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Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures

Adrienne N. Ellis ’04

Reading Specialist, Trevor Day School, New York City

I was interested in learning other languages from a young age because I had a babysitter named Rocío from Ecuador who taught me some Spanish. Rocío cared for me and my sister until I was about eight years old, and I stayed in close contact with her when she moved away. I couldn’t wait to take Spanish in school so I could surprise Rocío by writing her letters in Spanish. I went to a very traditional school so the first language I studied in school was Latin. I ended up studying Latin for seven years and loved it. Memorizing Latin vocabulary and conjugations helped me develop the discipline that is needed to learn another language. It prepared me to study Spanish and also allowed me to expand my knowledge of English vocabulary. I started to study Spanish in seventh grade and continued throughout middle and high school, developing a passion for Hispanic literature under the guidance of Señora San Miguel, one of the most inspiring teachers I have ever encountered. 

I applied to Princeton intent on majoring in Spanish. My first few Spanish classes at Princeton only fueled my decision to declare Spanish as my major. I liked the intimate nature of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures. All of the professors were passionate about the authors and topics we studied and were very approachable. I often met my professors during their office hours or in the Frist Campus Center café to further discuss my papers or simply an idea that had come up in class. The professors recognized my passion for language and literary analysis and encouraged me to take Portuguese classes as well as the graduate level Spanish literature classes that interested me. 

One of my favorite professors, who taught a class on women’s voice in Latin American literature, introduced me to an Argentinean poet named Alejandra Pizarnik who became the focus of my junior paper and my senior thesis, which I wrote in conjunction with the Program in Creative Writing. Princeton had recently acquired some of Pizarnik’s diaries and original work, which I was able to read in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of the library. For my thesis, I translated a selection of Pizarnik’s poetry and diary entries with help from my amazing advisers, professors Ricardo Piglia in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures, and C. K. Williams and Paul Muldoon in the Program in Creative Writing, all award-winning writers. Working with such talented and thoughtful writers and compiling my own collection of translations was one of the best experiences and accomplishments of my academic career, and wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t followed my passion for language and literature throughout my time at Princeton. 

Passion for teaching

My choice of career came to me just as easily as my decisions to apply to Princeton and to major in Spanish. I had wanted to be a teacher from when I first started school. I always idolized my teachers and played school with my younger sister and stuffed animals at home. I started a Saturday playgroup for children in my neighborhood when I was in fifth grade, was a camp counselor every summer in high school, and did a lot of volunteer work with children in Latin America during my summers in college. While all my friends were going to career fairs, traveling to interviews, and applying to graduate school, I submitted one application to the New York City Teaching Fellows Program and was fortunate to be accepted. I was assigned to teach elementary school in the Bronx. I applied to several schools and was thrilled when I got an offer to teach first grade in a bilingual classroom. I had always wanted to teach first grade because it’s such a crucial year in literacy acquisition, and I was excited to be able to use my Spanish skills. Unfortunately, I found the bilingual program at my school to be very overwhelming as a first-year teacher: I had to learn how to teach all the academic subjects in two languages! I continued to teach first grade for three more years, but I no longer had a bilingual class. 

I got two master’s degrees while teaching full time. After I got my first master’s in childhood education at Mercy College as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows Program, I applied to the literacy program at Bank Street College of Education. As a first grade teacher, one of my most important responsibilities was to teach reading, and I wanted to learn more about this complicated process. During my time at Bank Street, I switched schools, and a reading specialist position became available at my school just as I was completing my degree in literacy. I am now in my third year as a reading specialist at a private school in Manhattan, and I work with kindergarten through second grade, helping the teachers improve their reading and writing instruction, and teaching struggling students one-on-one and in small groups. 

I no longer use my Spanish on a day-to-day basis unless I am traveling for pleasure or meeting up with some of my Spanish-speaking colleagues from my school in the Bronx. However, I do think there are significant connections between my studies at Princeton and my career. In both cases, I followed my heart and did what I loved. I have always been interested in language, reading, and writing. As a Spanish major at Princeton, I read and wrote a lot and did it all in Spanish, my second language. I was able to do this because I had solid reading and writing skills in English, which is what I aim to develop in my own students. My main goal as a reading specialist is to inspire a passion for reading and writing in my students, even in the ones who have learning difficulties that make these tasks very challenging. The understanding of language and the written word that I developed at Princeton has helped me figure out how to teach early language and literacy skills to my students. I hope they will also enjoy studying another language someday!