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 marisalavalette.com 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.
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.