Story, photos and videos by Sarah Kohnle
A dose of positivity, infused with Spanish, has been brightening high schools across the U.S. In Webb City, Jackie Allmendinger, Spanish teacher for more than three decades, has been tapping into this energy for years. She regularly hosts a concert from the Justo Lamas Group, a group that organizes educational programs for Spanish students. This year, about 450 students from nine area schools attended the daytime concert with Latin Grammy-nominated artist Emir Sensini. Sensini brought his high-energy set to Webb City in the southwest corner of the state. The week of the show, Argentine singer Sensini and his crew logged 2,500 miles, performing at four schools. Webb City was the only Missouri stop in their sweep of 45 states.
“The concert is an excellent opportunity for my students to be exposed to Spanish in a fun way, less academic. It allows them to connect to the language, the culture,” Allmendinger says.
She says the majority of her students are not going to travel to other countries, so performance annually brings a cross-cultural experience to them. Attendance is limited to students in Spanish Club.
In addition to performing songs, Sensini involved students on stage. He engaged some students in Spanish tongue twisters, while he taught other students some dance moves and they participated in a dance off with the audience acting as judge. Sensini’s earlier days as a competitive soccer player became evident when other students agreed to a juggling competition. No one even came close to Sensini’s ability to keep the soccer ball in the air.
“I think it’s really special that so many students from all different schools get to join in and be a part of the concert in so many different ways,” Karla Gollhofer says. She is in her ninth year teaching Spanish at Webb City R-7 and co-leads with Allmendinger the Spanish Club, one of the largest clubs in the high school with 130 members.
Gollhofer says weeks before the concert her class listened to the songs they expected Sensini to perform. She had an extra task: she prepared a group of students to dance on stage with the singer during the concert with a song that was revealed only a week before. Her chops as dance team adviser came into play as they choreographed the dance just hours before the show.
“It is always hectic to try to learn a dance routine that quickly, but with everybody’s busy schedules, that morning is really the easiest time for us to all get together. And because we all work together to make up the routine, everybody gets to contribute. It is a lot easier for eight to 10 people to each come up with a couple ideas than for one person to make up an entire dance. And it is always so much fun, brainstorming and making the different ideas fit together and make all of it fit the music. We laugh a lot, stress out a little bit about remembering the routine, but mostly I want to make sure the dancers are having fun doing something they love,” she says.
Spanish Club members from Webb City were busy in a variety of roles, before, during and after the concert. On the day of the performance, Allmendinger was one of the first to arrive before the tour’s technical team showed up at 7, and the performer around 8:30. At 9:15 a.m., the first bus pulled up, with students from Lamar R-1. Spanish Club members welcomed each school and led them to the gym where they waited until it was time to file into the auditorium for the 10 a.m. show. After the show, the artist stayed to chat with students, sign autographs, and pose for endless photos.
Although Webb City was an official host, Allemendinger says the Justo Lamas Group took care of the technical aspect, as well as selling and ticketing.
A website (justolamasgroup.com) jam-packed with classroom activities and ideas helped students and teachers prepare for the concert. Paige Pate, a teacher in Galena (Kan.) Unified Schools 499, says they regularly use the materials online, sometimes translating lyrics or doing karaoke.
Pate says her students are hesitant to sing along in class because they are fearful about their pronunciation, but that changes at the live performance.
“Most eventually chime in and try at concerts because they see other high school students doing it,” Pate says.
She sees a lot of value in the concert and this year brought 30 students 20 minutes across the state border.
“I bring them because they are getting relevant exposure, using the language and of course it’s a fun event. I will continue to bring my students back in the future because it’s affordable and a fun day,” Pate says.
The element of fun is a big draw for everyone.
“I feel like all students every year look forward to the concert. It’s always a blast for everyone to experience something of a different culture. While in Spanish we learn all sorts of things, and being at the concert it’s cool to see how much you have learned that you don’t even know. I loved knowing what he was saying at times. It has impacted me to persuade people to come out of their comfort zones and to live life to the fullest,” a junior in Webb City’s Spanish club says.
During the concert, Sensini encouraged students and shared the story of how someone believed in him.
“I think the positive message of the concert has helped some students to be more self-confident. Despite the many ways social media can connect us, I think for some young people it also creates a dependence on the opinion of others to define their own self-worth. I really appreciated Emir’s message that each of us can define our own worth and that we can achieve our goals through hard work,” Gollhofer says.
One of Gollhofer’s students listed a few reasons why she went to the concert for the second year in a row.
“…Even though most of us didn’t know the songs previously, they still danced along and had fun. I think it helped us gain interest in learning more Spanish language and culture because we liked the little tidbits of information we got from him. The concert lifted my mood for my entire day and even the days after when I talked about it. He encouraged us to believe in yourself and build up the people around you,” she says.
Students weren’t the only ones to receive encouragement. Sensini made sure to include the teachers and invited them on stage in order to thank them.
Justo Lamas, the organizer, started the program 15 years ago. Each singer performs and delivers a motivational message. For 2017-2018, the theme is Proposito, or purpose, with singer Emir Sensini encouraging student to “understand that their lives have a special purpose on Earth and that they are not here by chance but rather, to accomplish a mission.”
Lamas, also a singer from Argentina, says it’s important to invest time in schools and in students. He says their goal is to motivate students to be bilingual, because “they are the ones who are going to lead.”
In Webb City, the investment is bridging cultures.
“The concert brought a comradeship between the two dialects. There are the students, us, who are learning Spanish and then Emir is learning English. It shows us that if we open our minds just a little, we can be more involved within other cultures just as much as our own,” a Webb City sophomore says.
“The concert was really amazing, the singing and the message Emir brought. It’d made me think about the differences in our worlds per se. Not all of the world is fortunate enough to have the same benefits as I do living in America. However, some things everyone struggles with no matter where you are, such as a negative self-image. Emir touched on this and let us all know that we should live our life to the fullest, no regrets. Let go of the bad, and embrace the good.”
Webb City is already on the calendar for the next tour and will host Sensini Dec. 5.