Marisa LaValette, Menlo School

Marisa LaValette teaches middle school Spanish at Menlo School in Atherton, California, and is the faculty advisor for the middle school Girls’ Leadership club. She studied languages at The Pingry School while growing up in New Jersey and then continued on to major in German and minor in Arabic at Georgetown University’s school of Language and Linguistics. You can read more about her travels in Spanish-speaking countries on her blog Savvy CitiZen at or follow her adventures on Twitter @SavvyCitiZen.

Marisa’s students practicing a Spanish exercise.

Last fall during my Open House presentation of “why your student applying to Menlo School should sign up for Spanish,” a prospective father had a question at the end of my demonstration:

“I appreciate that you are so enthusiastic about Spanish. However, the majority of business worldwide is conducted in English. Why do you believe studying another language is so important?”

I felt like a batter seeing a slow pitch coming right down the middle of the plate. And I did my best to hit it out of the park.

“Proficiency or fluency in the language is only the inevitable byproduct of what I am trying to accomplish when your child is in my Spanish class,” I began. “In our 21st century global village, teachers need to be equipping your children with the skills needed to participate effectively in a world market that continues to include more and more of the world’s diverse cultures on a daily basis. In addition to your children learning how to bargain in the market in Guatemala and or ask for directions in Mexico City, they will learn cultural nuances that give them the edge over other students who may not have been involved in a course of study where language and culture go hand-in-hand. If your children can become as fluent in the culture as they are in the language, then they are poised to become productive and astute participants in the global economy.”

The parent smiled and suggested that perhaps “Spanish class” was a misnomer— he suggested it should be called “Spanish language and culture class,” and I couldn’t have agreed more.

Marisa LaValette (next to the wheelbarrow) and students, breaking ground for a rural preschool in Nicaragua.


I recently served as a chaperone on Menlo’s high school service trip to Nicaragua during what is called “Knight School”: a week off from the regular academic schedule to give students and teachers time to pursue extracurricular interests. We dug in the earth in El Trapiche, a rural community about an hour outside of San Marcos (between the Pacific coast and Lake Nicaragua). The residents of El Trapiche do not have running water or electricity, but the community leaders value education for their children. They have a K-6 school, and we helped break the ground for the preschool they are determined to open.

The thought of 16 high schoolers from the San Francisco Bay Area leaving school to spend a week in Nicaragua may be surprising to some, but the Menlo community values other languages and cultures and believes in learning by doing. The people I get to work alongside and the amazing young people I get to teach want to experience what life is like in other countries and are keenly aware of global issues. The Menlo community values and applauds the work done by these sixteen high schoolers— the seemingly small action of digging the foundation for a preschool in an isolated community so far away is an enormous step forward in remedying the current global dearth of educational access for millions of people.

And that’s why I teach. I believe that teachers serve as interpreters for youth. Today’s teachers convey world issues to students in the classroom, whether it’s via verb conjugations in Spanish class or through other means in other classes, and then guide them through real-life experiences, such as building a school in faraway places. That’s how students learn how to act productively as global citizens at a young age. Everyone has a part to play in the global effort to make the world a better place, and I am proud to be playing a small part.

8 Responses to “Marisa LaValette, Menlo School”

  1. Karen 08. Mar, 2013 at 5:07 am #

    This is one of the best writings I have read about not only the importance of teaching and reaching your students, but the real-world results of being culturally informed and globally literate. I salute you Marisa for being not only progressive and passionate, but practical in your evidence based methodology!!

    Great job! I look forward to more essays on this subject from you!!

    • Marisa LaValette 08. Mar, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Karen! So glad you enjoyed and that it resonated. I look forward to spending more time thinking about and researching global education programs and sharing more writings on that topic! Thanks also for the encouragement!

  2. Noosheen Hashemi 12. Mar, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

    Dear Ms. LaVallette,

    You exemplify a 21st Century teacher who is in touch with what’s truly important to impart to kids – specifically diverse cultures, global awereness, and compassion/action. Congratulations on combining your love for Spanish and service learning and being such a great role model to students and adults alike.


    • Marisa LaValette 02. Jul, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

      Hi Noosheen,

      Thank you for reading and your comments. The Menlo School Girls’ Leadership Club (middle school) has just returned from Costa Rica on a community service trip. You can read about their summer camp here on the blog they wrote during their trip:

  3. Nancy 06. May, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

    Great article Marisa. And by the way, you hit it out of the park!

  4. Nancy 06. May, 2014 at 7:08 pm #

    Great article Marisa and by the way, you hit it out of the park!

  5. Rita Wirtz 01. Dec, 2014 at 2:45 am #

    I am very impressed with the Colorado students. Teaching matters. Teachers are dedicated to their students and students know the difference in quality teaching. Spending so much money on testing has never made sense to me, whether a Principal, Curriculum Coordinator or program evaluator. After forty plus years, teaching is like breathing.


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