This October, we are honoring a teacher who has dedicated her life to education. This is Kerri Valencia’s 14th year in education; she received her undergraduate degree in Spanish and began her career as a certified medical interpreter. She got into teaching when her family moved to Maryland in 2000. She taught Spanish from grades K-6 in private schools, and lived in Quito, Ecuador for 3 years where she taught English in a dual language pre-k classroom at an American International School.
Her biggest influence in becoming an educator was becoming a mother, which led to her commitment in raising bilingual, biliterate children. Although Kerri is not a native Spanish-speaker, she has worked her whole adult life on building her own bilingual/biliteracy skills. Her husband emigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador when he was 18 and it was never a question that they would raise their kids to be bilingual and biliterate, so that they could communicate with family in Ecuador. Even when they did not live in Ecuador, they spent every summer there, as well as other holidays, so their kids could grow up with a foot in two different countries. When she became a Spanish teacher, it was important for her to teach kids the importance of understanding and embracing cultural differences and to break down the English-only idea that is so prominent in the U.S. She received lot of pushback over the years from family members, teachers, and friends about teaching her children Spanish as their first language over English.
When her family moved back from Ecuador in 2014, she became a Spanish integration specialist at an independent progressive school in Washington, DC, teaching K-2 Spanish. The population in that school was mainly white, affluent students. She was in her 3rd year of implementation building of the program from the ground up when she got a call from a principal at Brown Station Elementary School in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland about a new two-way immersion program that was starting; she was asked if she would be interested in teaching kindergarten.
“I jumped at it because I was excited about the idea of teaching Spanish in a public school to kids whose first language is Spanish. I also liked the fact that the program was not a lottery entry, which meant that all students who were zoned for the school received the dual-language education. This is my third year at Brown Station. In addition to my full-time job as a classroom teacher, I am also a faculty instructor with TEACH-NOW Graduate School of Education. I teach two online graduate courses in the Teacher Certification Program: The Learner & Learning in a Digital Age and Teaching Practice & Proficiency. I get to teach teacher candidates in all parts of the world, which I feel helps me to be a better teacher in the classroom.”
At Brown Station, there is a large population of students from El Salvador, so she is conducting a study on René Colato Laínez, a renowned children’s author and bilingual teacher who writes about his experiences as a Salvadoran-American. Mrs. Valencia insists on incorporating books that represent all the students she teaches, not just those from Latin American families. This year, she even has some students from different parts of China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, to name a few.
I am always looking at ways to use text that helps them see themselves in the stories. I also like to teach students the WHY in learning another language. I think as a kindergarten teacher, I have the opportunity to help students understand that learning another language builds empathy and understanding, and it makes us more prepared to live in a global society.
When she was a Spanish integration specialist at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, she presented at ACTFL twice. Kerri and her co-teaching partner spent two summers conducting research projects around dual language teaching and how they could adopt a unique program for their school that integrates Spanish learning in the homeroom classroom as well as other subjects through project-based learning and cross-curricular projects. At Brown Station, Kerri collaborated with two other dual language teachers to research language acquisition and they conducted a PLC for all elementary school dual language teachers in the county. They later presented at the GWATFL, Greater Washington Area Teachers of Foreign Languages Conference in Washington, DC. The other research that she took part in extensively while at Sheridan School was learning about the OWL (Organic World Language) method of teaching language. This involves teaching students circumlocution by breaking down their affective filter by creating student-centered learning environments through essential questions and build on vocabulary through authentic experiences and projects. She continues to use that method in her dual language classroom through morning meeting activities. In Ecuador, she researched on Whole Brain Teaching as well as worked with students with special needs.
My favorite part about being a teacher is teaching socio-cultural competence through authentic text. Everything I teach is through a social-justice lens. I have a huge collection of children’s books and I love to teach kids about different authors. In all the grades I have taught over the years, I have always done author studies and I incorporate different authors that students can identify with.
Her research gave her a deeper understanding of language acquisition and how to incorporate all of the best practices of dual language, such as using language objectives effectively, and teaching for comprehensible input. She also recently completed a project on Dr. Medina’s “I know my full name” movement by teaching students their full names in morning meeting, writing full names on everything, finding vowels in their names and circling them (phonics), counting their full names and comparing lengths of names with peers (math), reading books in Spanish on recognizing and embracing our names (literacy & socio-cultural competence). That is just one example of activities she teaches every day. She works hard to connect all of the content to make it flow and make it engaging and meaningful for her students.
She constantly is working to offer her students authentic experiences and has organized many author visits from bilingual authors such as Patricia Valdez, Susan Stockdale, and Lulu Delacre. They have participated in a Zoom virtual field trip with Jacqueline Woodson, and have taken field trips to explore science and social studies in authentic, bilingual settings wherever possible. She believes experiences outside of the classroom reinforce the WHY students are learning in two languages.
Being biliterate is not the same as being bilingual. Biliteracy means being able to write and read in another language, as well as understanding the academic language of the subjects taught. In dual language there is a huge disconnect between those who are making curricular decisions in districts and those of us who are in the trenches in the classroom. It is often assumed that our students who speak Spanish at home arrive to kindergarten with all of the foundational skills they need in Spanish to start school. This is, however, not the case and dual language teachers know this and are constantly adjusting curriculum and advocating for more appropriate materials for our students.
She wants to create the opportunity for her students to build empathy and understanding through the dual language program. In class recently, they read the story, ¿Por qué yo soy yo? (Why Am I Me?) by Paige Britt. They discussed how we are all different: different hair, skin colors, eye colors, different sizes, cultures, and how these differences still allow us to be a class family and that our differences can be beautiful. She embodies how the social justice component of dual language will be the most impactful on students.
She hopes that she is building excitement and motivation to learn another language. As a kindergarten teacher, Kerri has the unique opportunity to be their first entry into a language program. It is so scary for little kids to come in and not understand, even the Spanish speaking kids who have not had the opportunity to learn their letters or numbers in Spanish are nervous at first. By providing a safe space for students, she allows them to feel loved and nurtured and build major excitement around learning in two languages
I really try to let my kids know how loved they are and how learning in another language is hard, but that they can do it. I always think of the “warm demander” approach. Through my modeling and repeating, I see students using the language authentically every day. These are not the things that necessarily show up in the data, but I like to think that my classroom is a safe place to take risks and try new things. I try to create a soothing classroom environment by playing classical music during the day and I work really hard to build predictable routines for the students, which helps them with language acquisition. We also dance and sing daily.