At lunchtime on one sunny day toward the end of the school year, a steady stream of students from Joel Petersen’s Issaquah High School Spanish classes headed toward the back of campus, where the “Paparepas” Venezuelan food truck was parked, waiting for them.
As a culminating experience for students in his Spanish classes, Petersen – or “Mr. P” as many students refer to him – arranged for the food truck to visit so that students could practice their skills with native Spanish speakers. “Hola!” Petersen said cheerfully, greeting students as they arrived to check in with him before putting their order in at the food truck window.
About 30 parents and guardians donated money to the project ahead of time, to make the line move more quickly and to let the students focus on correctly placing their orders. “Buenas dias,” called the man in the window, smiling as the students approached.
“This is a really cool experience,” said then-ninth grader Taylor Knoll, from Petersen’s Spanish 1 class. “It was a little nerve-wracking ordering in Spanish. “I’m really excited to try the food. … I got the beef arepa.”
Fellow ninth grade student Leane Rondeau, from Petersen’s Spanish 2 class, agreed. “It was definitely scary at first because I was scared that I was going to mess it up and that they wouldn’t understand me, but it went pretty smoothly.”
Asked what she learned, Knoll said “My learning is that speaking Spanish to a native Spanish speaker is not as scary as it seems. You can do it.”
That response is precisely what Petersen said he was hoping for when he envisioned this activity – the chance for his students to interact in a fluid, not fully scripted situation with native Spanish speakers, as well as the chance to try a type of Latin American food they may not have sampled before.
“They all did a great job. A lot of kids clearly practiced,” Petersen said. “I also saw that they were able to interact when somebody asked them a question. I think that’s a great thing for Spanish 1 or Spanish 2 (students). You’re really starting with just basic conversations.”
“Everybody seemed really confident, and I also noticed that nobody gave up. Whenever they struggled, they stopped for a second and thought, ‘Wait, I’ve learned this,’” he continued. “It was cool to see them have an opportunity, and when they didn’t do it very well, stop and evaluate, which I think is part of the language-learning process.”
Next school year, Petersen said he hopes to be able to add more opportunities for his students to interact with native Spanish speakers and absorb other elements of Latin American culture. He’s considering some hands-on cooking experiences and possibly a walking field trip to a Mexican restaurant.
“I want to get people having real-life experiences with Spanish speakers. It’s cool that we have Spanish on campus, and for 45 minutes a day we’re learning and doing some great stuff,” he said. “But I think much like there’s a difference between practice and a real game, there’s a difference between Spanish with me – even though I’ve lived overseas -- and somebody who’s a native Spanish speaker.”
Petersen said that he hopes experiences like this one might inspire his students to study Spanish for more than just the two years that are required.
Most of the students said that ordering in Spanish was intimidating at first, but that the employees helping them were patient, accepting and helpful, which made it enjoyable.
Gavin Chandler, from Petersen’s Spanish 1 class, said he practiced by writing down what he wanted to order ahead of time.
“It was definitely an interesting experience. I’m not the best at Spanish, so it was a little bit difficult, but it was fun. I’m excited to try the food out – I got a pork arepa,” Chandler said. “It’s a really cool experience.”
And, the students also shared that “Mr. P” himself is one of the best aspects of Spanish class.
“Mr. P is awesome,” said Lucy Shepherd, a ninth grader who was taking Spanish 2. “He just makes class really fun.”
In the photo above, Spanish teacher Joel Petersen talks with his students as they wait to order Venezuelan food in Spanish. Below, in the first photo, an Issaquah High School student orders Venezuelan food in Spanish, to practice talking with a native Spanish speaker. The second photo below shows a closeup of an arepa from the food truck.