2015-2016 Council Scholar: Brandt Boidy (Charlotte Preparatory School)

I had the privilege of attending the Bridges Conference in Jyvaskyla, FinlandJyvaskyla, Finland this year thanks to the World Affairs Council of Charlotte’s generous council scholar program.

The Bridges conference is an annual conference that brings academic leaders together to discuss ideas, philosophy, and practice with art, mathematics, and design.  The conference included two days of lectures and presentations, an art exhibit, and a cultural day.  Each year the conference is held in a different city around the globe, past locations include Amsterdam, Rio, and Baltimore.  This year the conference was held from August 9-13 in Jyvaskyla, Finland at the University of Jyvaskyla.  Jyvaskyla is home to the Alvar Aalto museum and various buildings designed by the architect, the perfect location for an inspiring design conference.

I am a 5-8 mathematics teacher at Charlotte Preparatory School.  My curriculum focuses heavily on algebra and geometry.  Outside of the classroom I am an aspiring artist who frequently looks to incorporate design and art into the general math curriculum.  While I find geometry easier to integrate art and design into, my goal for this conference was to gain new ideas and perspective on incorporating art into mathematics, as well as incorporating mathematics into my art.

At the Bridges conference I attended a number of fantastic presentations, such as “Constructing meaning through making and creating,” a workshop designed to demonstrate the importance of makerspace and engineering technology in the mathematics classroom.  “The Golden Ratio and the diagonal square” presentation was especially helpful as I teach a number of lessons on the golden ratio in geometry.   My understanding of Persian patterns was limited, but the presentation titled, “another look at pentagonal Persian patterns” was eye opening and inspiring.  I frequently teach and work with tessellations in my classes and hope to incorporate Persian patterns in the future.  Lastly, “the math and art of folded books” inspired me to purchase a supply of folded books to use in my own classroom and lessons.  I attended a number of other presentations and found all of them to be informative and inspiring.  I left Bridges excited to get back in the classroom to start integrating all that I came away with.

In addition to my time at the conference I made great efforts to explore the beautiful lake town of Jyvaskyla.  It was the northern most city in my trip and the climate was exceptional compared to the extended heat of North Carolina’s summer.  The air was a cool 70 degrees most days and perfectly sunny from sun up to sun down, which in Finland is 5:00am – 11:00pm.  I worked hard to utilize all of my time there, exploring the local museums and biking heavily throughout town and the beautiful lake trails in Jyvaskyla.

Jyvaskyla was a quaint college town in Finland, but I wanted to experience as much as possible during my time in Finland so I also included travel to a number of other cities in the region.  Before visiting Jyvaskyla I visited Tallinn, Estonia, an incredible glimpse into Europe’s medieval past and Turku, Finland a beautiful river town on the mouth of the Aura river.  After the conference and my time in the lakes region I travelled to Helsinki and Paris before coming back to steamy North Carolina.  I can’t say enough about how remarkable and seamless my travels were through all of these cities.

After this extensive travel and my experience attending Bridges I returned from my trip with a number of takeaways, some mathematical and some personal.  My time in Finland revealed what’s possible with an extensive network of mass transit and bike trails. Instead of packed parking lots, Finnish businesses were piled with bikes.  The majority of citizens in every town I visited commuted by bicycle, a feat I admired greatly and thoroughly enjoyed taking part in.  Additionally, my ability to commute throughout each country was greatly enhanced by the consistent and efficient train system.

Another takeaway was insight into the gentle and friendly nature of the people of Finland and Estonia (and France!).  Despite not speaking the native language in each country, I worked hard to know some Estonian, Finnish, and French, but I quickly learned that everyone was willing to also help me in English.  I encountered nothing but warm, polite sentiments from everyone I encountered both at the conference and in my day to day travels.

Lastly, I had the opportunity to engage and converse with a number of Finnish educators and visit two Finnish schools.  I came away with great respect for the Finnish education model.  With great focus on mathematics and the arts, Finnish schools stand as some of the best in the world.  Additionally, Finnish schools hold their students to rigorous standards, while also holding them accountable to meet those standards independently.  The extreme independence, autonomy, and freedom that Finnish schools provide their students is something unique and empowering.  I hope to foster a similar independence in my own classes.

 The 2015-2016 Council Scholar Award Program is supported by Wells Fargo, UNC Charlotte, Bank of America and Carolinas HealthCare System.

