library.

 Rather than rote vocabulary lessons, kids get the opportunity to learn through a play-based curriculum that encourages them to think about concepts more abstractly.

Pretending they are in a setting such as a veterinarian’s office, pizza parlor or construction site, they learn important vocabulary and then are sent into small groups to put their new skills into practice.

 Companeros is an offshoot of the Literacy Education at Play program, which debuted in 2006. It aims at embedding pre-reading and pre-writing skills directly into the children’s play sessions and employs bilingual teenagers for classes through District 65’s Jumpstart program and Puerta Abierta Preschool, 933 Chicago Ave. The classes are aimed both at preschoolers in Spanish-speaking homes and English-speakers learning Spanish as a second language.

In a lesson at the Chicago Avenue-Main Street Library branch on July 22, taught by Mr. Kinnebrew and teen instructors Leslie Martinez and Noah Taborda,

Leslie opened by reading a book that gave the names of various animals. When she was finished, Mr. Kinnebrew brought over a plush dog, which he introduced as “mi perro, Bobo.”

Bobo underwent a litany of tests and examinations from Noah and Leslie. As they examined him, students called out the names of the toy instruments they were using. Finally Mr. Kinnebrew asked a question in Spanish guaranteed to elicit grimaces from the students – would Bobo need a shot?

Noah gave Bobo the “injection” and applied a bandage; most of the students winced or groaned in sympathy. The students were then given their own plush patients and examination kits, and broke out into small groups, administering their own exams.

“The thing about play-based curriculums is that they’re very flexible,” Mr. Kinnebrew said. “If they come up with an idea, they can just go with it.”

Another positive component of the program is the work experience it gives to young people. “Here’s something Evanston teens can put on their resume – it’s great experience,” said Mr. Kinnebrew.

Leslie and Noah are two of four teens employed by Companeros. Both grew up in bilingual homes and say they enjoy teaching the preschoolers. They applied through the Youth Job Center and underwent about a week of training for the five-week program, Leslie said.

“I have seven younger cousins – I did the same thing with them,” Noah added. “But they all grew up, so it is fun to be able to do this again.”

Spanish language instruction for youngsters is growing in popularity, said Teresa Infante, an instructor at Puerta Abierta, which operates three classrooms. The school currently has a waiting list of 40 students, she said.