Years ago, the approach to teaching foreign language in American schools was ironically unworldly: translate key American phrases into the language of a country you’re likely to find yourself visiting one day. While the foundations of grammar were instilled, nouns translated, and verbs conjugated, a very important connection to the language was missing: culture. And how can you have a real conversation — a true connection — without understanding where another person is coming from?
Lower School Spanish teacher Eva Verduzco has made it her mission to approach her work differently. While she continues to teach the fundamentals, she infuses them with a heavy dose of organic culture.
“One of my main focuses has been to encourage a more globalized, culturally immersive curriculum for my students — to teach not only the target language, but also the culture behind it,” she explained.
Verduzco grew up in Mexico City, where she first honed her teaching skills. With a degree in nutrition and food science, she found herself drawn to teaching. She had tried it out when she was in high school, teaching English to middle school students and thought that age might be a good place to start. Then when her own little ones started school she made the move to kindergarten, becoming Head Teacher in an English language immersion school. Immersion was a technique she found extremely effective for new language learners, and she continues to incorporate this into her classroom today.
“I think the kids really enjoy doing things in another language. I think they feel very empowered to know that they are understanding,” Verduzco said. “It’s exciting for me to see the kids excited with the language — just to see them when they grab the idea and when they find the word they’re looking for.”
When her husband’s job took them to the United States (for the second time), she was eager to get back in the classroom, and found an opportunity to start a Spanish language program at a school in New Canaan. It wasn’t until she flipped the switch — teaching Spanish to native English speakers — that she realized how much more meaningful the connections were when she was able to incorporate elements from her native country.
Throughout the school year, Verduzco will share nursery rhymes, riddles, skits, games, and stories from Latin America. For example, when her students lose their baby teeth, she talks about El Ratón, the gift-giving tooth-collector in many Hispanic cultures; she introduces them to holidays like Day of the Dead and Three Kings Day; and to introduce cacao, a Latin American staple, she includes a chocolate unit, incorporating poetry, songs, and of course chocolate-tasting.
“I have these games that I don’t have to adapt, and I can easily use the cultural input because I grew up in this culture,” she said. “It’s a way for them to understand other perspectives and see other ways of doing things.”
By incorporating authentic culture into her classroom, she also has a chance to address pervasive stereotypes, which sometimes pop up in teaching resources.
She explained, “I’ve encountered a lot of stereotypes, and it gives me the opportunity to talk about them, and to explain that sometimes we think things are happening one way, but someone from that country will be able to talk about what their life is really like.”
She reinforces this concept through a connection with Building One Community, an organization that helps immigrants and their families succeed in their new Connecticut communities. Through volunteer opportunities, GFA students get a chance to see outreach at work in their own back yard.
“Being an immigrant myself, I think that’s the most important gift you can give anyone. You need to be part of the community you’re in. To show the kids of GFA the work Building One Community is doing is really rewarding,” she said.
For Verduzco, connecting cultures is important, and connecting with the students is paramount. Without that important initial step, none of this would come together.
“This is something you need to enjoy, something you need to love. You have to have a passion for it,” she said.