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Teaching the little ones the ways of Norway

As a circle of pre-schoolers tried to twist their chubby fingers in the complicated fashion required when singing the "Itsy-Bisty Spider" song, their tongues and brains were also undergoing a challenging twist.

They were trying to sing the song in Norwegian.

"Very good," cooed Jamie Moe, an early education teacher to her young charges, who really didn't seem to care what language they were singing as long as they were having fun.

Ever since the Norwegian-style "barnehage" pre-school opened Sept. 8 in Sunburg, the children have been hearing and speaking Norwegian. And having fun.

It may be just a word here and there, enmeshed in a constant jabber of English, but after a month of classes the children understand much of the Norwegian they hear and incorporate Norwegian words into their vocabulary and play.

"It's amazing. They're using tons of Norwegian," said Becky Hegstad, the barnehage program leader for the Concordia Language Villages that helped the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg School District launch their Norwegian semi-emersion pre-school. Hegstad is working with the school on a consulting basis.

"I think they're doing such a good job," Hegstad said of the KMS staff. "They're right on target."

There are currently 14 students, ages 3 to 5, enrolled. Many have last names and blond hair that suggests aptitude with the language may involve a little genetics. But among the Larsons and Carlsons there is an O'Leary on the roster as well.

Sunburg, a small town of about 100 people in northwestern Kandiyohi County, is well-known for its Norwegian heritage. A fair number of older residents speak the language fluently, with the same lilt that their relatives brought with them to Minnesota in the 1800s when they left Norway.

Operating a barnehage -- which can be translated as "children's garden" -- in Sunburg is a perfect fit, said Martin Heidelberger, KMS superintendent.

The decision to open a pre-school in Sunburg was made about a year ago. The district's early childhood program had no more space to expand, said Heidelberger. That's when they looked at their old school in Sunburg, which had been sold to the city years ago and transformed into a community center and fire hall.

About the same time the city agreed to let the school use the facility, KMS Community Education Coordinator Sue Wennerberg traveled to Norway on vacation and saw the traditional barnehage, a kind of a combination day-care and pre-school.

When she returned home Wennerberg did an Internet search on barnehage and was quickly linked to the Moorhead-based Concordia Language Village Web site and Hegstad, who is overseeing a Concordia barnehage in the metro area.

The language village had been looking to expand the barnehage program in greater Minnesota, said Hegstad, who was thrilled when she learned KMS wanted to start one in Sunburg.

By connecting with the Concordia Language Village, KMS has access to curriculum, training and years of experience in emersion language education.

Besides providing regular support through email and telephone, Hegstad makes occasional treks to Sunburg to provide additional guidance to school staff and to interact with the children.

The focus isn't just on language, but the culture of Norway. Pictures of mountains and fjords line the hallway and a wooden troll holds the door open.

Hegstad said there's much to learn from Norwegians, like their "peace-keeping" efforts, and teaching the language and culture to young children is a way to "hold on to that heritage."

By following the traditional barnehage model, the furnishings at the Sunburg school are simple and clean and designed to stimulate creativity. The children sit on wooden benches at the craft table and learning toys come from nature, like a tray full of pine cones and a six-foot long container of dirt where flower seedlings are growing.

There's no computer or TV or big plastic toys in the classroom. A gauzy curtain that's draped from the ceiling creates a cozy place for stories to be read.

The kids call it a castle.

The children are not grilled on Norwegian vocabulary and pronunciation. They learn through songs, dance and daily repetition. After hearing the Norwegian word for juice (saft) as it's being served during snack time for a couple days, the kids figure it out. The process "mimics how kids learn their first language," said Hegstad.

Parents are pleased with how their children are using Norwegian words at home, said Moe. "They can't believe how much they're learning."

Moe is learning too. She took two years of Norwegian at the Brooten-Belgrade-Elrosa School District as a high school student and is taking additional language classes at the Kultur Hus in Sunburg.

Two sisters who own and operate the Kultur Hus, Ann Black and Jane Norman, promote their Nordic culture through song, dance, language and folk arts. They come to the barnehage a couple mornings a week to make a multi-generational connection of language and culture with the children.

Everyday the children also do something very Norwegian -- they walk. Their noon meal is provided by the school but served at the town's café a couple blocks away. There is no bus. The children bundle up and walk, even during blustery days.

Outside playtime is also emphasized. This winter students will be ice-skating, cross-country skiing and playing on snow piles, said Heidelberger.

The learn-as-you-go teaching model makes it easy for new students to be added at any time, said Hegstad, who is fluent in Norwegian and has a master's degree in Scandinavian studies. The schedule allows students to attend anywhere from a half-day to four days a week. The school is open Monday through Thursday.

The process of operating the state's second barnehage has been a "fun and relatively easy experience," said Heidelberger, and the community response has been very positive, measured in part by the enrollment. They'd been hoping for 10 students to make the program cost-neutral and quickly got 14.

The school can still take more students, said Moe.

After getting their feet wet this year with the pre-school, Heidelberger said KMS may offer some summer language day camps for elementary students and may possibly expand into a more formalized language program for elementary grades.

Teaching young children a language at a time when their brains are most capable of learning another tongue is vital to life-long learning, said Heidelberger. "This is where it starts."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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