top of page



Beatrice E. Bultena

The addition of Spanish to the Laboratory School’s language program offers a window on the School’s curricular process in the mid-1950s. It stands as a model of efficient practice—from idea to execution in just one year, through a thoughtful and extensive process ending with the selection of Beatrice E. Burtena to launch the new program.

Beatrice Sturges was born November 7, 1907 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She married sociologist Louis Bultena on June 12, 1934, and when he was hired away from the University of Wyoming in 1947 to teach in the Iowa State Teachers College Sociology Department, their son (Gordon) and daughter (Joyce) enrolled in the Lab School.

Dr. Dwight Curtis, the Laboratory School Director, suggested that the school try Spanish instruction in the first, third, and fifth grades in order “to determine the grade in which children have the greatest readiness for beginning a foreign language.”

The program set forth five “objectives”:

  1. To orient the students to a foreign language and to develop in them the ability to use that language in conversation;

  2. To help children gain information about the cultural aspect of those whose language they studied and to develop a better social understanding of other people;

  3. To introduce children through play activities, songs, and creative dramatizations and dialogues to a simple vocabulary of Spanish words and expressions which are directly related to daily living in the home, in the community, and in the school;

  4. To help children acquire language skills of value to them in their general education; and

  5. To stimulate children to improve their learning skills in other academic areas.


Beatrice Bultena began teaching in January 1956, but much preparation had been done in the fall to support her success. Books and teaching manuals on elementary Spanish instruction were gathered and a review made of a variety of Spanish reading books. Elementary Spanish versions of “Los Tres Osos” (The Three Bears), “La Gallenita Roja” (The Little Red Hen), and “El Muchacho Y El Chivo” (The Boy and the Goat) were secured. Records of Spanish music were acquired and more:

  • Pictures of pets, of family life, and of children and objects in school were collected and mounted;

  • Stencils of pets, classroom articles, home furnishings, and other objects were made to be colored and labeled in Spanish by the students;

  • A doll house and furnishings were obtained for teaching objects at home;

  • Flash cards for colors, numbers, and objects were made;

  • “Lo Tengo” cards (for a game similar to Bingo) were made for colors and numbers;

  • Other games using Spanish words were collected along with riddles;

  • Many pictures, maps, and color slides relating to life in Spanish-speaking countries were acquired.

Instruction Begins

During the first half-year, 15 minutes were allotted to Spanish instruction in each grade each day. In the second year, the time was extended to 20 minutes in each grade, and in the third year the time became 20 minutes in the third and fifth grades and thirty minutes in the seventh grade.

Bultena familiarized herself with Spanish songs for children and interviewed other Spanish teachers for guidance on teaching techniques. She read “Los Tres Osos” (The Three Bears) to the students accompanied by pictures to illustrate difficult passages. Later, students dramatized the story. The students made up their own play of “La Gallenita Roja” (The Little Red Hen). “El Muchacho Y El Chivo” (The Boy and the Goat) was told to the students accompanied by pictures and pantomime. Later, Bultena asked questions in Spanish and students showed their comprehension through their answers.

Dramatizations and dialogues used in class involved everyday greetings and farewells, names and ages of persons, expressions of politeness and introduction, and daily activities such as dressing, eating, and buying in the market. Birthdays called for singing “Feliz Cumpleanos”; Christmas brought “Cascabeles” (Jingle Bells), “Noche de Paz, Noche D’Amor” (Silent Night, Holy Night) and “Posadas.”

Bultena introduced the students to the geography, culture, and customs of Spanish-speaking countries. She did not introduce the reading of Spanish until the students were familiar with spoken words. At first she wrote words and sentences on the board. Later, simple reading texts were introduced, including “Juan y Maria en Casa,” “Juan y Maria en la Escuela,” and “Miguel en Mexico.” Pen pals were formed with students in Panama and Buenas Aires, Argentina.

“Señora Bultena filled our twenty or thirty minutes of Spanish each day with many activities,” recalls Barbara Severin Lounsberry who was in the third grade class beginning Spanish in 1956. “She established ‘La Silla Grande’ (The Big Chair), and the student who could give the correct Spanish word for each flash card image would get to sit in La Silla Grande—which we all wanted to do. Señora Bultena also wanted us to learn about Hispanic history and culture. We made piñatas. In the upper primary grades she gave us each a topic to research. We were then to write and orally present a brief report to the class—to share what we had learned. I was given the famous Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, a place unknown to me. I can still recite the first line of my report: ‘El Parque de Chapultepec es uno de los mas bonitos en el mundo’.”


The initial recommendation called for a 3-year trial period of the elementary language program, but early on the project was deemed a success. By the third year, junior high Lab School teacher Dr. Corinne Harper stepped up to assist Bultena in teaching the students in eighth grade Spanish, due to the size of the group and the wide range of individual differences in ability. A 30-minute class, three days a week was offered to both “Beginning” and “Advanced” Spanish students. Twenty eighth graders took the “Beginning” class and were divided into two sections; and 37 students were divided into the two sections of the “Advanced” Spanish course.

Educational research became part of the Elementary Spanish Program from the start. In 1956, Michael M. Suda conducted a study of elementary student language retention for his 1957 Master’s thesis. He tested the first, third, and fifth-graders’ language skills in late May 1956, and then tested them again the first week of school in the fall, and then two weeks later after a review. He analyzed his results according to several measures: grade, gender, and IQ. He found that “The losses in Spanish vocabulary made by the pupils in grades one, three, and five over the summer vacation period were definite but relatively small. Practically all of the losses were recovered after two weeks of review.”

This led Mr. Suda to recommend that Spanish teachers in elementary schools use the first two

weeks in the fall for review. He endorsed the introduction of a second language as early as the first grade and strongly urged the continuation of the program in the Lab School elementary grades and through the secondary grades on an elective basis.

The Lab School followed this course—also because parents at Home Room meetings began asking when their child’s grade level would begin a second language. The answer, across the next few years, was to alternate elementary Spanish instruction with French.

Barbara Prior Kent, one of the third grade students starting Spanish in 1956, reports a common result of her Lab School opportunity: “All those years of Spanish, 3rd grade through 10th allowed me to test out of the first year of college Spanish.” Another student in that class, Diana Lott Anderson, revealed that she won an award in college for an interpretive reading she gave in Spanish.

Beatrice Bultena retired in 1960 with Spanish firmly established at the Laboratory School. From her thorough (and always kindly) launch such successes grew.

Receive the latest news and updates in your inbox


Receive News and Updates

bottom of page