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Argelia Hawley

Argelia Hawley possessed a gift for uniting children—indeed for bringing people of all ages and nationalities together.

She was born Juana Argelia Colón Benjamin Aponte on June 4, 1931 in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico. High school saw her arranging a fashion show involving Miss Puerto Rico to raise funds for her school.

She majored in home economics at the former Nebraska State Teachers College (now the University of Nebraska at Kearney) where she was one of the first international students. While taking a Spanish class she met an English major named Donald C. Hawley.

“I was fascinated by Spanish,” he recalls, “and then I met a fascinating woman.”* They married in 1953, and soon moved to the University of Wyoming at Laramie where Don taught in the foreign languages department. In Laramie, Argelia saw the de facto segregation between students of Mexican descent and those of Nordic decent at sporting events and activities. She would get different groups to sit with her until all were sitting together. For her actions she was named an “Outstanding Young Woman of America.”

In 1966, the State College of Iowa (formerly Iowa State Teachers College) decided to create a separate Foreign Language Department from its current Department of Languages and Literature. It hired Don as the first head of this Department which offered Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Latin instruction. In the summer of 1967, Don joined SCI President James Maucker, Lab School Director Ross Nielsen, and three other campus leaders for a three-week seminar in Bogota, Columbia that cemented an Exchange Program between SCI and Columbia’s National Pedagogical University that lasted for many years.

Argelia, meanwhile, sought to help Puerto Rico become better known in 1973 by offering a program at the UNI Museum during Pan-American Week titled “Puerto Rican Holiday.” Her work included a film, cultural objects, and a sampling of Puerto Rican coffees.

Emergency Call from the Lab School

Pre-opening day workshops had just begun in late August 1983, when Lab School Director Ross Nielsen learned that cancer had struck the school’s Home Economics teacher, making her unable to return.

Elementary teacher Joan Duea remembers that day and the decision to reach out to Hawley:

“She started the next day, and she did a wonderful job. Working together,

Don Darrow, Industrial Arts faculty member, and Argelia decided to offer their

one semester courses by gender. Female students would take Home Economics

and then Industrial Arts while male students took Industrial Arts and then Home Economics.

I was invited to tea by many of our football players when she was teaching etiquette

to the male section. It was delightful seeing these high school students correctly making

introductions and leading conversations while pouring tea. They also baked sweets

for the event.

My office was next to her home economics office. One day Argelia came in laughing

so hard she had tears in her eyes. She was teaching the guys how to sew. One boy

was mending an open seam on a t-shirt. He had been working on his lap, and as he was

proudly going to show her his work, the two of them found he had stitched his pants to

the shirt. She didn’t want him to see her giggling, so she gave him scissors to cut his

thread and quickly came to my office.”

Hawley became a go-to teacher for the Laboratory School when it needed her to teach a literature course for an English teacher on leave; then a stint in music. One Lab School administrator commented that she could teach anything but physical education.

Elementary Spanish Teacher Supreme

However, elementary language instruction proved the greatest need and soon Hawley began her decade-and-more service bringing Spanish instruction to Lab School first through sixth grades. A 1986 report to the Iowa Department of Education from its Curriculum Coordinating Committee linked language instruction to Iowa’s tradition of educational excellence. To continue this tradition, “Iowa must increase its emphasis on foreign language and international education,” the Committee declared.

Hawley was ready to answer this call, for in 1985 she had attended an Oral Proficiency Workshop at George Williams College which inspired her to create an entire elementary curriculum geared to oral proficiency. In 1988, a Johnson Foundation study revealed that only about 20% of U.S. elementary schools offered second language instruction; in 1986, only 19 Iowa elementary schools offered this opportunity. Once more, the Laboratory School saw the chance to model and to lead.

Hawley set three goals for the elementary Oral Proficiency curriculum:

1. To create awareness of Hispanic culture;

2. To foster understanding of and respect for Spanish speakers; and

3. To enable the children to acquire second language skills.

The first two goals were vital, Hawley explained, because even though in Iowa, Spanish was the most popular second language (as it was in the whole U.S.), “the image that most Americans, and most Iowans, [had] of the Hispanics [was] much less favorable than the image they tend[ed] to hold of speakers of other European languages. Thus special emphasis must be placed on replacing this negative impression with a truer and more positive concept of our Spanish-speaking neighbors.”

In short, Hawley sought to introduce the young children to another language and culture and to help them realize that they could learn to communicate successfully in a second language. “The development of the skills of listening and speaking are important,” she said, “because children have a natural ability to develop accurate pronunciation, use context clues as an aid in understanding, and are uninhibited in expressing themselves.”