Introducing: Thomas Cushman (Fall 2016 Intern)

Thomas Cushman is a native of Aiken, South Carolina, who has recently relocated to Charlotte. He graduated summa cum laude this past May from the University of South Carolina in Columbia. While at the University of South Carolina, he earned his BA in International Studies with minors in German and Russian language.

His passion for international affairs coupled with his affinity for sharing his passions with others drove his decision to serve as Public Relations Intern at the World Affairs Council of Charlotte.

Possessing a keen interest in international affairs, Thomas is an active participant in today’s global society. While at the University of South Carolina, he completed a study abroad year at the Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg in Bamberg, Germany, and also taught English as a teaching fellow at the Uni Bamberg. Thomas was an active member of the German and Russian clubs at USC.

Thomas’s interests within the realm of international affairs are largely Europe-focused. Having been to 21 European countries, he finds European culture and affairs fascinating. His research in his BA program was concentrated on the economic and developmental effects of democracy and democratic transition on individual countries around the European continent, as well as the dynamic of the economic relationships between former Eastern Bloc states and the rest of the EU today.

In his free time, you can find Thomas often outdoors hiking, gardening, or working on whatever DIY project the week brings. When not outdoors, he particularly enjoys cooking with friends or watching a good German movie, favorites including Im Juli and Goodbye, Lenin!

Introducing: Consolata Kuevidjen (Fall 2016 Intern)


As far as my memory can recall, there were two girls and fifteen boys in my nursery class in Niger.  I was the second and youngest girl. As a matter of fact, female education is comparatively low in Niger and seen through negatively-tainted eyes. Since my childhood, I have always believed that creating educational opportunities to empower women is crucial, especially for girls in Africa. Growing up, I took my education seriously and I have always believed that education makes people stand up for their rights and ethics. My name is Consolata Kuevidjen. I am a native of Togo, a tiny country on the west coast of Africa. I was born in Niger but have had the opportunity to live in both countries and have been exposed to two different amazing cultures. I am bi-lingual, multicultural, and have always had the keen interest in learning foreign languages. I am a graduating senior at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and my major is Political Science. My research interests in Foreign Policy, Global Affairs, and Comparative Politics have increased my perspective on the importance of global collaboration. After graduation, I plan to complete a master’s degree in Foreign Service and Public Policy at Georgetown University.

As a Student Counselor of the Judicial Board of the Student Government Association, I work with students charged with violations of the Code of Student Responsibility. My primary role is to guide them through the hearing process. Working with students has honed my active listening skills and has taught me to be objective in the ruling of a case. In my free time, I like to play tennis and read books.  Last semester, I had the opportunity to study abroad in China at Fudan University and experience the Chinese culture for the first time. My time in China was academically and culturally rewarding. One of the biggest benefits of studying abroad is to create lasting friendships. I also gained a unique perspective on the exchanges with different cultures and by completing the required courses in the School of International Relations and Public Administration, I learned about China’s foreign policy and its growing influence on the world stage. I’m excited about interning with the World Affairs Council of Charlotte and I’m looking forward to gaining new insights into international affairs.

2015-2016 Council Scholar: Crystal Isler (River Gate Elementary School)

Photo Jun 22, 12 48 39 PM

(Photo: Crystal Isler, 2015-2016 Council Scholar Award recipient in Strasbourg, France)

My name is Crystal Isler and I had the privilege of receiving the 2015-2016 Council Scholar Award. As a result, I participated in a Germany study visit (for educators and administrators) from June 18-29, 2016 through the Worldview program at UNC-Chapel Hill. This program consisted of a variety of school visits; in which I was able to learn about Germany’s education system and compare it with our system through communication and interaction with German educators and students. We also explored Germany’s development, green policy, and significant cultural and historical sights. This study visit was an interactive and educational learning experience that allowed me the opportunities to not only learn about another country’s education system but to collaborate with other educators and administrators. During the study visit I participated in six study visits of schools and universities throughout Germany.

The six schools and universities included Mittelschule Munchen Sendling, Grundschule Feldbergstr, Carl Benz Vocational School, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Walter Gropius Schule, and Carl-von-Ossietzky Gymnasium. The study visits consisted of school tours, classroom observations, discussions with staff and students, and presentations regarding the Germany school system. The most valuable aspect of these school visits was the opportunity to have discussions with the staff and students regarding current education and social issues occurring in Germany.

