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Students in Richard Pardo’s Spanish II classes are used to talking to friends via text and email, but communicating to them in a different language brings lessons to a global level at Westlake High School.
At the beginning of the year, students were matched with pen pals through epals.com, a free service for educators that aims to enrich classroom lessons by introducing students to other cultures.
Pardo, a four-year teaching veteran — two years in his native New York, two in Maryland — learned about epals at a teaching conference.
“I wanted them to see there is a purpose to what we’re learning,” Pardo said of his students. “There is a reason why we are doing this. It’s applicable to the outside world. You get a view of another culture, and it’s free. You can’t beat that.”
Westlake Principal Chrystal Benson said the pen pal program is a perfect fit for one of the school’s goals — urging students to think of themselves as contributing members of the world, not just as high school students in Waldorf.
“It is directly in line with our mission statement,” Benson said, observing the class and Pardo zipping around his classroom to help students. “We want our graduates to be global thinkers.”
Pardo’s enthusiasm doesn’t hurt and keeps Spanish from being a dull class.
“He’s full of energy,” Benson said. “Our teachers are very creative in designing lessons to help students.”
The emails the students recently received focused on the holidays.
“I get excited when I see I got more than one email,” said Deja Baker, seeing she received two new messages.
Her chatty pen pal Tania Menor wrote about how she celebrates Christmas Eve by visiting her grandparents’ house, Christmas is spent opening gifts before heading out to the home of the other set of grandparents.
New Year’s Eve, Tania’s favorite holiday, is celebrated dancing with friends.
Deja said she and Tania have discovered they like the same music and have some other things in common, such as holiday traditions.
Then there are the differences, like Tania celebrating All Saints Day on Nov. 1 when people visit graveyards and honor the dead.
They eat chestnuts (something Deja has never had) and a dessert called panellets.
It’s far from a sad day, Pardo told Deja. “It’s more of a celebration,” she said.
Emily Archila’s pen pal Lucia Revestido likes the same music as she does — screamo and rock — and Emily said she likes connecting with someone in Barcelona.
“It’s pretty cool but kind of weird not to be face to face,” said Emily, 16.
Learning another language not only looks good on college applications but can only enhance your life, Emily said.
The recent lesson focused on the past tense, prompting notes discussing childhood, Pardo said.
Students wrote letters beforehand, handing them in for Pardo to do a quick once-over to correct grammar and other little mistakes before they emailed their pen pals.
The Barcelona students email the Westlake students in English (they are taking English II in Spain’s second largest city) and make mistakes, which are pointed out to Pardo.
He reminds his students they likely are making the same ones in Spanish.
“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” said Pardo, who grew up speaking Spanish with his father, who is Argentinian. “The more you try, the more you speak, the better you get. Don’t be afraid to try.”
Pardo’s students understand the importance of communication and that learning other languages opens doors to making new friends and discovering other cultures.
“Communication is how you talk. It’s how you get together,” said Joshua Walker, 14, searching for why communication is important. “You can’t get along without communication.”
“If you don’t have communication, things don’t end up good,” added Keith Keaton, 14.
Deja remembers signing up for Spanish.
“I always wanted to go around the world,” she said.
Her mother said she might like to try French, but Deja had made up her mind.
“Naw,” she said. “I’m a Spanish girl.”
If she gets to Barcelona, maybe she can meet up with Tania and finally try chestnuts.