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Getting The Big Picture TV Teacher Broadcasts Language, Culture To Rural Students

The fan mail comes from Arizona, Montana, remote villages in Alaska.

“Thank you for sharing with us,” one letter said. “I truly wish we could meet you in person.”

Margarita Plascencia Janes is practically a TV star.

Hundreds of kids all over the country watch her teach Spanish, thanks to a satellite program in Spokane.

For those who live in far-flung villages, her program is the only exposure they get to a foreign culture.

“It opens up their world,” said Barbara Sandlin, one of eight teachers at a school in Marshall, Alaska. “Without the program, they wouldn’t be learning Spanish at all.”

Plascencia Janes’ show is one of 19 satellite programs produced by Educational Service District 101. Besides math, science and other subjects, the district offers language courses in Spanish and Japanese. Chinese classes will be available next year.

Ninety percent of the schools that receive the programs are located in rural areas, where no one can teach - let alone speak - a foreign language, said ESD spokesman Steve Witter. Some students wouldn’t otherwise have a way to meet foreign language requirements for college.

One example is Marshall, a village with a population of 350.

Residents there get their groceries by plane, Sandlin said. Most rarely leave the southwest Alaskan town, located on the Yukon River.

But kids in Marshall are actually learning about Hispanic culture and speaking the language.

“Having (the program) come in through satellite really gives students more opportunities to learn,” Sandlin said. “It exposes them to so much.”

Since 1986, ESD 101 has been one of the country’s main providers of courses that are beamed to satellites and then back to receiving dishes at school. School districts pay $2,950 for the basic service.

Teaching students about Latino life has become a mission for Plascencia Janes, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico.

There’s so much cultural misunderstanding, she said.

Because of television, people sometimes believe the false stereotypes they see about Mexicans and other Latinos.

“I want students to have close contact with the culture,” she said. “When they think ‘Colombia,’ I don’t want them to think of drugs. I want them to see beyond the stereotypes.”

That’s why she doesn’t just teach language. She also explains the history of various Latin countries, as well as their traditions and values.

She takes students who live in rural villages on a journey, she said.

When she teaches about Peru, she wears clothing from that country. She cooks Causa a la Limena, a potato dish developed by the ancient Incas. Peruvians who now live in Spokane appear on her show as guests.

“Hola! Como estan?” Plascencia Janes said, greeting her students one morning via satellite. “Welcome to Middle School Spanish.”

The cameras focused on a dark-haired woman who, with heels, is barely 5 feet tall. Plascencia Janes smiled beneath the bright lights as men with headphones worked behind the scenes. In a soft, gentle voice, she spoke directly to the cameras, as though her students were in the room.

“Que dia es hoy?” she asked. “What day is it?”

Because of her work, she receives letters and artwork from students almost every week. Some send pictures, others include their homework.

During her show, which airs three times a week, students can talk to her on the phone and hear themselves on television a second later.

“I don’t feel the distance when I hear their voices,” she said.

A former accountant, Plascencia Janes grew up in a family with 10 children. She moved to the United States 15 years ago after she met her husband, Merle Janes.

She never planned on teaching. But after living in the United States, she noticed that some Americans weren’t as open-minded as she had hoped. She was sometimes the object of negative jokes or racist comments. Other times, people simply stared.

So she wanted to help educate people about her background. After moving to Spokane several years ago, she received a teaching certificate at Gonzaga University and started working for ESD in 1989.

For students who have had little exposure to Hispanic culture and people, it’s important that they get the full picture, she said.

“Some of these children are so isolated and this is the only way for them to learn,” Plascencia Janes said. “With appreciation for a culture comes respect.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo