Jennifer Degenhardt, B.A., M.Ed., taught middle and high school Spanish for 24 years. She began writing when students in her classes were not “buying in” to the traditional textbook lessons. With the first story she wrote, Jennifer found that her students were more engaged, both with the language and in class in general. While her books highlight cultural, social, economic and political themes necessary for continued conversation, both in- and out of the classroom, all of them deal with identity to some degree and how important it is to know who you are. Jennifer is passionate about helping students learn more about themselves through storytelling and writing and is currently sharing this passion with her students at the college level at UCONN Stamford.
Living in Bolivia, without knowing Spanish!!!
In 1985-1986 I was an exchange student in high school. I traveled to Cochabamba, Bolivia and lived and studied there. I knew about five words of Spanish before I left (I had studied French for five years – of course!), so while I had a foundation in romance language grammar, I really had no idea what was going on. And, back in those days, the emphasis in language learning was more on grammar and writing and less on speaking, so by going to Bolivia, I was immersed for sure! It took about three months before I could have a decent conversation. Fortunately I had a LOT of input!
Her Biggest Achievement as a Teenager in Cochabamba.
My biggest achievement happened in the market. My host mom sold shoes 👠👟👞 at la Cancha, the biggest outdoor market (then, at least) in Cochabamba. One day she left me to tend to her stall – alone. As you can imagine, there is a lot of bargaining that goes on in these businesses – and I barely knew the prices of the shoes, never mind how to bargain. One day a young family came by to purchase a pair of black patent leather shoes for their daughter – a shoe price I knew! Luckily, I told them the price and they just paid – without haggling! I was beaming that I sold the shoes, of course, and the other shoe sellers in the area were also VERY proud!✨
Using Spanish as a Tool to Inspire and Connect with Students.
I have been a Spanish teacher for over 25 years. (After 20 I stopped counting!) For most of my career I taught high school, but I also taught middle school for a couple of years. Now I am teaching college level beginning and intermediate courses.
The best moments of my teaching career have very little to do with Spanish and much more to do with the students whom I’ve taught. I have realized that, for me, teaching Spanish is simply the tool I use to connect with students. Of course I want them to learn language, but I also want them to WANT to learn it and to realize that communicating in another language is as easy as opening one’s mouth!
Giving Students a Chance to Grow, at their own pace.
My favorite story is about a boy who was new to my class his junior year. The rest of the students had been with me for the previous two years so whatever they knew (or didn’t!) was from what they gleaned in my class. Anthony was a transfer student from another school, had learning challenges and was socially promoted from the level before. He knew his skills were not as advanced as those of his peers and he began to act out in class. When I pulled him aside one day for a conversation, I simply asked what was going on. “I stink at Spanish,” he said. Looking at him with a big smile, I replied, “Yes, besides the obvious, I mean!” We laughed and I gave him some strategies to participate more in class in order to build his confidence. Once he got rid of the chip on his shoulder and began to participate, he realized he knew more than he thought. Anthony went on to turn around his academic performance (and not only in my class!) for the rest of his high school career. Sure, I gave him a chance, but I gave him a chance for him to give himself a chance. Those are the best memories for me, watching students grow.
Worst Moments in Her Teaching Career
The worst moments of my teaching career have little to do with students (though there WAS that one Spanish 5 class that didn’t want to do ANYTHING!). As a creative teacher, I am challenged by rules of any kind and there seem to be A LOT of them in education. Standards and rubrics and benchmarks, oh my. I understand in theory why they exist, but for me, they don’t serve. Those are the worst. The worst!
Why She Started Writing Novels – Very Inspirational
Five years ago I had two classes of learning challenged students. They were not progressing with Spanish and our relationship was being tested. I knew they weren’t having a good time (and quite frankly, neither was I). I’m not really sure how I came up with the idea, but I thought a story with which they could relate would be a better vehicle for language delivery. Not surprisingly, those particular groups of students were behaviorally tough as well. I knew I was onto something when they settled down a bit, but the real indicator was when one particularly difficult girl asked me, “What’s going to happen in the next chapter?” Win!
