After high school, she returned to San Juan and earned a bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Puerto Rico, then earned a bachelor’s in violin performance from the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico.
She taught for several years in Puerto Rico, and in 2016 moved to Knoxville as a master’s student in violin performance at the University of Tennessee. After earning her master’s, she began teaching French and Spanish at Karns Middle School, where her classroom includes spaces designed to replicate a French cafe, a theatrical stage and a living room.
Hall Pass is launching an occasional feature called “Classroom Q-and-A”, and in the first installment Peña talks about her own journey as a language-learner, her approach to teaching and the impact of Hurricane Maria on her family. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Hall Pass: You grew up speaking English and Spanish?
Rachel Peña: Spanish first. When I moved to the States I had to really gear up on the English, so I started watching a lot of TV in English.
That’s one of the greatest things I bring to the classroom as a language teacher is that I’ve been through this process several times. I know where the hang-ups are and how hard it can be to acquire a language precisely at their age because I acquired English when I was their age, in middle school. I tell them that all the time: ‘If I did it, so can you.’”
Hall Pass: How did you learn English?
Peña: My stepdad said that we were moving soon, so they moved me out of my private school into the school on base (at Fort Buchanan) … That’s where I polished my English a little more. Prior to that I was watching basically TV with subtitles, so that helped me a lot … My mom told me that I would fall asleep with dictionaries, and I was just always reading. I took it really seriously.
Hall Pass: What’s the key to learning a language at the age of 14?
Peña: I think you have to find what moves you. And if that is not in a real scenario, you need to find a way to make it real. For me the stakes were real; I was moving to the States and I really had to make it happen.
So the way I simulate that in my classroom … is that I make everything we’re learning as real and as concrete as possible. It’s not a lesson; it’s an experience. Because as people we remember experiences, we don’t remember lessons.
Hall Pass: How does having a cafe in one corner and a stage in one corner help create that sense of reality?
Peña: Language teaching in the last few years has moved to three different modes of learning. There’s presentational, interpersonal and interpretive. And the ones I focus on the most at this grade are presentational and interpersonal.
So the room, besides being very beautiful and attractive to them, because they feel joy when they’re in the room, I feel like it also serves those modes of learning. So the stage … literally frames what they’re doing and gives it a purpose. And they get very excited to present what they’re doing in that little space that we created.
For the interpersonal, we have the café and we have the living room. So you literally see them interacting in a very natural way. They sit on the sofa and they talk to each other, and it just feels very natural and inviting.
I also have to say I’m very blessed to have a room. A lot of language teachers move (from classroom to classroom), so it’s hard. So I’m very blessed to have what I have.
Hall Pass: How did you become a teacher?
Peña: I think I’ve always been a teacher. This sounds kind of like a Hallmark movie, but I remember in recess in sixth grade helping people from other grades do their homework. That’s how I would spend my lunchtime; I was always drawn to that. I remember a time where a teacher was absent and I was asked by other teachers to lead the class, and I was probably in fifth grade …
I just had the gift of explaining; that’s my superpower. I will explain it 20 different ways but you will understand it if it’s the last thing I do. I’m committed to that.
Hall Pass: What was it like to see Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico, while you were living in the U.S.?
Peña: It was really hard, especially those first few days. We were really worried about our families. I was able to be in touch with my dad because my dad was in a part of Puerto Rico that still had cell towers up. I basically spoke to him through the day.
My husband’s family we didn’t know about for weeks, and that was really hard. He reached out to someone in the area through Facebook that somehow had an internet connection. And they had to basically go check and make sure they were OK … A little while after that they were able to call us, and they said it was a horrible experience. It was like a monster.
Hall Pass: How soon were you able to return to Puerto Rico after the hurricane?
Peña: I think we went last Christmas (in 2017) … We were shocked, because everything in Tennessee is full of green and it’s very pretty, and so when we went back home it was so gray, and nature was still recovering from Maria, and the infrastructure had suffered a lot.
The palette just seemed very gray to us. We were sad to drive through the streets and just not see things be quite as pretty as we remembered. … I had to drive across the island, and it was really hard because there were no intersection lights. So you had to basically stop like a stop sign and wait for people to let you go. It could get really dangerous.
Hall Pass: Why do you enjoy being a teacher?
Peña: I enjoy the company of my students. I feel like I’m happy when I’m in the room. I get a lot of satisfaction from being able to explain things and passing on knowledge. When you see that moment when they finally get it, that ‘aha’ moment, I feel a lot of pride in that, a lot of satisfaction.
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.