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Character Studies

Tiasha Garcia ’96

It’s not a surprise to Chilton Middle School sixth graders when they arrive for Spanish class and find that Wonder Woman has prepared a lesson for them. After all, they’ve also received lessons from the likes of Superman, Fred Jones from “Scooby Doo,” Anakin Skywalker of “Star Wars,” Katniss Everdeen from the “Hunger Games” series and a Mandalorian warrior.

As Wonder Woman—aka Tiasha Garcia ’96—tells them a story in Spanish, the students quickly jump into the scene. They’ll ask Wonder Woman about her work as a superhero, their questions sprinkled with weekly vocabulary words and verb conjugations they’ve been working hard to perfect.

“Señora Garcia,” as her students call her, combines her love for storytelling, cosplay and teaching every day in the classroom. She’s discovered through years of experience that an exciting, engaging classroom encourages students to explore and grow.

“Why would we want to read or learn something that is not as interesting as all the things going on in our lives and imaginations?” Garcia says.

Instead of long lists of vocabulary words and dull reading assignments, Garcia puts her pop culture knowledge and enthusiasm into the curriculum.

“I want kids to love reading, so I write short stories for my students every week. This year we started off with Anakin Skywalker and the Mandalorian. In the story, the Mandalorian meets somebody in Starbucks,” says Garcia. As her students acquaint themselves with the language, they love the familiar characters and references. They’ll announce: “¡Sra Garcia! ¡Estoy leyendo en español!” [Mrs. Garcia! I’m reading in Spanish!].

Garcia’s students progress quickly. The sixth graders learn Spanish as part of an elective class. They may begin with simple words and sentence constructions, but by the end of the three-month class they are writing their own comics and stories. A recent project that stirred up excitement among her students was creating their own superhero trading cards with Spanish words and phrases to describe the superpowers, sidekicks and more. 

Many of Garcia’s students go on to earn a Seal of Biliteracy by their junior year of high school. “If I can give them the boost they need, then they’ll achieve it themselves,” Garcia says.


Setting a New Course

Garcia loves everything about her work, but she didn’t always think she’d become a teacher. When she graduated from Whitman College in 1996, she was on track to become a lawyer. She started law school at Willamette University, but it wasn’t long before she found herself looking for other options.

“I realized that law school was not my calling. I liked it, but I was not passionate about it. So there I was with an English degree and my dad told me, ‘You know, they need teachers everywhere.’” 

Such a big change might have frightened others, but for Garcia, she was ready to take on a completely new experience. And she credits her openness and confidence to everything she learned and did while a Whitman student.

“My eyes were opened to all the possibilities and new perspectives were unfolding daily,” says Garcia. “As an English major, a class I took on dinosaurs fundamentally changed my world view—about science, history and certainly ‘Jurassic Park.’”

Armed with an open mind, she decided to give teaching a try. She applied for a position at Merryhill Preparatory School in Sacramento, California, was hired, and began teaching in an English class on the same day.

“It was a ‘drop me in the boiling water’ kind of experience, but I knew I could do it and it’s how I discovered that I love teaching.” 

It didn’t take long for Garcia’s love of storytelling to take center stage in her new job. Her students were reading “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë, a classic novel with a complex set of characters and settings. Garcia created “scenes” around the classroom and as they read together, the students moved popsicle stick characters from scene to scene. The students loved the interactive approach to reading and Garcia loved their enthusiasm. She was onto something—and this dynamic and delightful approach would come to define her teaching career.

Garcia held many different teaching jobs after Merryhill, and it was when she started teaching Spanish at Chilton Middle School in Roseville, California, that she found her favorite subject.

Garcia grew up speaking Spanish in the home of her maternal grandmother. She remembers the weekends spent playing with her cousins and speaking Spanish with her grandparents. She’s always been proud of her bilingualism. At Whitman, she was a founding member of Indo-Mestizo, the student group now called
Club Latinx. 

Garcia wants to provide the same encouragement for her students that she received while a student at Whitman.

“It was such a supportive environment. Whitman wants you to be a well-rounded person, they want you to become yourself,” says Garcia. “That was amazing for me because I didn’t know who I wanted to be and I think I’m still figuring it out. Whitman gave me all the tools to figure it out.”

Making Magic, Word by Word

One day, as Garcia was storytelling with her students, they asked her: “Why don’t you publish a book?” It was an Aha! moment, she says. 

As she mulled over the idea, Garcia reached out to TPRS Books, a publishing company that specializes in materials for language classrooms with a focus on storytelling. The company is named after TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), a language-teaching method developed by Spanish teacher Blaine Ray in the 1980s. When Garcia pitched a few of her favorite stories, TPRS Books loved her ideas and signed on to publish four of her books. 

One of these books, “Amor y muerte en el tiempo de zombis” (“Love and Death in the Time of Zombies”) is set to be published this summer. Garcia is now not only bringing stories to life in her classroom, her creativity and passion for storytelling will reach students learning Spanish in classrooms across the United States.

Garcia wants to make learning to read in Spanish fun and relevant. Her stories take on many fantasies—like zombies, dragons, monsters and more—but she also works hard to represent her students’ daily lives. “I try to make sure the world in my books reflects the world I live in. I believe very strongly in equity and equal representation so that students can see themselves in these stories,” says Garcia. 

“I loved the idea that I could start making the world [in the stories] they read look like the world, cultures and pop cultures that we live in. It’s like I have a tiny bit of superpower.” And when Garcia is in her classroom and writing her Spanish novels, she, like Wonder Woman, uses her superpowers to make the world a better place.

Published on May 25, 2021
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