Batavia High Spanish teacher soothes anxiety, mixes culture
Batavia High School Spanish teacher eases students' fear of studying new language
Learning anything new can be discouraging and frustrating -- or sometimes downright intimidating.
Especially if there's a chance your peers' eyes and ears will all bear direct witness to your gaffe.
Carissa Blough, a 20-year Spanish teacher at Batavia High School, is acutely aware of this and shows her students a poster above her desk that reads: "un LUGAR SEGURO para hacer errores."
Translated from Spanish, it means "A safe place to make mistakes," and it is Blough's way of helping muffle some of the anxiety students may feel when pronouncing a new word or forming a sentence and setting the tone for learning a new language, while incorporating cultural elements as well.
"It's totally natural in life to make mistakes. It's what you do with it. That's how you're going to learn," said Blough, 45, who lives with her husband, Ed, and four daughters in the South suburb of Beverly.
"I have such wonderful kids here. I don't think I'd be coming here if I didn't love my job, or Batavia in general," she added.
Blough's mom and aunt were both teachers, and she knew in elementary school that would be her career path.
As a student at Downers Grove South High School, learning language came easy to her and her interest was piqued in a high school Spanish class.
"I didn't know what I wanted to teach until I took Spanish in high school. They made learning really fun," Blough recalled.
Part of the fun is inspiring students to get out of their comfort zones and be free from judgment. After all, an expert in one field began as a novice.
"The challenge is getting them to be willing to speak out loud in class," Blough said, noting she wants pupils to get over that fear of making a mistake in pronouncing a word or a grammatical mistake in a sentence.
"Everyone's in the same boat. Everyone is trying it for the first time.
Blough's energy, approach and dedication have earned her the respect and praise of her peers.
"Carissa is a committed teacher that truly embodies our district mission of 'Always Learning. Always Growing,'" said Batavia High School Principal Dr. JoAnne Smith.
"She is always trying to become the best teacher and teacher leader through professional development and learning from her peers. Our students and staff are so lucky to have her at BHS."
Memorizing verbs and learning to roll one's tongue -- a necessary skill to pronounce some words -- are just part of Blough's curriculum.
She tries to introduce students to cultural aspects of Spain, Mexico and other areas of Central and South America.
For example, students on Nov. 2 decorated small skulls made of sugar as part of the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, which honors the memory of deceased loved ones.
"We do try to teach a lot of culture too, to widen their perspective," said Blough, who has plastic molds she uses to make the skulls herself. "I try to make it fun."
Most students have smartphones, and every pupil at Batavia High School is issued a Chromebook laptop computer. Blough has students use the free language learning app called Duolingo to supplement their lessons, often listening to audio of another speaker rather than just Blough.
"We use technology to enhance what we're learning," Blough said.
Blough and her colleagues are in the midst of revisiting the Spanish curriculum and deciding what to update.
In early November, it was a trip to Bolingbrook High School to observe classes there and discuss afterward.
"We have a very collaborative department. I think that helps because we're relatively small compared to an English department, where you could have 20 teachers," Blough said.
Tips from Top Teacher Carissa Blough• Get to know your students. Find out what they like to do in their free time and ask them about it.
• Create a safe place for mistakes in your classroom. Teach your students that it's OK to make mistakes. Let them know you make mistakes, too!
• Don't be afraid to try something new. Then get feedback from your students and colleagues.
• Be flexible. Adapt your plans based on your students' needs.
• Take care of yourself. Do yoga, find a hobby to de-stress, and breathe.