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McDougle MS Dual-Language Teacher Shares Love of History and Culture

To engage in an open-ended conversation with Magdalena Berrios-Vergara is to enter into a whirlwind of details about bilingual education, Chilean society and culture, the benefits of working in a district with many international employees-- and so much more. To hear her passion for teaching in the Dual-Language program at McDougle Middle School could make a listener want to masquerade as a student in her classroom for even an hour, to soak up her energy and far-ranging knowledge.

In August Berrios began her third year on the Dual-Language (DL) instructional team at McDougle Middle School (MMS). This year she teaches social studies and Spanish Language Arts (SLA) to 50 eighth grade students. She and her husband are natives of Santiago, Chile, and they came to North Carolina six years ago. Berrios earned her undergraduate history degree in Chile, and then earned a Master’s of Liberal Studies at Duke University, so that she could continue her education in an interdisciplinary approach to history and culture.

As Berrios notes, many people in our community quickly jump to the assumption that Spanish-speaking residents have moved here from Mexico or Puerto Rico, even though the Hispanic representation in Chapel Hill-Carrboro is rich with the diversity of Latin America and other Spanish speaking parts of the world. She smiles as she talks about the ways she is able to share stories and news about Chile as part of her efforts to broaden her students' understanding of the Hispanic world.

History and culture are inseparable in how Berrios teaches her students in DL social studies and SLA. “To be completely bilingual, you need to fully understand the language and culture,” she said. “It’s so much more than just learning verb tenses and vocabulary.”

Berrios is proud of the ways in which the DL team is able to teach the NC standards and curriculum in social studies and language arts, while integrating many lessons, readings and artifacts that relate specifically to the study of Latin America. She embraces the use of videos, photographs and objects, in addition to the traditional focus on documents to portray history.

Although both DL and traditional tracks cover North Carolina state curriculum and standards, her students often work on very different projects from their peers in the traditional classes. In sixth and seventh grade world history, DL students spend far more time learning about Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures, with longer lessons on figures like Simon Bolivar. Berrios reflects a sense of delight when she talks about the challenges of teaching eighth grade U.S. history in Spanish.

In teaching U.S. history, Berrios admits she is learning much more about racism and anti-immigration practices in this country and elsewhere in the world. Chile has only recently opened its borders to a flow of immigrants, many of whom come from Haiti and Venezuela. She worries about the increasing prevalence of racist acts and sentiments back home, and she said, “I know I want to go back to Chile to fight. When you learn from history, you can act on it.”

In SLA, her students study different texts from their classmates in the traditional track, with each unit focusing on one primary Spanish author and related readings. She shares novels and stories by several Latin American writers, though she said wistfully that she has not yet had the opportunity to teach the work of the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.

All instruction in her classes takes place in Spanish, but she admits there are times when the use of Spanglish is hard to avoid. By eighth grade, all her students have built fluency and confidence, whether their homes are primarily Spanish or English speaking. Many, but not all, of the DL students at MMS have spent their elementary years in dual-language programs, either at Frank Porter Graham or Carrboro Elementary School, so they have strengthened their sense of bilingual community and pride.

Linguistic gaps between native Spanish and English speakers tend to level out by middle school DL. Though students from Hispanic households may show more spoken fluency, many have not had ongoing opportunities to read and write in Spanish, so as Berrios emphasizes, “All the students are learning together. I tell my students, if you’re struggling, then you’re learning something that’s challenging.”

Berrios is very proud of how supportive and inclusive her students are with each other. “We maintain a culture of essential respect,” she said. “No laughing about accents, almost no bullying-- that respect creates a very strong class culture. I just never have to say Stop.”

Jaimi West, assistant principal at MMS, said, “Magdalena is an awesome teacher. She is so passionate about teaching and sharing her culture. She cares deeply for her students and is dedicated to high quality instruction and making sure her learners are engaged.” 

Berrios, in turn, quickly acknowledges the excellence of the administrative team at MMS, saying no matter what challenges the school or district is facing, West and Principal Bob Bales are always supporting their staff.

The DL team includes Katie Titler and Jan Spielvogel, and Berrios said the three teachers work very closely and well together. “We practically talk everyday,” she said, to plan lessons and activities and check in about students. The transition to remote learning last spring was made easier by the degree to which the team collaborates and communicates.

The Spanish Dual-Language program at MMS serves nearly 120 students in grades 6th-8th. They take Spanish Language Arts as one of their electives and Spanish Social Studies as one of their core classes.