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John Mahoney counts on games to help teach complex theory in his International Baccalaureate math class at Benjamin Banneker High.
John Mahoney counts on games to help teach complex theory in his International Baccalaureate math class at Benjamin Banneker High. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

"Busco una mujer que me quiera, ay, como quiero yo."

("I'm looking for a woman who will love me, yeah, like I love.")

The 10th-graders in Marilyn Barrueta's Spanish 4 class weren't really looking for a woman. They were looking for subjunctive verbs in the lyrics of Carlos Ponce, a blue-eyed Puerto Rican heartthrob whose photo is taped up beside the blackboard.

Why are they subjunctive? "Since he hasn't found her yet, he doesn't know if she exists," Barrueta explained in a recent class as Ponce's music thrummed from a CD player. Then the white-haired teacher, draped in a black peasant dress embroidered with a colorful peacock, broke into a little dance step.

Barrueta's students could have predicted that her lesson on verb tenses wouldn't be dry. She has been teaching Spanish in Arlington for 48 years, and if it had gotten dry or boring, she wouldn't still be doing it. Some students take her class all four years of high school, and some are the second or even third generation of a family to take it; former students often stop in to visit.

But recently Barrueta has had some attention from outside the walls of Yorktown High School. In April, the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Emporia, Kan., chose her as one of five 2005 inductees nationwide. Two of the other inductees are also from the Washington area: Karen Crow Roark, an assistant principal and gifted-resource teacher at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, and John F. Mahoney, a math teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District.

The three come from diverse backgrounds: a southern farm girl; a draft-card burner from New Jersey; a woman who grew up in Chile and Brazil. Visits to their classrooms revealed that what they have in common is a level of involvement with their students that reaches, and teaches, beyond the textbooks.

When Yorktown held a surprise assembly last month to announce Barrueta's award, she was more flustered than pleased. News cameras and reporters invaded her classroom and hovered over the cozy jumble of piñatas, decorative weavings and posters of Spanish-speaking lands -- many of which her students have seen on trips with her.

By late April, things were back to normal. Students were putting on Spanish-language skits in which they were pestering a parent for a bigger allowance or begging a teacher for a better grade, examples of things they might actually do. Barrueta also uses discussions of Peruvian weaving, operatic arias and Eva Peron to help expand the lessons beyond gender agreement and verb endings.

An upside to all the attention is that it has reconnected her with some former students. "What's been nice about this have been the voices from the past," she said.

"I'm grateful that I've lived into the age of e-mail -- [although] I'm sure I get, 'Oh, my God, she's still alive?' " (She added that her age is "absolutely no one's business.")

A few miles away at Long Branch, Karen Crow Roark was spending her afternoon with academically advanced kindergarteners -- who can already read and do arithmetic -- whom she had plucked from regular classes to talk about more challenging subjects. What are the seven continents? How does a Venn diagram work? How many degrees do the three corners of a triangle add up to?


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