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Faculty Feature: Kara Burke Savors the Study of Spanish
Robert Oakes, Associate Director of Communications

Kara Burke, who serves as World Languages team leader, Spanish teacher, learning specialist, JV tennis coach, and dorm affiliate, has been a member of the Rectory faculty for nearly a decade. Recently, we sat down with Mrs. Burke to discuss her work at the school, her approach to teaching, her background, and her lifelong love of food.

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Can you describe your role here at Rectory?

Mrs. Burke: As World Languages team leader, I oversee changes to curriculum and work with my department, collaborating with the other Spanish teacher. We are constantly sharing resources, making sure we’re on the same page, and brainstorming different ideas of how we can create classes that are fun and strong. As a Spanish teacher, I teach four classes. This year I’m teaching Spanish 1A, Spanish 1, and Spanish 2. As a learning specialist, this year, I’m working with a student from Mexico, focusing on English-Language Learner (ELL) activities, improving his English. And then, in the spring, I help with the tennis program.

How would you describe your teaching style?

Mrs. Burke: My teaching style is very student-centered. The activities that I find work the best are group oriented, where there are speaking opportunities at hand. I may give them a prompt. While an open-ended prompt may work well with the older grades, I find that in Spanish 1A and Spanish 1, where their vocabulary is limited, it’s best to give them more structured questions to ask their peers— whether it be in groups or back and forth. I try to create an environment where they feel comfortable speaking and learning the language. 

What sort of resources do you use?

Mrs. Burke: We follow the scope and sequence of a textbook, but I like to bring in my own resources, as well, created out of my experience of what has made certain activities more engaging. The ultimate goal is to encourage students to want to speak the language. I think that many students, if they’ve been taking a second language, have been taught to drill verbs and to focus on grammar, which is definitely important to know, but I think the ultimate goal that we’ve agreed to as a department is, how do we help students feel comfortable speaking the language?

What languages does Rectory offer as part of its World Languages program?

Mrs. Burke: We offer Spanish and computer science here at the school. We also offer students the opportunity to study Latin, Chinese, or French online. 

Can you tell us about your past teaching experience and how it compares to your experience teaching at Rectory?

Mrs. Burke: Before coming to Rectory, I was a secondary school teacher, working primarily with high school-aged students. I found the biggest difference in teaching high school versus middle school is that middle schoolers have this incredible level of curiosity and interest that is sparked at this age. I find—and I enjoy—that there are more light bulb moments in middle school. One week they’ll say, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually having a conversation in Spanish,” even though, the previous week, they couldn’t even put a few words together. That level of interest, curiosity, and fun, too, I would say, is why I’ve really enjoyed teaching at the middle-school level, compared to the high-school level. 

What strategies do you find work best with middle-school students? 

Mrs. Burke: I find, with this age, variety is key. So, every 10 to 15 minutes I try to change things up. Maybe we’ll do a writing activity for the first 15 minutes, and then, for the second 15 minutes, we’ll change it to a listening activity. Creating the routine is very important at this age level, but so is variety. A little more direction is also needed, as opposed to more independence at the high-school level.

What inspired you to become a Spanish teacher?

Mrs. Burke: I became inspired to teach Spanish primarily because of my experience in the classroom and the impression that my first Spanish teacher, Mr. Bilsbury (or Señor Bilsbury) made on me. He would walk into the classroom every day with incredible energy. He was practically sweating; he was just so excited and interested in teaching the language and hoping that his students felt the same way as he did about learning another language. It stood out very much. He would be moving around the classroom, extremely energetic, using all sorts of props and different things, and he just spoke the language so beautifully that it sparked my interest very early on. He just made it so fun and interesting that I was very curious to continue it. It also inspired how I wanted to teach in the classroom. Using different realia, moving around, using different activities, keeping the kids interested and engaged: he instilled all that in me early on.

Did you have the chance to study in Spain? What was that like?

Mrs. Burke: My first experience studying and traveling abroad was in my junior year at Hamilton College. I was in Madrid during the spring term, and I lived with a host family. They were very strict; you could only speak Spanish, and the host family that I lived with knew minimal English. So that really sparked the need to always speak Spanish. And I think that being immersed completely in the culture and language is how you really understand the language. This was furthered when I entered the language program at Middlebury College, where I earned my master’s degree. I studied on the Vermont campus for a summer, and then I lived in Madrid for an entire year.

My experience living in Madrid was wonderful. It’s one of my favorite cities, and I completely immersed myself. I remember walking to class through the neighborhoods of Madrid, stopping at my favorite fruit store to grab these huge, awesome yellow apples—incredible walks through the city. That was a goal of mine: to really understand the city by foot. I found myself just loving everything I heard and saw, the people that I met, the warmth, and of course, the food. I would love to go back. 

Speaking of food, can you tell us about your interest in the culinary arts? 

Mrs. Burke: I have a passion for food that started in my grandmother’s kitchen. I have very fond memories of walking into her kitchen, smelling just incredible foods, and she would say, “Come over here,” and she would always insist that I try whatever she was making. So that sharing of food has always been with me. And when I moved to Spain and lived with my host family, it was the same idea. My señora would invite me into her kitchen and say, “Try this gazpacho” or “Try this,” obviously in Spanish. That idea of being really open to different types of flavors and seasonings and foods really inspired my sister and me to create our own recipes.

So we started a blog, Twin Tastes, which features our recipes and different experiences and travel inspired by food. It originated in the north end of Boston, Little Italy, when we were living together there. And it has spanned and continued with Marni, my twin sister, as the city mouse outside of Boston and me as the country mouse living now in the Quiet Corner of Pomfret. I think that’s how we express ourselves artistically. My mom was a high-school art teacher, and she’s still a wonderful artist. She has created through drawing and painting, and I think my sister and I got that same creative gene, but it expresses itself through food. 

What do you hope your students will have learned by the time they graduate from Rectory?

Mrs. Burke: By the time my students leave Rectory, I hope they will have a level of understanding and a curiosity to continue studying. I hope they will feel a passion for learning other languages and understanding different cultures.

What would you like to say to prospective families?

Mrs. Burke: For those who are interested in coming to Rectory, I think it is important to know that we are a community. That’s what I love so much about the school, why I’ve stayed here so long, and why my kids are now in the CARe preschool program. There is such an incredible support system here. Whether it be your teachers, your dorm parents, or your fellow students, you’ll always have people around you who truly care and really want you to succeed.

To watch the the feature video about Mrs. Burke, click here.

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