Erica Peplinski-Burge, Spanish teacher, Angell, Bach, Burns Park, Lakewood, and Pattengill 4th & 5th graders

Erica Peplinski-Burge, the 4th and 5th grade Spanish teacher at five AAPS elementary schools, has been named the Michigan World Language Teacher of the Year by the MIWLA Executive Board.

The Michigan World Language Association is a professional organization for world language educators and others interested in world language education.

“Erica’s dedication to her students and enthusiasm for teaching Spanish is extraordinary,” said Marci Harris, AAPS World Language District Coordinator. “She has been a gift to her elementary students.”

Peplinski-Burge will represent the state of Michigan at the Regional Conference, Central States Conference for the Teaching of Foreign Languages virtually in March, and could go on to the national conference next fall.

She has taught every grade from Kindergarten to 8th grade, and currently is in her second year teaching elementary Spanish in AAPS.

Born in Flint, Peplinski-Burge moved several times when growing up, eventually settling in Canton in middle school.  While she and her younger sister were growing up, their mother managed a Wickes Lumber and their father drove a UPS truck while going to college to become a systems analyst.  Although her first official job was working in a Borders bookstore, she also worked as a babysitter, camp counselor, and as a nanny and campus daycare worker in college. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University with certifications in Spanish and science, and a Masters in the Art of Teaching from Marygrove College, in addition to 30+ additional credit hours in Spanish and Neuroscience.

Peplinski-Burge’s teaching career began in Saline 16 years ago, where she taught a variety of language and STEM classes she says helped her understand the changes, connections and growth that is possible for students throughout their school career. 

She has presented at IFLT, ACTFL, Central States, MIWLA, Comprehensible Online, Austin Community College, and Teacher’s Discovery Online; as well as within her own district and other local districts.

Peplinski-Burge and her husband live in Belleville, where they are teaching their three children Spanish and Japanese at home.  They all enjoy hiking, martial arts, reading, and playing games together. They have one fish, and at the insistence of the children, added a kitten and puppy to the family during the lockdown.

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

How are you and your students doing with virtual learning so far?
Hours logged into a computer screen are challenging for everyone; however, students, teachers, and caregivers are rising to the challenge and getting through this together.  This year I taught summer school to give myself virtual teaching experience in case it was needed in the fall.  I found that kids need the same things in a virtual setting that they need in class: a connection to others, a safe place to learn, and a caring guide to inspire and support.  We are still playing games and talking to build community.  We are still listening to stories and learning about the world, one day at a time, all in Spanish of course.  We may progress a bit more slowly in language acquisition as we learn to deal with technology glitches and our new learning platform, but the important work is still happening. 

Why did you decide on a career teaching Spanish?
I’ve been studying Spanish since 5th grade and stuck with it originally because I wanted to travel, and because it seemed like a good skill to have when looking for a job. It wasn’t until college, when I had the chance to study in Mexico for a summer, that I fell in love with the language and culture,  and the ability to connect with other people, that speaking another language gives you.  Most living creatures fear the unknown.  I think many of the problems we have in the world occur when we don’t understand each other.  I decided to become a language teacher when I realized how many doors I could unlock for students with language and culture. 

Young minds, and their potential and ability to change and grow have always inspired me to give my best.  

What teaching method do you use?
While teaching elementary Spanish in Saline, I trained in Comprehensible Input—a teaching method focuses on acquiring our second (third or even fourth)  language the same way our brains acquire their first language (through authentic, compelling, and comprehensible input).

Teaching with Comprehensible Input made such a huge difference in how much Spanish my students truly learned that I was inspired to help organize a conference in Michigan to help train other teachers. My co-chair Beth Gregones and I worked with our department to bring the first comprehensible input conference to Michigan in 2017.  We grew from a few states and 250 attendees in our first year to more than 500 attendees from 17 states and Canada, as well as five universities in 2019.  It brings me great joy to help share this method of teaching with all students and educators. 

When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out? The joy of having my own group of young minds to connect with, and to help grow. Also the exhaustion of feeling like I was working constantly and barely keeping my head above the water.  One favorite memory is of our class mascot Mr. Cow.  My first class of 3rd graders promptly fell in love with a stuffed cow magnet on my board who they named Mr. Cow.   When we had indoor recess, we would make outfits and houses for him.  One student in particular, was especially enamored with Mr. Cow and played with him almost every day.  After that class moved on to 4th grade, I saved Mr. Cow until they graduated from high school, and brought him to wave at them at graduation. (He may have even gone home with the aforementioned student.)  I loved seeing the smiles on their faces as they walked into their future. 

Young minds and their potential and ability to change and grow have always inspired me to give my best.”  

What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?
There is an almost overwhelming amount to learn in your first year of teaching, which is partly why the attrition rate can be high in new teachers.  Please know that it takes time to learn all the things, experienced teachers were all where you are once, and we are here to help you.  The most important thing to do is to connect with your students. No two children are exactly alike, and we can do our best work as teachers when we understand the unique needs of each child. 

Peplinski-Burge is pictured in the summer of 2019 at the International Forum on Language Teaching (IFLT) demonstrating a language technique. 

