A plate of poisoned cookies, a ghost named Charlie, a mysterious assassin in lunch detention. These are the dramas that unfolded in the telenovelas that City Charter High School students wrote, filmed, and edited last summer in a project called Epic Telenovelas.
Leading them through the process (and appearing a few times herself) was teacher Katie Bordner, who thinks of her class not just as a way to teach Spanish but as an opportunity to instill global awareness in her students.
This year is Bordner’s fourth at City Charter High School, a unique, year-round school in Pittsburgh’s central business district where students “loop” with their same teachers each year. (Though as a Spanish teacher, Bordner is one of the few who do not loop, meaning she teaches every student at the school.) The school pulls students, 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, from across the city.
Although it is her tenth year of teaching, Bordner said there are a few things she still returns to when getting ready to welcome a new batch of students every fall. She revisits the book “Teaching with Love and Logic” to remind herself how best to talk with teenagers. And while the building blocks of the Spanish language have not changed in those 10 years, her students certainly have. So every year Bordner revisits her language curriculum and switches things up in her classes.
“Today I went to a coffee shop and was there from 8 am to 2 pm, just thinking through everything,” Bordner said in an interview before the school year started. “I’ve taught this content to thousands of students at this point, but I’m always reworking it to make it more exciting, clearer, and to connect the activities to other worlds.”
Beyond language skills, Bordner says one of the main aims of her class is to teach acceptance and multiculturalism. Although her students tend not to have a lot of experience or familiarity with Spanish-speaking cultures, she said she pulls together real-world examples to connect the vocabulary and concepts they are learning to the outside world. For example, to teach vocabulary words about family, Bordner might root a lesson in immigration stories about mothers and their children from Mexico and Central America.
City High is a one-to-one laptop school, and no matter the topic her lessons often integrate some aspect of hands-on technology, such as blogging, filming Spanish music videos, and researching online. Bordner also has a website students can turn to.
“There are plenty of people who think if they want to learn to communicate with someone in a different language they could just put a phone up to Google Translate,” she said. “But technology is only as good as it connects and deepens our learning, not replaces it.”
That was the case for the cameras and editing software her class used in the Epic Telenovelas project, which Bordner said was a “huge collaboration” among coworkers, administrators, and outside partners.
While she supported the students in writing scripts (which were filled with many dramatic “¡Dios mio!”), two team members from a local nonprofit, Steeltown Entertainment Project, came to her classroom for five days to help students draw storyboards, test camera angels, and figure out sound quality.
The effort was bolstered by the video production classes students take at City High. It is not uncommon for Bordner to see schoolwide learning make its way into her classroom. Math and science teachers, for example, have focused heavily on collaboration, which she said made the teamwork aspect of production go more smoothly.
However, Bordner says she knows she is only to able to do what she does because of the extra supports and resources available to her at City High, supports that are too often not available to other public high school teachers.
“I feel really lucky,” she said. “The resources in public school systems are really minimal compared to what students and teachers really need.”
This year, Bordner is optimistic about introducing ways to help students speak and hear more Spanish in class. And she is always eager to try new projects to engage her students.
“If anybody has ideas for me,” she says, “let me know.”
For more in this series see Leaving the Lab for the Classroom, Perfecting the Art of Afterschool Science, and For Pioneering Pittsburgh Educator, It’s Full STEAM Ahead.