Teacher draws on childhood to teach Spanish

Frenship Middle School eighth graders Dalyn Bearden (left) and Brielle Watts learn a culture’s dance Friday in JenniferLeeth’s class. (Photo by Luke Backus)

Jennifer Leeth draws on her childhood spent in South America as she teaches Spanish and English as a second language to students at Frenship Middle School.

“I was actually the first Peace Corps baby born in South America,” said Leeth of her birth in Peru. She also spent time in Peru with her parents, members of Peace Corps, and later lived in the Dominican Republic when her father was a public relations representative for a mining company.

Leeth said she grew up speaking English and Spanish. Her parents, who were also both bilingual, spoke English to her at home, but whenever they left home, the Spanish language surrounded them.

In the Dominican Republic, she was in an English language program until she was in sixth grade, when her parents decided to put her in both the English and Spanish programs at her school.

“That was quite a shock,” said Leeth. “Social language is very different than academic language.”

Jennifer Leeth

Husband: Peter Hoterhoff
Children: Erich, 17; Andrew, 14; and Rachael, 14
Hobbies: Gardening, corresponding with friends around the world, reading and Sudoku
Languages: English, Spanish and French; wants to learn sign language

Years later, Leeth was a translator and a technical writer, but she went to her children’s classes to teach Spanish.

“I loved it so much, I decided to go back to school,” said Leeth. She chose to become a bilingual teacher because of the difficulty she had in learning academic Spanish as a middle-school child.

“It’s very challenging,” she said of learning to fit into a classroom taught in a secondary language.

But she tells her own Spanish students at Frenship Middle School that she “cheated” in learning Spanish, because she learned it while living in a Spanish-speaking country.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s always easier to learn it in the place where people speak it,” she said.

Leeth said she doesn’t actually require her students to begin addressing her as “senora.”

“They kind of just do. We use Spanish as much as we can. I tell them, once you’ve learned to say it in Spanish, I don’t want to hear English again,” she said. “So they do call me senora, for that reason.”

Leeth incorporates her knowledge of Spanish-speaking countries into the curriculum, with one of her favorite phrases being, “Language is not just words, it’s culture.”

Students are required to do a report on a Spanish-speaking country at the beginning of the year and present it to the class while they study the types of governments and leaders of the countries.

Throughout the year, Leeth exposes the students to music, art, food and dances of the Spanish-speaking countries.

Recently she taught students the merengue, salsa, mambo and combia.

“Most kids love it, and surprisingly, the boys seem to enjoy it particularly,” she said.

She also teaches students about customs in other countries. During a recent class, she showed students a huipil, which is a blouse from Guatemala. She explained to the students that Spaniards required Guatemalans to dress in certain colors so they could tell at a glance where the people were from, but she said women found ways to weave individuality into their clothing.

As Leeth handed several huipils around the classroom, she told students, “I want you to touch them, I want you to feel them, I want you to smell them.”

The clothes, she said, still have a faint smell of smoke from campfires. She obtained the clothes during a visit to her parents, who retired to Guatemala.

Leeth also requires students to do a project she calls Cultural Participation and Research, or CPR. The students have to study a cultural aspect and report on it with a written paper and a presentation to the class. She has had students make flamenco dresses, play Spanish music, or attend local Spanish events and share what they got out of them.

One student followed the currency of another country and its fluctuation for a month, she said, and afterward donated his allowance that month to charity because he felt bad that people had so little money.

“It’s just awesome the things that kids come up with for these projects. They blow me away,” said Leeth.

You must be logged in to post a comment.