St. Sebastian students participated in a world language club this spring. (Submitted photo)

St. Sebastian School joined Catholic high schools across the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this spring to offer a world languages club (“Word Nerds”) for their sixth and seventh graders.

In the interest of helping middle school students discern their world language track at the next level, teachers at four area Catholic high schools dropped in to share their expertise in French, Spanish, Latin and German. Fr. Peter Patrick Kimani, pastor for St. Sebastian and St. Catherine, added to the fun for the students by teaching a lesson in Swahili. Fr. Kimani is originally from Nairobi, Kenya.

Joe Sheehan, the sixth- and seventh-grade English-Language Arts teacher, explained that the club was formed in response to student interest.

“I saw in my ELA classes that students were genuinely curious about our discussions of classical roots and etymologies,” Sheehan said.

He was inspired by his high school alma mater in Cleveland, St. Ignatius, which uses a grade-school language program for recruitment and enrichment — inviting area middle schoolers to their campus on the weekend to explore their offerings. St. Sebastian flipped the model by offering the program as a club and inviting teachers from area high schools to its campus.

Word Nerds became a popular club, with consistent attendance and numbers that grew over the course of the semester. Sheehan reports that approximately 40 percent of the students eligible for the club have opted in. It is currently St. Sebastian’s only world languages offering. Word Nerds is an extension of the mission at St. Sebastian, which calls the community to engage in academic excellence and community building. The program flows directly from that ideal: responding to curiosity, nurturing intellectual gifts and preparing to go out into the world to serve God and neighbor.

Sheehan shares that the support provided by the local high schools — Dominican, DSHA, Pius XI and MUHS — has been invaluable.

“They have sent excellent teachers,” Sheehan said. “We are so grateful to them for their openness to this idea. They created dynamic lessons with background information on their subject-area, speaking and listening practice, and sometimes even a little bit of food.”

Students in the club are similarly grateful for the experience. One sixth grader said, “Word Nerds gives us a chance to peek into other places of the world. We are all so grateful to have so many adults come and teach us a language. It’s like going to another country without leaving a classroom.”

A seventh grader added, “Word Nerds is a class I’ve always wanted but never knew I did. We have not only looked into just languages but also their cultures. This whole idea amazed me.”

Sheehan hopes this partnership is symbiotic and also helps the high schools with their admissions efforts, planting seeds of interest and curiosity in students’ prospective schools.

”Recognizing our shared values as part of the archdiocese, we want our students and families to imagine the promise of Catholic education in Milwaukee,” Sheehan said. “I believe our partnering high schools have been excited to showcase the strong instruction of their respective institutions as they invite students to consider applying.”

Leo Mironovich, a French teacher at Dominican High School, also sees the value in the partnership.

“Working with Joe Sheehan and the students of St. Sebastian’s was such a fun opportunity to bring language learning to life,” Mironovich said. “One enjoyable and surprising aspect of learning a language is realizing how much we’ve already been exposed to it: from the language itself to culture, our lives are truly multicultural. During our French lesson, I showed students a list of words and asked them if they’ve ever heard them before. Nearly every word can be used in daily conversation or context (words such as chauffeur or boutique), and every word is French. Students were shocked and excited, and those are some of the best reactions as they indicate with great emotion the connections that they’re seeing.”

One of Mironovich’s lessons showed locations of different francophone places and countries. Students were then asked to guess if French was spoken there. Geographically, each image showed a completely different place, showing the great diversity of the francophone world. Eventually, the images zeroed in on Bastille Days here in Milwaukee. When he pointed out the MSOE sign, students were puzzled – “is Milwaukee a francophone place?”

He shares that it is “fun to ponder what it means to be part of the French-speaking world and have the conversation (about whether) we can become a part of it through language learning and cultural experience. Moments like these are steps in that direction, where students can be transported from a classroom and into the greater world, learning about others and encountering their way of life, and ultimately coming to love the world in a more intimate way.”

Seeing the students come alive when given a chance to play with language in speaking and listening activities has been particularly rewarding for Sheehan.

“They took chances, tested their friends, and then — according to a number of parents — shared their learning at the dinner table.”