Jennifer Eik poses in her classroom, in front of a row of flags representing the countries of origin of her studentsJennifer Eik

A little bit taller

Teacher Jennifer Eik makes room to grow for students with Spanish-speaking backgrounds

Jennifer Eik, ’13, remembers her first year of teaching as one of the most stressful in her life. Returning from Peace Corps service, she began working as an elementary Spanish teacher, hired without a license by a school facing a shortage. But by the end of the year, she realized she’d found her passion.

“I loved it,” she says. “It sparked my interest to go back and get my master’s.”

Growing up in St. Francis, a small town north of the Twin Cities, Eik had a Spanish teacher who connected her with the Concordia Language Villages immersion program. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, Eik joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in youth development in Ecuador.

After that first, stressful year of teaching, Eik enrolled in the master’s program in second-language education at the U. She came to understand that her success in the classroom is highly linked to the strong relationships she forms with her students.

She remembers a course that prompted her to study her racial identity. She explored the biases that she would carry into the classroom and the ways in which those biases would impact her instruction. It was the first time an educator had pushed her to do that type of thinking, and it made a lasting impact on the way she interacts with students.

“Having done that work, I feel more prepared to have those conversations with my kids,” she says.

Awareness and action

During a panel with her master’s cohort, Eik met Roosevelt High School principal Michael Bradley, ’98. He asked if she’d be interested in piloting a Spanish as a heritage language program, and she agreed without hesitation. She teamed up with then-PhD candidate Jenna Cushing-Leubner, ’17, and the two designed it together.

All students in the program come from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, but some are not active speakers or writers of the language—at least not at first. But because the curriculum affirms the students’ identities, the class provides space to grow academically, socially, and personally as the year progresses. A key part of that growth is emphasizing material that reflects students’ linguistic, cultural, racial, and political backgrounds, says Eik.

“That makes them sit up a little bit taller,” she says. “I see them carry themselves a little bit differently.”

She urges educators to learn about the ways school structures disadvantage students from marginalized groups, and notice how those structures hurt students.

“Know about the system that you are becoming a part of,” Eik says. “Do focused research on the histories of the schooling structures that have been crafted to have a disproportionately negative impact on students of color. Restrictive language policies, tracking, boarding schools, and suspension and expulsion practices are just some examples. Think about the ways in which their legacies impact your students. Consider which parts of these structures you’ll perpetuate, which you’ll resist, and how.”

Eik is now program coordinator for Roosevelt’s Spanish as a Heritage Language classes and, in 2017, was named one of CEHD’s Rising Alumni for her pioneering work.

Learn more about the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and teacher education through CEHD.

Story by Ellen Fee | Photo by Dawn Villella | Spring/Summer 2018