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Spanish-speaking Hawks honing their English

James LeDoux sensed his students’ boredom in a recent class. So he upped the ante Friday.

LeDoux teaches English to the Boise Hawks’ Latin American players, who are split into two groups — a beginner group and an advanced one. And when his advanced group started mastering present and past tense verbs, he knew he needed a new challenge. So he brought in “Casey at the Bat,” a famous 1888 baseball poem.

Catcher Hamlet Marte wowed as LeDoux passed out the poem, marveling at its length and a bounty of new words, like “sphere,” “visage,” and “melancholy.” But when it came time to read his stanza, Marte found the rhythm and even read from comma to comma.

“I can’t even get my ninth graders to do that,” said LeDoux, who teaches English at Renaissance High.

While first pitch for the Hawks didn’t come until 7:15 p.m, the day started much earlier for the Hawks’ Latin American players, who must learn a new language and culture in addition to fine-tuning their swings and honing their curveball.

The beginner group trudges up the stairs to the press box at Memorial Stadium for a 40-minute class that starts at noon. Shortstop Carlos Herrera and pitchers Cesar Villarroel, Salvador Justo, Angel Lezama and Cristian Quintin pull up a chair around LeDoux as he starts the day with a rapid-fire review. The five all introduce themselves in English and where they are from. Then LeDoux whips out his iPad, singles out a student and asks him what vegetable is on the screen before moving on to the next. They all recoiled at a picture of pickles.

“Every one of them hates pickles,” LeDoux said. “That was universal. Dominican, Venezuelan, they all hated pickles.”

The five then break up into two groups and begin interviewing each other, asking each other the name of their brothers and sisters, their favorite restaurant, their position, their age, their favorite Subway toppings.

All the questions and responses come in English, an inquiry-based form of education that LeDoux said forces the Hawks to think in both Spanish and English. LeDoux never taught English to Spanish-speaking students before this summer. But he said the Rockies jumped at his pitch to focus less on memorization and more on problem solving.

One of LeDoux’s lessons for his beginning class was a trip to Subway last week. He showed all six of his beginner students — Javier Palacios missed Friday’s class because he started Friday on the mound — pictures of all the options on his iPad and then drilled them all the questions their man or woman behind the counter would ask.

What kind of bread do you want? What kind of cheese? Would you like it toasted? What veggies would you like? Mayo or mustard?

“I know it sounds simple to just order food,” LeDoux said. “But just asking, ‘Do you want your bread toasted?’ that’s a huge thing for them. They have no idea what that means. So when they heard it and knew it because they practiced it, they were able to say yes or no based on what they want. They felt good doing that.”

The Hawks offered English classes in the past as a member of the Cubs’ organization. But LeDoux said the Rockies are one of five MLB teams to offer not just a language education, but a cultural development program.

The programs begins when the Latin American players head to Colorado’s facility in the Dominican Republic at 16 years old. Marte said he didn’t start learning English until he came to the Fall Instructional League in Arizona in 2013. But even the classes in Spanish started to prepare him for the culture shock he’d experience in America.

“American people are quiet,” second baseman Luis Castro said. “But the Latin people, Dominican, Venezuelan, we talk every single every day.”

“It’s the music,” catcher Wilkyns Jimenez quickly added. “We’re all so happy.”

The language still offers plenty of hurdles. Relief pitcher Salvador Justo, the most advanced student in the beginner’s class, said he struggles with multiple English words with the same meaning. Castro and Jimenez both said they’re much more comfortable speaking English than reading it. And even Marte, the star student, said he struggles with the tenses of verbs because he first learned them all in present tense.

But as class wrapped up Friday and Marte received the stanzas he needed to master in “Casey at the Bat” as homework, Marte knows his education isn’t over. He said English will only improve his prospects after baseball. And the clubhouse, dugout and field provide a never-ending classroom.

“To be honest, I learned English from my teammates,” Marte said. “I spend all my time with American guys, and they taught me to speak English. I was hearing them and then I figured out the words, and I learned a lot like that.”

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