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Casper Drive Mobile Literacy Clinic adds hands-on science lesson

Dr. Max Vazquez Dominguez, assistant professor of teacher education at the University of North Georgia, works with a student at the Casper Drive Mobile Literacy Program in Gainesville, Georgia. Vazquez Dominguez incorporated a hands-on science literacy lesson to the program this semester.

Almost every Wednesday during the fall 2019 semester, Dr. Max Vazquez Dominguez sits down with elementary school students to read a story twice. Once in English and once in Spanish.

Then, the assistant professor of teacher education at the University of North Georgia (UNG) selects an activity noted in the book and transforms it into a hands-on science lesson for the third- through fifth-grade students.

The two-part lesson focusing on literacy and science is an addition to the Casper Drive Mobile Literacy Program in Gainesville, Georgia.

Dr. Annmarie Jackson, assistant professor of teacher education at UNG, started the program in fall 2018 to help many of the children from Riverbend Elementary School to read on grade level. Many children, who are mostly heritage Spanish speakers and live in a mobile home park off Casper Drive, were not reading on grade level.

Vazquez Dominguez volunteered with the program, which happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He enjoyed it so much he approached Jackson about incorporating a science literacy element on Wednesdays. She agreed along with the coordinator from the center.

"Max Vazquez Dominguez is a science teacher and wanted to utilize his science passion with this population of students," Jackson said. "And I had always discussed how in my own teaching experience with Latinx students, particularly boys, I observed that they loved nonfiction texts."

One book Vazquez Dominguez has used to help the children learn basic science concepts is "After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again)" by Dan Santat.

After reading the book, the children answered questions about the story and wrote their answers in Spanish or English or both. Then they made airplanes just like Humpty Dumpty does in the story.

Vazquez Dominguez said this dual approach helps the children grasp concepts better, especially when they are using English and Spanish.

"Because science has so many vocabulary words that come from Latin and Greek, they are similar to Spanish," he said, providing examples such as hypothesis is hipótesis in Spanish.

Meredith Pierce, Path Project community director at Casper Drive, said the children respond to the science lessons with enthusiasm.

"The children are laughing and moving and processing in ways that I haven't seen before in my 12 years of a standard after-school program. Max has a gift of guiding the kids to their own understanding of scientific concepts," Pierce said, explaining the science lab is what the kids need to become lifelong science enthusiasts. "When a child learns to love science and problem solve at a young age that positive experience is carried with them into the teen years and then adulthood."

Vazquez Dominguez is not conducting the science lessons alone. Dr. Cristina Washell, interim head of the Department of Teacher Education, has collaborated with Jackson since the beginning and helped Vazquez Dominguez.

Many UNG students who are pursuing degrees in teacher education also have volunteered their time to help. One is Jesus Penaloza, a junior pursuing a degree in early childhood education. The Gainesville, Georgia, resident said he knew the experience would help him gain the skills he would need as a future teacher. Penaloza also developed a tight bond with the children since he had been part of the neighborhood previously

"The group of students I've been working with has identified with me," he said. "I encouraged them to set goals in life and told them one must be to attend college. They named our team after talking about this goal. We call it 'Team College.'"

Vazquez Dominguez said the students are learning valuable lessons on teaching while the children are seeing Latinos and Latinas thrive in higher education.

"When the elementary school students walk into class and see a teacher trying to empathize with them, it feels welcoming to them," he said. "And we want to create that environment for those students."

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