Although many young people leave the area after graduating from high school, the charm of Calaveras County often brings them back.
At Bret Harte High School (BHHS), one former student is currently giving back to the community that raised her.
Spanish teacher Alex Kunesh was recently chosen by her colleagues as BHHS Teacher of the Year.
“Alex has been a tremendous asset to our staff,” BHHS Principal Heath Lane said. “Her ability to connect with her students as well as her genuine care for their well-being create a sense of comfort in her classroom. In addition, as a young teacher her leadership skills with working with our staff and administration model that of a veteran teacher beyond her years.”
Kunesh grew up in Arnold, where she currently resides. After graduating from BHHS in 2011, she studied the arts at University of California, Irvine. However, her experience as a high school student led her to pursue another subject as well – Spanish.
Kunesh took four years of Spanish in high school, and even participated in a travel study program in Costa Rica. The trip was led by David Brady, who was also Kunesh’s Spanish teacher for three years. Now, the two both teach Spanish at BHHS in neighboring classrooms.
“In my last year at Bret Harte, we did a travel study program for spring break, and I really enjoyed the language, started dreaming in the language, and loved the experience,” Kunesh said. “And so, knowing that I had an art degree, and had every intention to get a dance degree – either one wasn’t considered all that foundational as part of a career – and knowing that I wanted to keep hold of the language, I thought the easiest way to do that was to get a degree in it.”
While at Irvine, Kunesh spent seven months studying the arts abroad in the south of Spain at the University of Granada. She said that the experience proved extremely helpful in strengthening her grasp of the Spanish language.
“I think that, for me, it definitely solidified things being in another country, but it was more so an experience of learning to adapt and finding ways to communicate rather than studying the language,” she said. “Although I might not have really grown my academic vocabulary, the ability to adapt to conversations, to be understood and understand, grew immensely throughout that period of time.”
Following graduation, Kunesh taught for an organization called Aim High, which offers free summer academic enrichment programs for underserved communities. However, she was soon contacted by staff at BHHS, who were badly in need of a Spanish teacher following the retirement of longtime teacher Anthony Reynoso.
Kunesh decided to go to work for her alma mater, and earned her teaching credential during her first two years teaching at BHHS. It is now her fourth year teaching at the school, and her third teaching alongside Brady, her former teacher. This last year, Kunesh and Brady revamped their curriculums in an attempt to create a more immersive learning experience in their classrooms.
“It took one conference he and I attended, a Blaine Ray conference, who’s the founder of TPRS, which is Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling,” she said. “And the next day we came back and ditched our textbooks, and didn’t know exactly what we were doing, but that we were going to stop every sense of quizzes, and formalized lists, and patterns, and verb conjugations, and studying the present tense or the past tense in separate rooms, essentially, and just start communicating with students.”
The two decided to adopt strategies developed by linguist Stephen Krashen, Kunesh said.
“It’s not super fancy; it’s just what you would do with a toddler, essentially – making every single day almost all in the language, and also in chunks that are only maybe one level above the average student,” she said. “We’re learning as we go, and I think students this year have been amazed by what they can understand … It’s become a lot of storytelling, much stronger connections in the classroom, putting community first and assessment last, and focusing on progress rather than initial starting sequences.”
Kunesh said that the staff at BHHS made her transition to teaching Spanish much easier than it could have been otherwise.
“It’s been a really memorable and special experience,” she said. “I already had a community here that was ready to support me and excited to have me on their staff. I already knew for the most part where to be and when to be there, and I guess it really comes down to that support system – that our teaching staff is ready to jump up and help as soon as you ask.”
Learning a new language offers more than the ability to communicate with others, Kunesh said.
“I think more than that, it’s the ability to not just communicate but adapt to any given situation,” she said. “It kind of transfers into other features of their life going forward. So although they may not use Spanish in their day-to-day life, communication will forever have to be a tool that they need to learn and adapt, and without that ability things can be intensely challenging. It opens up a lot of doors as far as travel, but also work and communities, and it’s just so exciting to watch students understand that they have this new ability.”
Besides teaching Spanish 1 and Spanish 4 AP, Kunesh also coaches the school’s dance team.
“We’re working with novice dancers and experienced dancers – all over the board,” she said. “People that haven’t danced before, who have only done cheer, or have been dancing since they were 3 or 4, now come together on the dance team, which is an athletic program through Bret Harte.”
During Kunesh’s time as a student at BHHS, she was involved in creating a student-run organization and founding a dance club.
“We’ve kind of relied on that dance club that was founded by my dancers when I was in high school managing a company,” she said. “It’s been a nice full-circle experience there too, to kind of expand on what I had created as an adolescent and allow that to live on.”
Kunesh said that she was impressed with BHHS’s response to the novel coronavirus.
“I’m absolutely amazed by all of our teachers, and very proud of not only Bret Harte’s campus, but the community across the entire state coming together,” she said. “I’m amazed by how many teachers – overnight – were able to get a classroom website up.”
Since the school closed its doors, Kunesh has been hosting optional class meetings through Zoom.
“It’s just so wonderful to walk away and get a message from a student saying, ‘That was really fun; I miss being with everyone,’” she said. “It’s just really rewarding to know that they want to be there.”
Kunesh said that she was looking forward to returning to the classroom.
“We just want to be back,” she said. “It takes all of the fun out of our career. We wouldn’t return back to all the craziness, and all of the extra work and duties and administrative functions of teaching, if it weren’t for students, and unfortunately we’re now in a situation where that one absolutely overwhelming piece of joy was removed … If we could give up this three weeks off, or potentially longer, and be back in the classroom, I guarantee that every one of my colleagues would prefer that.”
Kunesh said that it was an honor to be voted Teacher of the Year.
“It’s an honor to be chosen by my colleges,” she said.