BERLIN — On Wednesday, Maria Cartiera, a Saint Paul School Spanish teacher, welcomed her students to her colorful classroom wearing a Selena Quintanilla T-shirt, a bedazzled belt and bell-bottomed pants to introduce the lesson plan for the day, which focused on the Mexican American singer.
Once the class settled down, Cartiera briefly spoke about Quintanilla’s life and then proceeded to show videos of and about the singer. Next, she encouraged the eighth-graders to dance along to Quintanilla’s “Como La Flor,” fully immersing students in the lesson.
“We are learning so much through the activities and videos,” said Olivia Mokhiver, a sixth-grade student at Saint Paul School. “It’s very fun. And sometimes it’s hands-on learning. It’s really fun … she is a very good teacher. She taught us a lot in just a few weeks. I’m really glad she’s teaching us.”
Cartiera celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month with her students in many ways, from creative lesson plans, cooking and dancing. She teaches students about notable Latinos and Latinas like Gloria Estefan, Frida Kahlo and Sonia Sotomayor every day. Last week, Cartiera dressed as Kahlo for her lesson about the Mexican painter.
“My goal as a teacher, I want them to enjoy Spanish,” said Cartiera, who lives in Berlin. “I want them to know that Spanish is not just about memorizing grammatical rules. It’s also about learning the rich Latin culture. … So that’s why I love Hispanic Heritage Month, so that they can see the contributions of the famous Latinos. Some of them have passed away. Some of them are still alive. And they need to know how they have contributed to this country.”
“The kids find her very kind and creative,” said Jill Conaway, the principal at Saint Paul School who grew up in Wallingford. “And I think that they’re finding that they learn a lot. Not just about the language but about the culture. And so we’re really blessed to have her.”
For Hispanic Heritage Month, which is from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, Cartiera decorated her classroom with various cultural items like papel picado, colorful banners made of paper or plastic, cut with intricate designs, and flags representing multiple Spanish-speaking countries.
“I think it’s very enriching for the students,” Conaway said. “We’re blessed that she’s a Hispanic teacher, and she has an insight into the culture and the language that is really enriching for kindergarten through eighth-grade students. So I feel like we’re just really lucky to have her and she’s very creative in her lessons anyway, but being even more so delving into her rich Hispanic culture during Heritage Month.”
Cartiera teaches Spanish class once a week for kindergarten through fifth grade and four times a week for middle school grades sixth through eighth. In her class, she discusses the 21 Spanish-speaking countries in addition to teaching the Spanish language. Every week, she focuses on teaching her students about a new country.
She said she often pulls from her own experiences as a Latina, having been born in Ecuador, to teach her students about the Latin culture and challenges Latinos often face.
“I want (my students) to know what the Latin culture is about, and I want them to get to know me as well, because I was born in South America in Ecuador,” Cartiera said. “And I want them to understand how I grew up and my living conditions. I grew up in the projects, and it was rough. I was the first one in my family that went to college. So I want them to understand some of us Latinos have real struggles and I want them to appreciate what they have, their families, their values and how they’re being raised and to understand that the outside world, it’s not easy. Some of us really have to work hard for it.”
Cartiera was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and came to the United States when she was a year old. She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., until fifth grade. She said it was challenging growing up with Spanish being her first language and only speaking it at home. In applying for college, she said she had no help from anyone and applied for grants and scholarships to help her afford it. She said she began her profession because she “felt that passion” to teach.
“I figured I speak Spanish. I’m pretty good at it; why not teach it, right?” Cartiera said. “So little by little, I discovered that this is so cool. This is my passion. So I started developing different kinds of activities and plans every year.”
She started teaching at Cromwell Middle School in 2006 until 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Then, she stayed home with her infant son. Cartiera, who is also a parent of a student at Saint Paul School, occasionally substituted for the former Spanish teacher the past two years. When the former Spanish teacher left to take another teaching position, Conaway hired Cartiera full-time before this school year.
“I just knew that she was an excellent teacher, based on her subbing experience, and she’s a great parent, and the family is just a big asset to the school,” Conaway said.
“I brought her in for an interview and knew immediately she was who we wanted, and she was thrilled to be able to be part of the permanent staff,” Conaway added.
Saint Paul School is inviting current and prospective families to meet Cartiera and other teachers while visiting the classrooms at Saint Paul School at its open house event on Oct. 15 from 1 to 3 p.m.