The First Novel
That first novel I wrote is called La chica nueva. What I did was take all of the grammar and vocabulary that I was to deliver to the students (from the archaic textbook) and put it in the storyline. It made much more sense to the students – and to me.
I love writing these books! I am so happy to be able to highlight topics in my books that I felt were not given importance in the traditional curriculum where I was teaching; All of my books have both social and cultural elements, but are not heavy-handed. There is just enough information to present issues on a basic level to allow for a conversation to occur, either amongst students or even outside the classroom. I really feel that having a little bit of knowledge of other cultures will help in connecting people at a time when we need more connecting.
Teaching With Novels
I love teaching with a novel. I first started with the novels in the high school classroom years ago with the Blaine Ray series. I liked that there was a storyline to follow to connect one day’s lesson to the next and that it allowed for conversation outside of the story itself. Those books were great at the time I was using them and really turned me on to how to incorporate novels into my teaching. Later on I started writing my own, and using my students as beta readers.
The other thing I like about teaching a novel is that it can be the lesson or just part of the lesson. With my books, I like to incorporate just enough culture and social issues to drive the conversation beyond what’s going on in the book. I have found that students want to express themselves about the plot and characters, but they also want to talk about issues. Novels are a great way for them to start: first with what’s going on in the book and then how that can relate to their own lives.
Tips on Writing your Own Books
With regards to writing your own book, my advice is simple: write. If you think it is a compelling story, chances are good that students will too. Maybe your first draft will be just that, a draft, but just like speaking a second language: if there isn’t and production (speaking or writing), there is no communication.
Self-publishing has become very easy. I might start with TpT (Teachers Pay Teachers) if you’re apprehensive about going full-bore with a self-publishing platform like KDP or IngramSpark. Many teachers with whom I’ve chatted about publishing have asked how to do it, but really what they were asking (seemingly) was for permission and encouragement. Here it is: just do it! It’s fun! And write for yourself/your classes first. Do not be worried about what others think – it’s a waste of energy!!
Jennifer inspired me and talked to me when I was writing my story. My first book has just been published by Teacher’s Discovery, check it here.
Her Life as a Girl
I live with three four-leggeds, a dog and two cats, Dave, Bart and Wally in southwestern Connecticut. They are always pretty close by when I’m writing (sometimes too close!), so I consider them co-authors. When I’m not writing or teaching, I’m either in or on the water. I love to swim and paddleboard. It is there that I work out a lot of the plot issues for my books. I also work out regularly too. I have taken to powerlifting at a local gym and I just started running again. (There is no plot resolution when I’m running, though, I have to concentrate on not dying!)
Going Around the World
In my life I have been very fortunate to travel a lot. I was first bitten (and smitten!) by the travel bug when I was an exchange student to Bolivia in high school. Since then I have been to Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Grenada, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. In recent years, though, I have spent a lot of time in Guatemala. It is my favorite place by far, so much so that I consider it my second home.
I have on my bucket list to travel to Ecuador and Chile and Venezuela or wherever the stories take me.
Her Goals and Her Favorites
My writing goals are just that, to keep writing. I want to bring other issues to light for students about which they may not know and do so with diverse characters in whom they can see themselves or learn about others.
I love to cook and bake (that’s why I have to be so active!). I never met a pasta I didn’t like; same is true for a cookie.
As for books, I love the coming-of-age genre. I like young people and I’m fascinated by their growth and self-realization process. I think my favorite book is A Separate Peace by John Knowles, though I have read many other great ones too (whose names escape me – not my strong suit, remembering book titles!). My Netflix queue is a bunch of documentaries and TV shows on criminality. That genre helps me formulate ideas for the full-length novel that I am writing in English. Typically I listen to the programs rather than watch, so if it’s a show like GoT, for example, where you really have to pay attention, you won’t find me in front of it!