A 'Million Kilowatts of Energy' Brightens the Classroom

The chatter of voices can be heard as you walk down the hall toward Room 326, Braunstein Hall. Students inside other classrooms remain quiet, but the ones in Kirsten Nigro’s class on U.S. Latinos buzz with conversation.

Today, the students will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo – a more common festivity in this country than in Mexico. They have made special foods like Mexican chicken salad, tamales and bean dip. The music of Los Lobos: Just Another Band from East L.A. can be heard over the talking. Students tape crepe paper, printed in yellow, orange, red and pink with the words, “Una Fiesta! A Party!” to the walls.

Of course, not every day is a party in the classroom of Professor Nigro, a winner of UC’s 2003 Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching and a professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. But even when there’s no celebration, this teacher known for her toughness is also known for making her classes on Latin American literature, culture and grammar fun, interactive and high energy.

“Studying with Dr. Nigro has at times been rigorous and intense, but above all it has always been fun. I have not known another professor with her ability to incorporate creativity into the classroom,” says Jennifer Dumont, an A&S alum in her letter supporting Nigro’s nomination for the Cohen, UC’s top teaching prize. Dumont took three courses with Nigro as an undergraduate. “Among my favorite experiences are learning about Latin American literature while listening to my classmates give a beatnik rendition of a poem accompanied by their own trumpet and guitar playing, sitting on the floor learning how to wave baskets Aztec style, and watching a presentation on a classmate’s museum-worthy collection of Latin American masks.”

Echoes Nigro’s department head in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, Lowanne Jones: “I will not say that Kirsten is a model teacher, even a model colleague, because I doubt that the rest of us are able to attain or maintain her levels of creativity, enthusiasm and energy.”

Observed another student who has taken two of Nigro’s courses: “It’s amazing she is not from Latin America, because the way she teaches she seems like she is.” Andrew Phillips, a Spanish and education major, made this observation referring to her expertise in Latin American culture and her grasp of Spanish, as Professor Nigro climbed atop a desk to help students tape up the fiesta crepe paper. Soon Nigro, whose heritage is Italian and Swedish, is moving her feet to the beats of Latin American music, side by side with her students, her arms swaying stretched up in the air.

Kirsten Nigro

Kirsten Nigro

Although her own background isn’t Hispanic, Nigro spent much of her youth living all over Latin America – her father worked for the State Department and the United Nations, so her family moved to Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Uruguay and Venezuela. “I never lived in Mexico as a child, but Mexico is my passion, and little by little my professional work has more and more involved Mexico,” says Nigro, who joined the UC faculty in 1991, after serving at Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and the University of Kansas. A few months ago, she returned to UC from a Fulbright fellowship that took her to study culture along the U.S.-Mexican border.

“Some Americans who go to Mexico don’t ever want to go back. Unfortunately, they only see the surface and don’t understand the complex relationship we have with our neighbor to the south. But if you like Mexico, you fall in love with it. I love it. It’s beautiful. I love the people. I love the flowers. I love everything about this country. Once Mexico is in your blood, there is no getting rid of it. I feel passionate about it,” she explains.

In recent years, what her department head calls Nigro’s “million kilowatts of energy” have been focused on developing a new study tour to Mexico to introduce students first-hand to the Mexican celebration of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.” This study abroad program is offered every few years, right after the end of fall quarter to coincide with the Dec. 12 feast day. Students stay at a 16th-century hacienda that was built by Hernan Cortes and was headquarters for Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution.

As much as her fervor for Mexico shows through, so does her enthusiasm for teaching. “As I reflect on the classes I took with Dr. Nigro, I recall always being on the edge of my seat…literally,” writes M. Alison Garrard, now a PhD student, in a nominating letter. “Dr. Nigro’s courses are very interactive, and students must be ready to participate at all times.” Part of that participation takes place at Nigro’s house, where she hosts at least one fiesta a year for her students.

In class, that involvement can include performing plays, reading poetry or creating your own Spanish-language newspaper to share in class. If you turn in a paper or written exam, you can expect to get it back filled with red ink, even if you got an A. “I want to open a dialogue with my students,” she says.

Nigro becomes perplexed when she hears that her students consider her tough. “I think I’m a push-over and a puppy,” she says. “But I do ask a lot. Students are here to learn. I ask for a lot of writing and a lot of thinking, but I am also negotiable.” She adds: “A’s don’t come too easily, because I believe an A is an A – you know, 92 to 100 percent. Gee, I can remember having far more difficult teachers when I was a student.”

Back at the in-class party, students laugh with each other as they take turns batting at a burro piñata, colored with turquoise, purple, pink, orange and yellow stripes. The fun comes to a close as Nigro returns graded tests and homework. A student visiting from Washington University in St. Louis remarks: “None of my Spanish teachers have ever been this energetic.”

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