January 27, 2012

2012 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Award-winning Spanish teacher shows students a different world

Spanish teacher Paula Owens leads a language exercise for Kennedy Gordon, left, Nathan Flora and Elyse Cullin, second-grade students at St. Malachy School in Brownsburg. (Submitted photo)

Spanish teacher Paula Owens leads a language exercise for Kennedy Gordon, left, Nathan Flora and Elyse Cullin, second-grade students at St. Malachy School in Brownsburg. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

When Paula Owen takes her students to a Mexican restaurant, it’s not just an occasion to savor burritos and enchiladas. It’s also a teaching moment to help the children practice Spanish, work on math skills and learn about a different culture.

“Before we take our seventh-graders to a Mexican restaurant, we practice on how to order in Spanish,” says Owen, who is in her 11th year of teaching the foreign language at St. Malachy School in Brownsburg. “The wait staff will only speak Spanish to the kids, and the students have to express their needs in Spanish—say if they want a straw or more water.

“It’s also an easy way to bring in a little bit of math. We figure the tax and what the tip will be. Plus, there are some students that haven’t been to a Mexican restaurant. We’ll take about what a quesadilla, an enchilada and a burrito are. So they’re anxious to try something and share something they normally wouldn’t have.”

It’s all part of a bigger dish that Owen wants to serve her students.

“I’m trying to get them to open their eyes and their minds to seeing different things and doing different things,” she says. “There’s so much I want to teach them about the language and the grammar, but I’m also interested in trying to teach them the culture and tying it in with the other parts of the curriculum.”

That approach has helped Owen earn recognition as the elementary school-level Teacher of the Year by the Indiana Foreign Language Teachers Association.

Wanting her students to be open to the world means Owen is always open to different ways of teaching them.

Twice a year, St. Malachy School has children’s Masses in “Spanglish”—half the celebration in Spanish and half the celebration in English.

When the Latino community celebrates the Day of the Dead—Nov. 1 (All Saints Day) and Nov. 2 (All Souls Day)—in the United States, Owen leads the school’s kindergarten students to the nearby St. Malachy Cemetery.

“We walked down to the cemetery to honor the lives of the in-laws of one of our kindergarten teachers,” she recalls. “We carried unlit candles and left flowers on the gravesite. Some weeks after we did that, a kindergarten student’s mom had a parent die. The kindergarten student tried to help his mom overcome her sadness by telling her what he learned from our Day of the Dead celebration.”

Trips to a nearby Mexican grocery have a different impact on kindergarten students and their families.

“Some of our parents go on the field trips and see the market, some for the first time,” she says. “The people at the market always give us fresh pastries at the end of our visit. The families always want to go back and get more.

“It’s letting them see another way of life. We live in a global society, and the technology brings us even closer together. So to see the bigger picture beyond our house and beyond our church is helpful and healthy.” †

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