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A Note from the Teacher: Bilingual teacher offers math in both Spanish and English in one Ozarks school district

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Karen Quinonez Hernandez
Carthage bilingual math teacher Karen Quinonez Hernandez stands by a painting of the school's mascot

In this round of our ongoing series Making a Difference, we hear first person essays from teachers in the rural Ozarks. This segment features Karen Quinonez Hernandez of the Carthage School District.

My name is Karen Quiñonez-Hernandez. I teach math in the Carthage School District in Carthage, Missouri — a town of about 15,500 people in southwest Missouri.

I would like to start by painting a picture of the school district I work in. Carthage is very special and unique. While much of southwest Missouri is rural with a predominantly white population, the Carthage School District is about 42 percent Hispanic and 53 percent white. English Language learners make up 24% of the student population, and about 60% of students receive free or reduced lunches. I have always imagined myself teaching at a school district like this. Since I am bilingual in English and in Spanish, I feel like what I bring to the table is definitely valued here because the district is in need of Spanish speaking professionals.

I teach seventh grade math all day long. That might sound a little boring to most, but I teach in English part of the day, and some of my lessons are completely in Spanish. This definitely breaks up the day for me. Currently, Carthage offers a kindergarten through eighth grade Dual Language program. We are the only rural district in Missouri to offer this immersion program and we hope to expand it through the 12th grade.

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Karen Quinonez Hernandez
Carthage student Brecklynn Abbiatti, teacher Karen Quinonez Hernandez and student Adalee Gober

My Dual Language students are a mixture of children whose first language is English and students whose first language is Spanish. They have all been taking Dual Language classes together since kindergarten. By the time they get to me, most of them are fluent in both languages. They are meeting grade level expectations in core areas in both program languages! These students have proven capable of demonstrating cultural competence by understanding different cultures and being open to different cultural perspectives. For example, a former student of mine rescheduled her birthday party because one of the students that she had invited was unable to make it because she had to stay home and care for her siblings. As a seventh grader, she understood that, in most Hispanic households, the eldest child — especially daughters — normally take on caregiving obligations while parents are working.

Both students and teachers face challenges in our district. For one there's a lack of bilingual resources available for teachers to use or purchase. It is up to the classroom teacher to come up with all new activities that are in Spanish or translate an activity that was originally created in English. Therefore, anything I create in English, I must also translate to Spanish for my Dual Language classes. As the program progresses into high school next year, it will become more and more difficult to find educators who are bilingual or certified in Spanish that are also certified to teach in another content area.

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Karen Quinonez Hernandez
Karen Quinonez Hernandez teachers a seventh grade math class at Carthage Middle School

Any teacher who teaches in a Dual Language program will most likely agree that it is double the work. However, it is well worth it. The parents that have enrolled their kids in this program have been so incredibly supportive and want to see their children succeed.

Since the kids have been together since kindergarten, the energy they bring to the classroom on the first day of school is at another level. There was no need for the beginning of the year ice breakers with them. They were all so comfortable and just happy to see each other. Instead, it felt like they were seeing if I was a good fit for their group.

They act like siblings. They support each other, lift each other up and even argue like siblings sometimes.

These students are leaders. I know the program is doing something right when I see them at school events translating for community members who only speak Spanish.

My students are determined. Another former student of mine whose first language is English was telling me all about her Algebra class. She said it takes her a little while to understand what is going on because she is receiving her lesson in English but she is thinking in Spanish. I was so ecstatic to hear that from her because she is using her second language to process.

I am so thankful to have the opportunity to teach the content that I love in the language that I grew up speaking. I never knew that being able to explain mathematical concepts to middle school students in two different languages would be so rewarding. Seeing that “aha” moment whenever the concept isn’t making sense in English, and I try explaining it in Spanish and it clicks is such a good feeling. The whole point is for them to understand math. Mathematics is its own language and I am so incredibly proud of my students to be learning it and understanding it in a foreign language.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.