Laboratory School first, second, and third graders received 40 to 50 minutes of Spanish study a week—usually two 20- or 25-minute sessions. This was the time, Hawley said, “for fun while they learn[ed] sounds and words, and something about the culture, a time when they [could] count and march and dance and sing and play games while they learn[ed] the names of the colors and parts of the body, and simple phrases of greeting.”

She took advantage of national Foreign Language Week and Pan-American Week for special cultural programs, and she adapted and extended the already existing Sixth Grade/First Grade Friends program to create an “Amigos del castellano” (“Spanish Friends) initiative in which the Lab School sixth grade students would work with the first graders; the fifth graders would work with the second graders; and the fourth graders would work with the third graders.


Those upper elementary students enjoyed 30 minutes of Spanish class each day. They also enjoyed Hawley’s “Noviciadas” (Training or Apprenticeship) program. She created 10 “horizontal units”—each on a different topic, but each designed with about the same difficulty so they could be used in any order. Each unit unfolded through an activity-based sequence. First the students would focus on vocabulary, learning the pronunciation of the words and phrases and then practicing them in small groups.

Then the students would pair up and “interview” each other. Twenty-five questions made up the core of each unit. The children took turns interviewing and being interviewed, the interviewer reading each question from a pack of cards; the interviewee answering by memory alone. These twenty-five questions formed the basis for the evaluation review. When students felt ready, they would be evaluated one at a time by a teacher or a teacher’s representative (which often was a university student teacher or participant, or a more advanced Lab School student). The children who completed the evaluation interview then would help the others with practice interviews until everyone was finished.

All then were prepared for the next step, a pena (or lodge) named after an animal. A lodge was established for each unit and, after the children were evaluated, they were assigned the rank they would hold in the lodge, based on the degree of proficiency they demonstrated in the interview.

Hawley explained:

“All students normally are able to master the essentials of each unit, and their

achievements are recognized by admitting them to the lodge in an appropriately

elaborate ceremony. This, in turn, gives them a right to participate in interesting

activities. . . . Said members could—in the Spanish language, of course—play games

and sing songs and take part in other activities. But the biggest event [was] the

dramita, or ‘playlet,’ its production a major accomplishment.”

Hawley acknowledge that preparation of the playlet required much time and effort, but she pointed out that it achieved several goals. The dramita was itself a learning experience. It also provided a reward for the students’ hard work: “Children enjoy acting, and it also gives them an opportunity to show off their newly acquired proficiency.” She noted that such performances had “high public relations value,” since the playlets could be performed for parents and adult friends who invariably were proud of the children’s ability to speak rapidly in another language. Finally, the children were motivated throughout the unit by the knowledge that they would be able to show off their skills in the play.

Culturally oriented materials were integrated into the 10 Noviciadas units through guest speakers (often recruited from international students enrolled at the university or from the community).

Hawley’s curriculum was adopted by other schools. Visitors from the state, nation, and even abroad came to view the program first-hand. Hawley explained the student-centered facets of her program:

“Once the activities related to [one] particular pena/lodge have been enjoyed,

the children are ready to re-commence the whole process with the next unit.

Those who have been most successful are confident that they will be just as

successful the next time; those who did not reach the rank they wanted are

comforted by the thought that the next unit will provide a fresh beginning.

But even though the words and the area will be new, the skills acquired in the

previous unit will make the next one easier, and thus create a sense of

progressing at an ever faster pace, a sensation which is quite the contrary of

that experienced by students in traditional approaches. And a very important

‘fringe benefit’ of such a program is the convenient entrance built into the program

for the new student, or for the student who has much difficulty initially, but then

warms to the subject later on.”

Beyond inviting parents to attend the induction ceremonies of their children into each successive pena/lodge, Hawley developed a bilingual written progress report given each semester to the parents and home room teachers. Each child’s work was evaluated as “Outstanding,” “Satisfactory,” or “Work needs to improve” in respect to these seven behaviors:

1. Is attentive

2. Displays a positive attitude toward Spanish and the Hispanic culture.

3. Understands the Spanish spoken in class.

4. Demonstrates confidence in his/her command of Spanish in the classroom.

5. Participates in classroom activities.

6. Takes advantage of opportunities to use Spanish outside of class.

7. Respects cultural elements presented in the program.

Hawley stressed that many underestimate young children’s language skills. “Supposedly, speakers at the novice level are capable of utilizing only memorized material, and a series of limitations characterize their speech,” she said. “Children, however, often rise above these. For example, their pronunciation, if correctly learned, tends to be quite authentic; and our impression is that they begin to create with the language sooner than adult or adolescent learners, perhaps because they are not trying to express such complex ideas.”

