Author Spotlight, Jennifer Degenhardt
Jennifer degenhardt's Los Tres Amigos was the first author and first book we added as a distributor (followed by Adriana Ramirez and Margarita Pérez García.) Los Tres Amigos was the first reader with an overtly gay character and it opened the gateway. Other authors began to write about important content rather than just writing for language acquisition. Jennifer also wrote the first books on immigration, Dreamers and differently-abled characters. Here she rather humbly explains how challenging the status quo was no big deal.
- Karen Rowan
Status Quo? Didn’t Know There Was One
Jennifer Degenhardt, UCONN Stamford & author of comprehensible novels
So I did this thing. And evidently it was kind of a big thing, only I didn’t even know it at the time. And while I am tickled that I may have played a role in opening up some doors, what I did is not that noteworthy - or at least it shouldn’t be.
Let me explain.
Back in 2017 I wrote the book, LOS TRES AMIGOS. For the uninitiated, this is a comprehensible reader about, duh - three friends! Marissa and Jack have been best friends since middle school and have spent lots of time together, on sports teams and doing other activities. They are best friends in every sense in that they don’t have any secrets from each other. In fact, Marissa was the first person Jack told that he was gay. Like any best friend, Marissa was really only mad that he didn’t say anything sooner. The two friends then welcome Julio into the group when he moves to town. Julio and Marissa start dating because, well, teenagers… and all seems to be great - until it isn’t. Julio discovers that he actually has feelings for Jack; feelings that are mutual. Talk about upsetting the apple cart! Marissa finds out this truth via social media and not surprisingly, this new reality interrupts the dynamic between the friends. It’s a love triangle on so many levels.
(Los Tres Amigos is a level 2+ book, which includes aspects of Puerto Rican culture. Readers learn useful vocabulary through the easily understandable plot — even if the emotions of the teenagers are not.)
Like the two other books that I had published before this one, LOS TRES AMIGOS was born of my desire to provide students with stories that either reflected a society where they lived or one where they could learn about others’ realities. LA CHICA NUEVA was my first journey into writing comprehensible readers for students. At the time I was teaching in a wealthy, non-diverse town. Like many teachers, I was challenged with getting my students to see the value of exposure to a language different from English, all while trying to make it relevant to them. Not an easy task when the textbook I was (supposed to be) using was geared primarily - and only - towards middle class, white students who might only find value in language in relation to when they would jet off to faraway places and stay at posh places and never interact with the local people.
At the time I was becoming disillusioned with how education was becoming more of a science - a numbers game - than how it used to be when I began teaching, when it was more of an art. I felt my students were lacking in language, interest and curiosity (even in English) to discuss social issues, as it became more important to “get good grades” to “get accepted to the right college.”
But what about the people, I thought. Language to me is all about people.
Then, one year we had professional development given by Paul Sandrock who uttered a sentence that changed me: “Lead with culture and language will follow.” I’m not typically a name-dropper (mostly because I am not a methodologist nor a pedagogue), so when I heard this phrase… (picture the lightbulb over my head AND the sun’s rays beaming through the clouds all while cueing momentous music). YASSSSSSSSS! Of course! Teach the culture. That I can do!
So, when I wrote LA CHICA NUEVA in hopes of getting my two classes of primarily special education kids to latch on to this Spanish language thing, I wanted to create a character who was different from my (then) students to let them know what it might be like for someone new in their town, especially a person of color. Even in the first read-through of the story, the students picked up the prejudice and bigotry right away - and were able to comment on it in simple language. I found that, with my guidance, they were able to have meaningful discussions about real issues given the framework of the story. And, by keeping the discussions in the target language caused further reflection on the students’ part as they had to literally think before they spoke - which is VERY helpful when topics are challenging to discuss. I knew I was onto something when one girl, who generally sported an attitude the size of Alaska, came into class one day and said, “Profe, I like this story. What’s gonna happen next?” They were engaged and I was having a ball myself!
If education was going the way of strict standards, pyramids and rubrics, I was able to maintain the art of it all through storytelling. I kept writing. But it wasn’t until I mused aloud to one of my special education classes during a time when we were thoroughly engaged with LA CHICA NUEVA:
“I should probably write a story with some LGBTQ characters. What do you think?”
Two to three faces really lit up (those belonging to LGBTQ students, if I remember correctly) immediately after I uttered the question. In my mind I said, “Done.”
Result: LOS TRES AMIGOS.
And why not? Long before I had read about Rudine Sims Bishop (Rudine Sims Bishop interview transcript) and the theory of “Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors,” it made complete sense: if I were going to write a story with diverse characters to provide windows for my own students to peer through (LA CHICA NUEVA), wouldn’t it make sense to also include stories that served as mirrors for other students?
Other titles followed:
- EL VIAJE DIFÍCIL (undocumented immigration & the journey from Central America to the USA)I\
- LA NIÑERA (treatment of undocumented citizens in the USA)
- LA LUCHA DE LA VIDA (DREAMers)
- DEBIDO A LA TORMENTA (forced migration to the USA)
- SECRETOS (LGBTQ+ & later 20th century Argentine history)
- LA VIDA ES COMPLICADA (LGBTQ+ & family issues; including substance use disorder)
- QUINCE (adoption, incarceration)
- COMO VUELA LA PELOTA (baseball, friendship, school-to-prison pipeline)
- CON (UN POCO DE) AYUDA DE MIS AMIGOS (music, physical disabilities, friendship)
- PESAS (Special Olympics, neurodiversity, homelessness)
For as long as I live and breathe, I cannot imagine that I will ever be quoted for anything theoretical nor anything rigorously academic. 😂 But what I wish is that by creating stories with diverse characters both students and teachers will become more aware of others different from themselves and, in that I hope to encourage more cultural dexterity, and more conversations - in any language. That’s what I wanted as a teacher when I set out on this writing odyssey, and that’s what has kept me with my xfingers clickety-clacking on the keyboard.
Remember how much of language is acquired: passively through reading and listening. The same is true with learning through story. And with comprehensible novels that are compelling and include diversity, that is another win-win-win-win-win-win-WIN!!!
You can find all of my books, some of which have been translated and adapted to French and German, and some which are translated to English, on www.puenteslanguage.com and www.digilangua.co. You can reach out to me from either of those sites or find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.