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Pioneer Valley High School Teacher Jessica Zambrano goes over class work in her French class Monday. Jessica is one of three Distinguished New Educators, nominated by their peers and chosen by a committee through the County Education Office. Daniel dreifuss/Staff 

Jessica Zambrano, a French teacher at Pioneer Valley High School, began her morning French III course in a one-on-one conversation with Gisele Cruz.

Zambrano poured the teenager a mug of coffee and sat a plate of cookies and cafe snacks in front of her before the two began a casual conversation in French. Cruz, 17, did most of the talking.

“We talked about homecoming and how I didn’t enjoy it,” she said.

The conversation Monday was the first in a new morning routine that will at some point seat each student in front of Zambrano’s cafe table for cookies and conversation in French.

Zambrano said the activity she called Cafe Chat with Ms. Z is an idea she is testing to challenge students to go beyond simply answering questions in French.

“I want them speaking in French, and I want them to be comfortable with it,” she said.

Zambrano was the only Santa Maria teacher honored earlier this month as a distinguished educator at the first Santa Barbara County “Salute to Teachers” gala dinner in Goleta.

“I was kind of shocked,” Zambrano said.

She added that she felt honored, humbled and surprised to receive the recognition; her course plans, mostly trial and error.

“Some things are successful. Other things aren’t,” the French teacher said. “But you sink or swim.”

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Zambrano taught English in a remote area of Normandy from 2007 to 2009 before she completed a required teacher preparation program and began work with Pioneer Valley in 2011.

She said she uses her experiences to introduce students to the idea of being an American in France and the accompanying stereotypes they may face.

“There’s nothing like real-world experience,” Zambrano said.

Her instruction contained a mix of group and individual questioning and voluntary response Monday. She moved from sentence to sentence in French fluidly, and students responded likewise. They flipped pencils to erase and correct mistakes as she clarified and laughed when she joked or exaggerated movements.

“She’s a fun teacher,” Cruz said. “I’m never bored in her class.”

Cruz, who plans to major in French and theater in college, has also taken Zambrano’s French II course.

“I think she’s great,” the senior said. “I’ve learned so much from her.”

She described Zambrano’s style of teaching as experimental.

“We’re both learning together,” she said.

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Lauren Foreman has been with the Santa Maria Times since October 2012 and covers education in Santa Maria and southern San Luis Obispo County. Foreman graduated in 2010 from the University of Missouri with a bachelor of journalism in convergence media.