From the perspective of Molly Rowland, recipient of the 2015-2016 Council Scholar Award:
Thanks to the generosity of the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, I was able to study the Spanish language and culture in Madrid, Spain, for three weeks this past summer. I had taken Spanish in the past but hadn’t used it in a long time. Since many of many students are Hispanic, I needed the refresher to be able to communicate with them and their parents more effectively.
My entire trip was an adventure. I stayed with Maria, an older woman who lived in the city center. She cooked authentic meals for me and conversed with me in Spanish. I was able to talk with her about everything from her own family to cultural differences between Spain and US, which not only helped me practice my language skills, but helped broaden my global perspective as well. I discovered that she took in foreign boarders to help pay the rent. The economy is not in great shape and she needs to do this to survive. It was a very eye-opening experience for me to have these discussions with her.
I also attended language classes 3 times per week at Club de Español. This allowed me to have some structure to my language learning. I was listening to and speaking Spanish in the classroom and was also able to practice what I’d learned with Maria. The classes took place on Mondays and Wednesday from 10:30-1:30 and on Fridays from 10:30-12:00. This schedule allowed me to spend enough time in the classroom while not overwhelming myself. During my time at Club de Español, I had two different teachers. One was incredibly effective, enthusiastic, and made us speak a lot to one another in Spanish. She also used repetition to help us remember vocabulary. The other teacher, in comparison, was not effective. She often checked her phone as if she was ready to leave, was rarely standing up and interacting with us, and had us do a lot of writing activities. I realized that I wanted to emulate the effective teacher. I believe I am a combination of both of these teachers and that I have some work to do to become the most effective teacher that I can be.
Additionally, I spent time exploring on my own and taking advantage of being in such a diverse city. I was able to visit the famous Prado and see gorgeous paintings that I had learned about in my Spanish Civilization and Culture class in college. It was such an exciting moment to see Velázquez paintings up close! It was surreal, much like the paintings I was viewing. It made me want to come back to the classroom and incorporate different, exciting paintings into my art unit in class.
This trip ultimately taught me what it is like to learn a foreign language. I had forgotten, as I have been fluent in German for a number of years. There was a lot of frustration involved in the process and it made me realize what my students experience every day. I also realized that my students need an enthusiastic educator that focuses on communication in the target language in order to be effective.
I am so grateful for the amazing opportunity that the World Affairs Council of Charlotte in cooperation with Wells Fargo, Carolinas HealthCare System and UNC Charlotte made possible for me. I cannot thank you enough! I look forward to promoting the program for years to come.
The German language is my passion. I started learning the language during my sophomore year of high school and never looked back. I immersed myself in the language and the culture through various organizations and travel and was well on my way to fluency after I graduated high school. Having earned a BA and an MA in German and having lived abroad several times, I know the German language like the back of my hand. This is dangerous for a language teacher. It means that I’d lost much of my understanding of language acquisition. I knew that I needed to re-gain an understanding of the language learning process. I had studied Spanish in college and hadn’t used it since, so I relished the opportunity to hone those skills while learning more about how one acquires language.
Additionally, the enrollment of Hispanic students in German courses has been on the rise at the high school in which I teach. Last year I had issues communicating with some Hispanic parents who don’t speak English very well (or at all). In one instance I wrote to a parent via e-mail and received a response in broken English from the student’s sister, as her parents were unable to answer the e-mail. This broke my heart. I wanted so badly to be able to communicate with these parents in their native tongue, which is why I applied for the World Affairs Council scholarship. I was lucky enough to be a recipient and scheduled my departure for July 12, 2015.
While in Madrid, Spain for three weeks this summer, I attended language courses three times per week at Club de Español, a language school in the city center. The courses convened three times per week. Mondays and Wednesday classes were 3 hours long, while Fridays were 1.5 hours long. The courses mainly focused on speaking, which is the weakest part of my Spanish skill set. I often found myself frustrated that I understood what was being said but struggled to express myself. It wasn’t always that I didn’t understand. 90% of the time I understood at least part of what was being asked. However, I simply didn’t have the exposure to the language that would’ve given me the vocabulary to enable me to respond to more than just basic questions.