For instance, at the Carl-von-Ossietzky Gymnasium I was able to observe a welcome class that contained new immigrants and refugees. Then, the other educators and myself were able to have discussions with these students regarding the cultural differences between Germany and their home country, transitions into the regular German classroom after completion of the welcome class, and their goals and career aspirations for the future. Also, at the Walter Gropius Schule we were able to have a valuable conversation with one of the teachers about the German education system and the influx of immigrants/refugees and how this has affected her perspectives and teaching beliefs.

Another aspect of the Germany study visit included experiencing numerous cultural and historical sights. I was able to visit the Dachau concentration camp, Neuschwanstein and Linderhof castle, The European Parliament Chamber in Strasbourg, The Berlin Wall Memorial, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. These cultural and historical sights taught me information about the specific regions of Germany, and the historical impact of the events that occurred throughout Germany. For example, The Dachau concentration camp had a huge impact on German society and to this day has a profound effect on the old and new residents in this area. The impact of World War II and the Holocaust has even affected the education system, and German students are required to visit a concentration camp at least once during their school career. The European Parliament also displayed the importance of the government in the education system and the effects of laws on the education system. The Berlin Wall Memorial represented the former divide between East and West Berlin, which resulted in differences in the schools between East and West Berlin that are still present to this day.

My experience at the various school visits and historical/cultural sites afforded me the opportunity to gain valuable information about the German school system and society. I plan to implement what I have learned into my classroom through class discussions, current event presentations based on Germany, and exploration of texts regarding German history and culture. In my classroom, examining and analyzing current news is an important skill and learning experience. Through my knowledge and experience in Germany I can assist students with choosing topics and events that are occurring in Germany and presented that information to their classmates. This allows students to gain different perspectives and viewpoints on different issues and the ability to compare life in Germany and the U.S. In addition I will expose my students to texts that focus on important issues such as World War II, The Holocaust, and German culture. The connections I was able to make with the teachers in Germany would also be beneficial in forming relationships with my American students and their German students through interactions through letters, video chat and online media.

The 2015-2016 Council Scholar Award Program is generously supported by Wells Fargo, Carolinas HealthCare System, Bank of America and UNC Charlotte.

2015-2016 Council Scholar: Lisa Watson (Charlotte Preparatory School)

My international experience quite literally started with a bang.  Hi, I’m Lisa Watson a 2015-16 recipient of the World Affairs Council of Charlotte’s Council Scholar Award.  On the morning of my first day in Madrid I entered a big 5k that ran through the heart of the city.  I have been an avid runner for all of my life and knew that I wanted to experience an international race while abroad.  I ran collegiately in the United States and continue to compete often but rarely win large races.  The race in Madrid was quite large and I never could have imagined that I’d win!  My first full day abroad started with the bang of a race pistol and ended with a crown, a trophy, a TV interview and a spot on the evening news in Madrid.  This was just the start of what proved to be a truly unforgettable experience for me in Madrid.

I am a Spanish teacher for Kindergarten – 4th grade students at Charlotte Preparatory School.  I have taught Middle and High School Spanish but feel at home in the elementary school.  I have overhauled the Spanish curriculum at my school to include more cultural objectives.  My goal is to help my students to understand various cultural aspects of the Spanish speaking world in-depth.  I have moved the curriculum away a traditional approach of giving a very brief snapshot or every culture to a more focused study of just a few cultures.  I have found that this approach gives students a much more complete and balanced perspective of the Spanish speaking world.


Photo: Lisa Watson with teachers in the AmeriSpan program.

When I found out about the 2015-2016 Council Scholar Award Program, I began researching study opportunities that included both a focus on culture and language learning methodologies.  I could not have been happier with AmeriSpan’s program.  I participated in AmeriSpan’s MAESTRO: Spain for Spanish Teachers program through the Don Quijote Language School in Madrid, Spain.  The program is designed for Spanish teachers to learn more about Spanish culture and language teaching methodologies.  The program lasts two weeks and consists of 4 hours of class each morning with the afternoons free to explore the city and observe in schools.  I also opted to participate in a homestay where I lived with a family for the duration of my trip.  The setup of the program was absolutely perfect for me.  Having been a Spanish teacher and aficionado of all things Spain, I arrived with a long list of places to visit that I thought would be relevant to my students.  Every day after class the list grew longer and longer.

