BY MIKE JAMES
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
RUSSELL Catherine Del Valle can teach you to hold a conversation in Spanish in less than a minute.
It goes like this: You say “Hola!”
She says “Como estas!”
You say “Bien! E tu?”
And she says “Bien!”
OK, it’s a short conversation, but one enabling the exchange of pleasantries in any Spanish-speaking country, thereby establishing rapport with the denizens thereof and maybe even strengthening international relations.
That about sums up Del Valle’s strategy for teaching Spanish, which she does at Russell High School.
She doesn’t teach beginning Spanish anymore, but when she did, she started out with some basic words and phrases, many of which are the same as in English, and moved right into using them to talk to people.
Making the language useful and establishing cultural competency are threads that run through her teaching today in second-year, third-year, fourth-year and Advanced Placement Spanish.
The strategy has made her a popular and effective teacher and this year’s recipient of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese Kentucky Chapter Teacher of the Year Award.
Del Valle accepted the award at the organization’s conference recently.
“Learning a language can be uncomfortable, but she makes it comfortable. But she also pushes us out of our comfort zone,” said Olivia Gabbard, a sophomore and one of Del Valle’s Spanish 3 students.
Learning Spanish in Del Valle’s class is more about communication than perfect grammar. “I tell the kids, don’t worry about making mistakes. You’ll learn to put things together so people will understand you. Can I understand it? Is there comprehension? Those are the important things.”
“Survival Spanish” is what she calls it — knowing the essentials that will find food, shelter and medical attention if necessary and foster basic conversation.
She pauses often in her lessons to point out the practical implications, where and how they can use the language outside the classroom. It might be as an accountant with a Spanish-speaking client, a doctor or nurse seeking work in areas with large hispanic populations, or as a good Samaritan coming to the aid of a Spanish-speaking accident victim.
It’s an approach she developed from her childhood in a bilingual household in the Bronx, where she grew up and attended Monsignor Scanlan High School.
Her parents immigrated from Puerto Rico so from an early age she was steeped in both Spanish and English, although she was fluent in English first. As a first-generation American, she is a heritage speaker, rather than a native speaker of Spanish.
Her family in New York kept close ties with relatives in Puerto Rico and when she spent time with her many cousins, she learned to communicate effectively in Spanish because she didn’t have an alternative. “It was sink or swim,” she said.
By the time she was in high school, the importance of more effective communication with her family sank in. She enrolled in advanced Spanish classes and sealed her fluency.
By the time she was in college she knew she wanted to share her bilingualism, so she enrolled in education classes, advanced Spanish and Puerto Rican studies.
Her career path took her from the Bronx to high school posts in Huntington, at Paul G. Blazer High, then Lawrence County High, Greenup County High and now Russell.
She built up the programs in Lawrence and Greenup counties, adding higher-level courses, and establishing a Spanish Honor Society at Greenup.
At Russell, “she brings an A game every single day,” Principal Anna Chaffin said. “She’s willing to think like a rookie, to not be complacent. She’s willing to do anything and everything to be successful.”
“I love it when kids see me in the hall and speak Spanish, and these are sometimes kids who are not taking Spanish anymore, Del Valle said.
Her outreach extends to special education students who learn to say buenos dias and como estas, and to at least one member of the custodial staff. “To impart just that little bit makes me smile,” she said.
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