The first week I answered almost exclusively in English. I understood what was being said but I wasn’t able to articulate what I wanted to say in the target language. I wasn’t trying to be defiant, but it may have come across that way to my host and my language teacher. This all changed late into the second week, when I met with the cousin of a co-worker. She doesn’t speak English. I was nervous when I went to meet with her at Starbucks but I did it. At first I tried to speak English. She didn’t understand a word, so I finally began to spit out words in Spanish. With my other interactions I’d had the opportunity to speak English and I had done so. In this case it was not possible to speak English and I gave it all I had. I was so proud I myself. It gave me a new appreciation for students coming to the US without any or little knowledge of English
It made me realize that I need to be a bit more understanding of my own students. I need to give them visuals and hand gestures to help them understand, and also provide them with phrases that I review again and again so that they are able to converse in German on a basic level. I also need to understand that language acquisition takes time. In the future, I will be more patient with my students.
During my time at Club de Español I ending up having different teachers. The second teacher taught us for one week while the former teacher was on vacation. While the first teacher was by no means ineffective, I found the second teacher taught me more in one week than I learned in two in the previous class. The first teacher had us sit and write down activities. We did little speaking. While the teacher was not constantly on her phone, she checked it occasionally to look at the time, despite the fact that there was a clock in the room. This gave me the impression that she wasn’t enjoying what she was doing and wasn’t really focused on us. In contrast, the second teacher never had her phone out, greeted us with a smile, and seemed more enthusiastic about her work. She had us stand up, sit down, read, write, and speak. She repeated vocabulary as she held up the object in question, leading me to associate the object with the Spanish word and not an English translation. She facilitated learning in a way that I’m now trying to model in my classroom.
I have already started using what I learned from the classes in my own classroom. Recently I did a lesson on German food. I took out plastic objects and said the words in German, having the students repeat them several times. This activity required no English and was more effective than simply writing out the words in German and English on the board. It allowed the students to associate each object with a German word and involved the use of the target language only.
In addition to class time, I also spent a great deal of time experience the Spanish language and culture. I lived with an older Spanish woman who cooked authentic meals for me and was happy to help me practice my Spanish. She and I visited several art museums, including the famous “Prado.” There, I was able to see paintings that I learned about in books back when I did my undergraduate degree. Seeing El Greco and Velázquez paintings up close was surreal.
In addition to having conversations with my host about art, I was able to discuss the state of the Spanish economy as well. It allowed me to understand Spain as a society. I soon realized that Spanish culture is greatly influenced by the current state of the economy. An example of this would be the fact that many young people live at home well into their 20s. There simply aren’t jobs for young people that would enable them to work and earn money. Even after college, many young people remain unemployed for years. These are problems that cannot easily be solved.
When I wasn’t at school or with my host mom, I was with an organization called Se habla Español Madrid. The group leaders, native speakers of Spanish, organized various excursions in and around the city of Madrid. The group was made up of non-native speakers from all over the world who were hoping to improve their language skills. I was able to participate in 6 field trips with them. Two of the most exciting were a trip to the mountains to swim in a natural pool, and a movie night in a museum garden. These excursions allowed me to meet native and non-native speakers alike, practice my Spanish, and have a good time.
The trip to the natural pool ended up being an adventure in and of itself. Since the group leader did not do enough research, we arrived at the train station not knowing how to get to the pool. This resulted in a two hour walk up a mountain. Since I had been told we could swim OR hike, I had chosen the former and was in sandals! It was quite difficult walking up the mountain in sandals, but I made it. The view of the pool with the backdrop of the trees was worth the trouble. This experience taught me to be prepared for anything. This can also be applied to the way I approach my classroom. I need to be prepared for things not to go as planned and adjust accordingly.
