To better educate and engage its growing number of Spanish-speaking and English language learners (ELL) students, Congress Park Elementary School in Brookfield hosted its first Bilingual Visual Arts Show on April 28.

The art show featured the work of more than 30 children and was hosted in collaboration with the National Museum of Mexican Art. The showcase partnered Congress Park’s after-school program with the LaGrange-Brookfield District 102’s transitional bilingual education program, a program set up to comply with federal guidelines requiring bilingual teaching services be offered at schools where more than 20 students are speakers of the same non-English language. 

To meet the federal guideline, Congress Park receives transitional bilingual education grant funding to host after-school programs for ELL students. In the past, the school offered reading, math and homework tutoring sessions for students. This time, ELL teacher Patricia Connelly stepped out of the box to pitch a program for Spanish-speaking students that would be unique. 

After research, Connelly contacted the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, hoping to collaborate on a program where students would create works of art incorporating Mexican cultural influences and strengthen the students’ mastery of both Spanish and English.

The museum eagerly jumped on board with the idea, assigning in-house bilingual artist Fidencio Martinez to teach students on Tuesdays and Thursdays for two hours over an eight-week period. 

Martinez highlighted Mexican artists, including Frida Kahlo, Pedro Linares Lopez and Carmen Lomas Garza, with students sharing their own cultural stories and creating projects based on the artwork they studied. 

The goal of the program was to allow students to strengthen their language skills while exploring their culture in a way they may have never been exposed to before.

“Part of the transitional bilingual education program is that children have heritage learning,” Connelly said. “To keep in line with that component, we also wanted a program that was going to be conducted in Spanish and English to have a low-anxiety setting. The first- and second-graders are much better in Spanish than the third- and fourth-graders, because they’re losing it as they are going on. It was something to take pride in their language and culture.”

Martinez, an artist who was born in Mexico and moved to the United States while in elementary school, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts and was excited to share his art and language knowledge with the children.

“It’s been a great experience,” he said. “It’s very funny I got to teach at this school, because their aim is to teach art to kids that speak both Spanish and English. And it’s something I wish I had growing up, because I spoke only English and my Spanish kind of died.”

Pamela Manon, a mother of a second-grade ELL student, was excited for the opportunity the program provided her daughter. 

“My favorite part of the project is the art that she gets to practice, something she didn’t have access to in Mexico or our last school district,” Manon said. “She gets to practice her culture and language.”

Manon’s daughter, Maria Martinez, says she had a positive experience with the program.

“I liked everything, and I liked looking at my friends’ art,” she said.

Connelly and Fidencio Martinez hope students gained a sense of honor for their backgrounds and appreciated sharing their stories both in their native language and in conjunction with developing English skills.

“I hope they want to speak their language and continue art,” Martinez added. “There’s a rich culture in our language, history and customs and the art shows that.”

Connelly agreed.

“It’s giving them better confidence and is giving some kids better focus,” she said. “They’re so full of pride and it was just a joy.”