A demonstration video was produced for visitors to the program, introducing them to what they would see. Hawley also co-authored with Laboratory School Elementary Principal Dr. Lynn Nielsen and colleague Dr. Judith M. Finkelstein an article on the School’s elementary language program in a 1987 issue of Hispana. Titled “Opening a Window on the World,” the article offered step-by-step guidance for teachers wishing to create a rich cultural program fully integrated into a school’s days.

The first step was to identify local or exchange students who might explain their country’s customs, talk of their country’s famous artists or leaders, perform songs and dances, and/or “describe the complexity of their heritages.” Step two was to evaluate the community. Were there large numbers of residents of Czech, Polish, Danish, or Mexican descent who could share their stories with the students? Step three turned the spotlight on the school staff and its cultural stories.

Once these school and community resources had been identified, teachers were urged to select a unifying theme or event around which to structure a celebration. This could be Foreign Language Week or a country’s national holiday. The authors urged schools to allow at least six weeks for advance planning of the celebration:

“If possible, invite well-known speakers or performing artists to share their talents

as part of the celebration. Students can also contribute by painting pictures,

singing songs, performing dances, putting on plays, and serving as guides,

speakers and contact persons. Their parents and community friends can share

treasures, experiences, and memories while providing an appreciative audience.”

The celebration might end with a special meal that would bring all participants together. Argelia, who was a master chef, compiled a book of recipes from the various countries for the students.

El Rastro (The Flea Market)

Hawley also introduced the custom of “El Rastro,” an all-in-Spanish flea market, to make language speaking fun. Soon the Laboratory School middle and high school students also wanted to take part. All year long, the students in grades one through six would accumulate points for use at El Rastro. They could award themselves points for such good deeds as preparing their Spanish assignments well, participating actively in class discussion (in Spanish, of course) and speaking the language outside the classroom when they had the chance. Lab School teachers and many parents and grandparents would donate children’s books, toys, clothing, and other articles for the big day.

On the day of El Rastro at the end of the year, the students would convert their points into “dollars” and then, using the rate of exchange which they themselves ascertained by calling a bank, exchanged these “dollars” for (play) Spanish pesetas. “With these in hand,” Hawley explained, “they [would] go shopping for the donated items and also for food and drink, for who could imagine El Rastro without these, or, for that matter, without the various forms of entertainment (music, songs, games).”

If students spent all their pesetas, they could earn more by demonstrating their proficiency in Spanish in a conversation with one of the designated adult Spanish-speakers who were on hand for this emergency and would reward the student with more cash.

Collaboration & Praise

Hawley’s colleagues responded enthusiastically to her creativity and inclusivity. Dr. Judy Finkelstein, teaching first graders at the Lab School, recalls the “sixth grade Amigos” who came down to work with her young folks. “They did many things together that enhanced our unit approach to teaching,” Finkelstein explains. “For instance, when we did the Fairy Tales unit, Argelia brought pictures of castles in Spain. Working together, the paired “Amigos” built castles out of various boxes and other things that seemed appropriate. Some even labeled the castle rooms and the moat with English and Spanish words. You could see how proud they were of their castles.”

Fourth grade Lab School teacher Diane McCarty developed a program called “Project Grow” to complement Hawley’s “Noviciadas” units. In McCarty’s “Project Grow,” students from Denver, Iowa and from Grant Elementary School in Waterloo came to the Laboratory School for Spanish instruction from Hawley. “The earlier children start, the more they grow from within,” Hawley said. “They understand themselves better; they become better people.”

Administrators also found much to praise. Laboratory School Director Ross Nielsen said in 1985 that Hawley had “established a completely new scope and sequence for the curriculum” and expressed his pleasure at the increased number of university participants and Spanish methods classes at the school. “You have demonstrated a willingness to work with these students and to provide them with the careful guidance and supervision essential to their initial classroom success.” Two years later he declared, “Your ability to get students, faculty, and parental involvement with special events is also indicative of the renewed interest which Spanish now enjoys within the elementary school.”

For twenty summers Argelia worked with Don and other UNI Foreign Language Department faculty in an exchange program with Spain’s University of Extramadura. Robert Leestamper, UNI’s Assistant Vice President for International Programs, wrote Argelia a letter begging her to “continue the great work you are doing which helps with our exchange program.” He noted the “outstanding evaluation” Hawley received regarding the oral proficiency testing she provided all students—those from UNI, but also from Spain as well.

Argelia and Don Hawley worked closely together in all their language endeavors. “Argelia’s services to the University did not end with the Laboratory School,” Don stresses, “but it was always first in her heart.”

* Don has written a poem, titled “A Love That Was More Than A Love.” In 2020, Don and Argelia published a memoir of their life together: The Sunshine Years of Donald Carleton Hawley and Juana Argelia Colón Benjamin Aponte.


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