Allison Hayden (AH) interviewed "Profe" Carrie Gomora (CG) to find out what authentic Christian education looks like in the Spanish classroom.

AH: Talk us through your journey - the story of how you got into teaching and why Spanish, and what inspired you to teach at Bethesda?

CG: As a young college student, I had the option to take a missions course, to major in missions and youth ministries - or to major in education.

And I told the president of the college that I would never be a teacher. That wasn't going to happen. I didn't want to do that. I didn't believe that God called me to education. I believe that God called me to missions.

His reply was something along the lines of, “Well, many women take education because they'll become wives one day.” But I countered with something like, “Well, who told you I was going to get married as a missionary?” So, I was very stubbornly determined not to pursue a teaching career.

Fast forward to after I had my first daughter when I had the opportunity to get a job in Wayne Township. I was an ESL teacher, certified to teach English. I worked there as a teaching assistant for four years and then took time off to stay home after I had my third daughter.

But then an opportunity came out of nowhere.

Someone at my church said, “Bethesda needs a Spanish teacher - you should apply.” And I just giggled a little bit. I thought, “I've never taught Spanish before. I didn't even learn Spanish in a classroom!”

But I came to the interview and I just told God that since He’d opened the door, I'd walk through it. And He kept opening the doors and, six years later, I’m still here!

As you have heard me say often, Spanish is my “heart language.” I mean, I spent six months in Peru, learning a language I'd never spoken before, and just fell in love with not just the language, but the culture.

And that's what I’ve tried to bring to my classroom.

I don't feel like you can truly learn a language without learning the culture. At Bethesda, I have the opportunity to teach my students to see outside themselves, to see outside their little Bethesda bubble or Brownsburg bubble or Indiana Midwestern views or even, you know, what the typical American might see as a way of life.

I get to show my students what life looks like elsewhere and, through that, to open doors for them to see the need for Missions. I get to teach them about the need to integrate culture and diversity into their lives - and to do that through a Biblical lens.

AH: What are some ways you add rigor to students' educational experiences in Spanish classes?

CG: In all my classes, we use an immersion model. So, I don't teach them about Spanish in English. I try to teach them Spanish - in Spanish.

We do have grammar days because I have some kids who just really thrive when they learn about grammar and so I throw that in there as an extra. But that's not how I learned Spanish.

Because of this immersion approach, my students can have a conversation in Spanish within the first month of school.

And mind you, it's a very basic conversation, but I tell them, “You are back to kindergarten with me.” We’re going back to kindergarten and we're going to learn how to phonetically sound out words.

Then, I give them a variety of opportunities to show me how they’ve learned the language. In Spanish I, we start with homework where they have options: some are artistic, some are musical, some are writing stories. And some are just showing - even baking things from other cultures and Spanish speaking countries.

Because I want them to fall in love with learning.

I want them to fall in love with the language and with feeling the culture of someone else. And so, when they choose how to show me what they’ve learned, not only am I presenting them with challenges and new ways of doing things, but they're finding how they learn best.

My hope is that when they leave my class, even if they don't use Spanish in their life, they will have learned to love learning a language.

They will have learned to try something new.

Of course, if they go through Spanish all the way to AP Spanish, then they should be speaking conversational Spanish quite fluently with others. And, not only that, but when they encounter another language or another new concept, they will know what to do to learn that. They’ll also know what teaching model helps them learn best.

I really believe in getting students involved and immersed in language in their daily life and taking ownership of their learning. It's just so important with language.

I love to get the kids so invested in various cultural pieces that they need to be able to understand the language to get to know more.

One of the ways I accomplish this is to tell them a story, about how, for example, kids in Bolivia live in jail with their parents and, of course, they’re shocked. And I’ll say something like, “Yeah, I read about it.” And I’ll give them an article about it.

And so, next thing, they're reading and trying to find more information. They're asking me questions, but I only speak Spanish (to them), so they have to use the language to know more.

The neat thing is, that as I give them these little hooks to draw them in with culture, they don't really see their learning as rigorous.

I love it when they say, “Oh, that test was easy!” when I know it wasn't easy. They just fell in love with the story; they just wanted to know what the answers were because the topic was interesting to them.

And so, they're trying hard because they want to, not because I made them and then, therefore, it seems easy.

AH: Talk a little bit more about your approach to learning language: what we acquire first in terms of listening, speaking, hearing, and writing.

What does that authentic language learning journey look like?

CG: Obviously, all of us acquire language first through listening. So, I have to give my students a lot of input before I can expect them to give me output.

They're not going to just automatically, magically speak Spanish because I gave them a list of vocab words. While they could memorize vocab words, they wouldn’t be able to put them together to form sentences or hold conversations.

My goal is not that they just “learn a language,” but that they learn to communicate in that language.

So, in Spanish I, we start with a lot of input. They listen and listen and listen and read and read and read. Because listening and reading are naturally our first things.

If you think of small children, they don't come out of the womb and just start writing long sentences! It takes time for children to put together sentences. They first start to speak words and sounds, and then they start to form sentences. How do they do that? They model it after what they hear.

There's a lot of research that shows that children who are read to at a young age develop better speaking skills.

So, we start with a heavy emphasis on reading and listening, especially in the lower levels and then we work towards writing. Once they've read good texts, after they've heard good Spanish, then they start to produce good Spanish.

