Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

A story about a moose wrongly accused of stealing a pie gave Yesenia Perez-Mercado the idea for a unique third-grade social studies unit on the judicial system. In it, she featured the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, and the pioneering labor activist Dolores Huerta.

Perez-Mercado, who teaches in a dual-language immersion program at Cottonwood Plains Elementary School in the Thompson district, described it as a social studies unit “with a multicultural twist” and the most rewarding lesson she’s ever taught.

She talked with Chalkbeat about how she came up with lesson, why it’s challenging to find Spanish-language resources, and why “teaching their ears off” is not enough.

Perez-Mercado received the 2019 Kris Wells Memorial Creativity Award from the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers this spring. The award honors teachers who have inspired enthusiasm for language learning through innovation and creativity.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I decided to become a teacher when I was in my second year of college at the Universidad de Puerto Rico in Mayaguez. I went to visit my former elementary school in the town of Isabela — La Escuela Manuel Corchado Y Juarbe — to do some observations for a psychology class. I was in love with the students and the school setting. I worked with five students in a small group to help them with their Spanish reading fluency. I was surprised at how comfortable I was with them. I made personal connections with them, and when practicing their fluency, they were trying hard because they didn’t want to let me down. After this experience, I remembered how good my first-grade teacher was with my class. From that moment, I decided that I was born to be a teacher.

How do you get to know your students?

I do home visits at the beginning of each year with my teaching partner, to talk with the students and their families in their environment. Also, in the first week of school we write “All about me” and we talk about ourselves and from there we share our similarities and differences.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

One of my favorite lessons this year was about the judicial system. I connected this theme with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and civil rights and labor activist Dolores Huerta. During the lesson, we identify and explain a variety of roles that leaders, citizens, and others play in local government. It’s my way to give social studies class a multicultural twist.

The first thing I did was to read the story “El Juicio de Cardigan Jones,” [about a moose facing trial after being accused of stealing an apple pie.] I thought about how Sotomayor is the first Latina judge on the Supreme Court and found a way to connect the story with social studies. We read a book called “Sonia Sotomayor” from Scholastic that talks about her life and how when she was a little girl she didn’t have a lot, but had her mother’s love, a will to learn, and determination.

Social studies standards want students to compare and contrast good citizens, so I connect Sotomayor with Dolores Huerta. We talk about her roots, her cultural beliefs, and work. This unit was one of the most rewarding lessons I have ever taught. It was relevant to us because I am from Puerto Rico, and I have students from Mexico.

What is the biggest challenge in working at a dual-language immersion school?

Our program is 50/50 where two teachers plan and work together to deliver the curriculum. The students learn academic content in Spanish 50% of the time and in English 50% of the time. I teach two classes, and I have 75% who are monolingual English students learning in Spanish and 25% who are native Spanish speakers.

The biggest challenge we have is to adapt translated curriculum to meet the requirements for a dual language program. It’s hard to find good Spanish resources to teach the standards but also ensure that the books or stories are appropriate to teach multicultural aspects. Our program is in its fourth year, and we have used three different curriculums. One problem is that the stories or books for the Spanish side are not culturally relevant, or they are not authentic sources.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I contacted a family once because their student was always sleepy and never had his homework done. I thought that he didn’t care and that he was lazy. After a conversation with his parents, I learned that they were homeless, and both parents were working two jobs to save money to apply for an apartment. I learned to ask questions first and to not judge without knowledge.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I love to read romance novels, science fiction, and papers about bilingual education.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received is that I could teach their ears off but if they don’t feel a connection with me on a level other than just being their teacher, I am not going to get very far. I am the only parent some of them see during the day, so I have learned that my relationship with them comes first. Get to know your kids!