What do you know about teaching now that you wish you knew your first year?
A perfectly organized lesson with beautifully laminated pictures is less important than a well-rested and happy teacher.  The first year of teaching is a lot of work, and when we go into our classrooms exhausted and hurting, our students mirror that energy back to us.  I mean this quite literally, when we do anything, neurons in our head send signals along axons to other neurons which make us do things like react, recall information, move, etc.  When we see someone else doing something we understand, the same neurons that fire in our heads when we do it, also fire. This is why when you see someone get injured you feel a twinge in your own body.  It is also part of why an exhausted teacher cannot teach as well.    I’d recommend new teachers work with more experienced colleagues to map out clear and easy to follow lesson plans, and take the time to care for themselves, so they have the energy to enjoy their students!

What was always written on your grade school report card?
My teachers always said that I did a good job of listening to the group and coming up with a plan that included everyone’s ideas.  

At what do you secretly excel?
I’m not so sure that it is a secret, but I may be the world’s biggest book worm.  The thing I remember getting in trouble the most for as a kid was late library books, and my first job was in a bookstore.  I used to pack as many books as clothes on vacations and carried a book in my purse for the lines at the grocery store (now I have multiple books on my phone). 

What would surprise people about your job?
Tricky question, but maybe that I rarely sit down.  I speak in Spanish to the students most of the time, and that requires being very expressive and also interesting.  I also try to do movement with each of my classes in Spanish.  I call them brain breaks because it gives students a chance to move and be silly, but it is good for Spanish too because I talk about how we are moving in Spanish as we do it.  If I run an obstacle course as a movement break, I will do it seven or eight times a day—while calling out words like run, jump, walk, duck in Spanish. It’s a lot of fun, but I’m ready for a break at the end of the day! 

Favorite stamp on your passport:
My favorite passport stamp is for Mexico City because it was the start of my study abroad.  Having the opportunity to surround myself with the language and culture of Mexico was one of the best experiences of my life.  I wish I could give all of my students the opportunity to go live in and learn from another country and culture.

Author Emily Ibrahim (right) is shown with Peplinski-Burge, who helped write the teacher’s guide to the book, “Edi el elefante”.

When you look back into the past, what do you miss most? In times of Covid, like everyone, I miss the chance to be with my students, family, and friends in person.  Even though it makes me smile to hear their voices and see their faces on Zoom.

What were you doing in your last selfie?
I’m at a park with my family. 

What’s the best compliment anyone could give you?
My favorite compliments are when students say they love coming to class, or that it makes them happy to be learning Spanish. It makes my day.  

What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened in your classroom?
As a part of helping my students connect what we do in school to what we do after we graduate, we interviewed several interesting professionals, including a National Geographic photographer, for a student who wanted to be a professional photographer. Being a National Geographic photographer was one of the things I dreamed of doing as a kid, so this activity was extra special for me. 

Another fun story from a different class was when we held a Karaoke fundraiser for the wetlands and our principal showed up dressed like Elvis. 

Maybe my favorite ‘crazy thing’ that happened in my classroom was the magic of turning my students into stars in their very own Spanish music videos each year as an end of the year project.  Creating music videos with 500 students is a slightly crazy thing to do, but watching the joy on their faces when they saw themselves on the screen made every second worth it. 

Apps you can’t live without:
SpanishDict is my favorite Spanish dictionary App.  When my students ask words I don’t know,  I can find what I need to know quickly, and I like to model that I am still excited to learn new words too.  My Kindle app is also important, so I can read if I get a bit of extra time.  Other than those, I use my camera for kid pics and music apps the most.  My kids and I also enjoy Seek which lets you identify and learn about wildlife.  

What’s the question nobody ever asks you, but you’re hoping they would?
The question would be: How do we learn best?  I became fascinated with the brain when I focused on neuroscience while taking classes post-master’s.  When I present about how the brain acquires languages at conferences, the room is often packed because it’s a great subject for teachers to know more about. I love the opportunity to talk about the brain with teachers—and people in general—because the things that apply to learning language apply to learning most things and is useful information for everyone.  

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
My favorite education quote is this by Socrates: “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a bucket.” Nothing makes me happier than to see my students engaged in and excited about what we are learning.  When I hear stories about students arguing on the bus about who was a  greater scientist, or hear students playing Spanish games with their siblings or friends, or see students excited about a project, or run into students that go on to be teachers, or use language or something in my class in some positive way in their life I feel like I have done good work. 

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher? Teachers care about your kids, and want to work with you to make this year, and every year,  the best that it can be.  There are many steps that need to happen behind the scenes to make virtual learning successful.  I’ve been creating and running class websites for many years, and I run the websites for a few conferences.  Even with that level of technical skill I spend many, many hours on my computer on virtual learning prep.  Please understand that we are all working very hard, and want to support you and your students. 

How do you recharge?
Coffee.  Also, sometimes I make myself turn off my phone and laptop, but mainly coffee.

What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life?
In my professional life,  I’m excited and honored by the opportunity to share comprehensible input with other teachers at conferences.  At the same time,  I also feel the pressure of helping students and teachers in a meaningful way, without being overwhelming when everyone is under extra stress.

In my personal life, I love the extra time I spend with my own family, and the opportunity to see my children learn and grow. 

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