Surprisingly, producing language doesn't always come first in the form of speaking. No, having to speak in a foreign language adds a completely new level of nervousness and can become a pride issue. Speaking takes being willing to make errors and to fail. To be honest, they have to fail before they can speak fluently.

So, instead, we start with the reading and listening, then we get students to write Spanish – just very small sentences.

As we progress, at the next level, we actually write stories as a class. Vocally, they come up with ideas, and we form a class story together. And then that's kind of the springboard into our culture piece, where they begin to read and then, at last, they begin to give me output.

It’s only by the end of Spanish I, that they are comfortable and confident enough for me to start testing their speaking skills: I give them opportunities.

Now, they've already been speaking to one another in the language the entire year, but now they're going to be graded summatively on their skills. So we'll have more assessments that reach to the speaking - because that will really come last.

We always understand language before we can produce it. Even as little children - they know that they want the bottle, they know what a bottle is, but they cannot tell you that they want a bottle, so they reach for it or, you know, they make a sound or they cry out until they get what they want. But they can't produce that language yet. So, we see that.

But as they get up into the upper levels, they're consistently graded and although it's still heavily weighted in the reading and listening, but they begin to just produce more language. And then they can compare themselves with themselves and see their own personal growth.

AH: And then you've even talked about giving kids assessments for bilingual literacy – the kinds of assessments that will help their future careers.

CG: Yeah. In the future, down the road. Yes, we're trying to add a certificate of multilingual proficiency.

Our goal is to test our students in levels three, four, and AP Spanish. It's a really inexpensive test, but it's a test that is actually a badge on LinkedIn.

It's something that employers are looking for. They know to look for that now.

I think there are only four or five States in the Continental U.S that aren't recognizing it yet. But they're seeking to get that seal of biliteracy.

And so that's something we as a school are wanting to bring to the table. We have the technology for it now. It's just a matter of fitting it into our class time and our school year.

And then, on the topic of rigor, we have the AP tests - this is our first year for AP Spanish. And that test, is obviously, so rigorous, where I'm even finding myself learning together with my students.

I mean, we're talking about real world problems. We're talking about ethics. We're talking about stock market, income, things that are outside of the realm of normal conversation, but are things that will benefit my students as they go out into the Spanish speaking world.

And depending on their occupation, these things are going to help them - this terminology and being able to speak in this way are really going to advance their careers in the future as well. So that's what I'm excited to see in our students.

I mean, I've had various former students reach out to me this year and in years past, and say, “You know, Profe, I took the entrance exam for Spanish at my college and I'm in Spanish Two - or Three.”

A student emailed me this year and she said, “I tested into Spanish Three, but I was a little too nervous, so I took Spanish Two and on the first day of school, I was the only one that understood the teacher.”

No one else knew what he was saying because he refused to speak in English. That's just a huge testimony to students who are falling in love with the language and I love seeing that in them - because they're far more than capable.

AH: Lastly, can you talk a little about how you incorporate our faith and Christian worldview into your teaching?

CG: Well, again, the beauty of you teaching language is you're having conversations, you're having real world conversations and that lends itself nicely to this. I think it flows naturally.

As a believer, as someone, who seeks to daily be in God's word and learn more about God and strengthen my own relationship with Him, as I teach, I feel like, in a way, God brings in these moments for me to say things.

So, in Spanish I, we talk about destiny. And so that just allows me to talk about, "Well, what is 'destiny?' What is God's will? What is the difference between destiny and God’s will? How do you know God's will for your life? "

And so we have these conversations in Spanish. Even just yesterday we were talking about death and what that means for a Christian. And the young man in our novel was scared of death. Are we scared of death? Why would one person be scared of death and another person not? And then I am able to bring Salvation into that and I can share the Gospel with my students. In Spanish.

And the language just allows me, because we're teaching in Spanish, the language is allowing me to bring up these situations.

We talk about different aspects of politics and immigration. And we talk about: What is compassion towards others? but what is also not breaking laws look like? How do we juggle our beliefs and politics? How do we juggle our family life? When and how do we deal with conflicts?

We even talk about social media: is it good or bad? Why is it good and why is it bad and what does it look like for a Christian to use social media? Is it different for us as a Christian – because what is our goal?

Because our goal as a Christian is to glorify God and to bring others to Him. So, are we using our lives for that?

Teaching language really allows me to freely bring in faith, because I can pull situations out of any topic.

Now in Spanish I, we're about to talk about monsters. So, we probably won't talk about Jesus today! Maybe we'll talk about being scared of monsters and then we can pull out some faith lessons.

Overall, every day, we have so many opportunities to talk about faith-related topics, because we are speaking the language.

And then kids are searching for answers to say them in Spanish and so they have to think about what they want to say because of their language limitations.

And so that causes them to think about what they truly believe. Because you can't just rapid-fire answer back to me. You have to stop, think about what you're going to say in English, think about how you would say that in Spanish before you can even speak the words.

So, there's this extra buffer layer where you don't get lot of quick and cookie cutter answers because they can't cookie cutter an answer if it's not a cognate or if it's not a word they know. So, they have to talk about what they actually believe.

AH: That's awesome. Thank you so much for doing this.