In addition to Se habla Español Madrid being a good time, it helped me to understand cultural differences. The organization was an amazing addition to my experience in Madrid and I would recommend to anyone thinking of becoming a part of it. However, it’s important to keep in mind that last minute changes may occur. This comes from the relaxed mind-set of the Hispanic culture in general. As someone who has grown up in the United States, these last minute changes were difficult for me to handle at first. I prefer to plan things out and move forward accordingly. It took some getting used to, but I realized I needed to learn to be more flexible. Flexibility is also a trait that will help me greatly in the classroom. One is expected to adapt to the needs of the students. Sometimes the lesson plans that I use need to be changed or adapted and I need to be able to do that.
My experiences in Spain have helped me to change the way I lesson plan. While I still map out a general plan for the week every Friday, I now take a few minutes after school each day to tweak my lesson plans. These minor adjustment are based on how classes went that day. Sometimes I need to go slower and re-loop, while other times it feels as if I’m beating a dead horse and need to move on. I have noticed that this has resulted in more engaged students.
I was also fortunate enough spend a weekend in Portugal. My initial goal was to understand the linguistic similarities and differences of Portuguese and Spanish, and how I, as a language learner of Spanish, would respond to my environment in Portugal. I was able to understand a bit of what I read on signs and heard around me, thanks mostly to cognates. This made me realize that in my own classroom I need to try and use more cognates so that the material is easier for my students to understand.
My time in Portugal was spent alone, so I tried to interact with the locals as much as possible. My most interesting encounter happened when I took a taxi back to my hotel after a long day of sight-seeing in Lisbon on Saturday evening. As I conversed with the cab driver, I discovered he spoke English better than most foreigners I had encountered on the trip. It turns out that he is a fellow educator. He described how his pay had been cut a while back due to the economic problems in the region. As he discussed his meager salary, I realized that I was lucky to be in a country where educators are paid more compared to Portugal. I really began to appreciate my job in Charlotte, NC, even more.
The morning after my arrival I had my first language class. As I didn’t know where the language school was located, I’d enlisted the help of Maria, my host. She and I set a time to leave and walk to the bus stop. I was waiting patiently at the time we’d agreed upon when finally, a few minutes after the fact, she appeared. We then went to the front door of the apartment building, when Maria realized the key she’d given me was not working. This was something I’d assumed we were going to rectify later. Instead, she spoke with Jose, the apartment janitor, and asked him if he had another key. At this point we’d already been standing there for several minutes and I was anxious to leave. I was not accustomed to being late to things on my first day! Maria could read the expression on my face and told me it wouldn’t take long. I, trying to be polite, said it was no problem. Eventually Jose came back with the key and Maria took me to the bus stop, where I thanked her for her help and went on my way.
I was able to get to the language school and was there 30 minutes before my class started. I introduced myself to the woman at the front desk and got the necessary materials from her before sitting down in my classroom. The class was to start at 10:30. It was already 10:15, so I thought it would be a few moments before the other students walked in. 10:30 rolled around and no one was there. A few minutes later, other students arrived. I looked at them, puzzled. Eventually, the instructor came in at about 10:45, and we began the lesson. It was then that I realized I was on Spanish time and no longer on American time. I had to get used to the slower pace of things in Spain.
In addition to the slow pace of the country, I also had to get used to my surroundings. In Germany and the United States, I know where I can buy the products that I need. This was not so in Spain. The first few days I struggled to find a drug store, which I then realized doesn’t exist in Spain. Once I figured this out I was able to buy toiletries and the like at a supermarket in town, but it caused me quite a bit of annoyance those first few days as I walked around and around, searching for one.
After a couple of weeks, once I knew the rhythm of the things and was more familiar with my surroundings, Madrid began to feel like home. I knew where to go, what time to arrive to meetings with friends, and began to feel as if I’d been coming to Madrid for years.
I would like to thank the World Affairs Council in cooperation with Wells Fargo, Carolinas HealthCare System and UNC Charlotte for giving me this wonderful opportunity. I am now able to teach German more effectively and am able to interact with Spanish speaking students and their parents more effectively. I have also noticed in passing that I’m now able to understand most students when they are conversing in Spanish with their friends! This trip would not have been possible without your generosity.