While I expected to learn a great deal about Spain itself, I was surprised by how much I learned from my classmates.  I was the only American teacher in the group.  There were six other students in my class.  Three were from China, Italy, and Sweden.  The South Korean government sent 3 representatives.  They were translators and language instructors for the government.  They were sent to Spain for a year to write a formal Spanish language curriculum to be used in the public schools.  It was very interesting to learn about the language acquisition methods used in each of these countries. The variety of methods was astounding.  I was surprised that most students study multiple languages and Spanish is often taught alongside another foreign language.  In South Korea, Spanish and English will be taught at the same time.  In Sweden, Spanish is often studied with French because of the similarities in the two romance languages.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to observe classes at Colegio de la Sagrada Corazón, an elementary school in Madrid.  My visit had a dual purpose.  I wanted to learn more about schooling in Spain but I was also eager to present a formal proposal for a penpal program with my students at Charlotte Prep.  My proposal was met with such open arms that I returned to the elementary school for a second visit to serve as a “guest teacher” where I helped students write their first penpal letter to a student at my school.  I brought all of the letters back with me and am excited to begin the program in a few weeks.  It has already received great feedback from my students at Charlotte Prep.

During my trip I wrote a daily blog that was posted on the school’s webpage.  Each day I summarized my activities with a focus on helping my students develop an international way of thinking. I also made numerous connections to our curriculum by reminding students in different grades of connections they could make to topics we studied.  I enjoyed reading my students responses.  I knew that my visits to the Medieval Towns of Toledo and Segovia would be very impactful for my students.  The Middle Ages is a part of our social studies curriculum in 1st and 4th grade.  Last year I created new units in 1st and 4th grade to teach about the Middle Ages in Spain.  My students enjoyed seeing the castles they learned about come to life on my blog.  The blog was just one small way to pique their interest in all that I learned and am eager to share from my experience in Spain.

I am eager to start the school year and have a running list of new ideas that continues to grow as I review my photos and notes from my trip.  I have learned new teaching methods from Spanish teachers all over the world and have developed a much deeper understanding of Spanish culture.  I look forward to passing this knowledge on to the students, staff and community at my school.  I have only begun to realize the impact that the Council Scholar Award will have on my teaching and I am excited for the school year ahead.


Kristen Wright – Brazil (2014-2015 Council Scholar)

 To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries. -Aldous Huxley

Prior to my travel, Brazil was under the microscopic view of world news. The 2014 World Cup wrapped up less than a week shy of my visit. The World Cup was a test-piece for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Many asked whether or not Brazil had the infrastructure and economy to host such large events. I was nervous hearing many stories out of Rio, stories of the favelas, police crackdowns, the drug economy, gangs running neighborhoods—it sounded like a scary place, where I would have to be on-guard at all times. As is often the case, things were different when I got there. I found the people in Porto Alegre warm, willing to help, and equally as curious about my life as I was about theirs.

For a couple of months prior to my travels, I used a free online program to learn some Portuguese. I was glad to have prepared, as most people in Brazil do not speak English. I created a study book including simple greetings, conjugated verbs, nouns with pictures; being able to speak a little helped enhance my experience, converse with local folks I would not have otherwise had a chance to speak with.

Program: International Society of Music Education

The program I attended, the International Society of Music Education, was one of the most inspiring events I have attended as a teacher. I attended music performances of traditional Brazilian music. I was able to make connections with music teachers and researchers, and confer with scholars from all over the world. I attended presentations and panel discussions on topics ranging from Darwin’s research from an ethnomusicology perspective, to the effect of forced Chinese nationalist music education curriculum in post-colonial Hong Kong, to social justice issues in music education in the United States.

I also heard a stunning paper asking an important research question: What do we lose when we require that music education research papers be published in English? This concept has made me think about language and communication in a completely different way, including in my classroom. How can I get concepts across to my many students who are just learning English? I also realized how fortunate I am to teach music, often described as a “universal language.” I was able to share these reflections and a general overview of my trip with colleagues at our district in-service in August. Experiencing other cultures makes us more complete beings, allowing us to become more empathetic, aware of, and involved our world. Being a teacher allows me to share these experiences with impressionable young people in hopes that they, too, wish to become worldly knowledge and experience seekers. 

This conference offered information and scholarly commentary a massively wide variety of topics in music education. I have been quite interested in the effect of music brain growth and development. I attended a keynote address devoted to health and wellness of musicians, not solely relying on medicines but brain structure and processes–natural processes to being well while performing.

Dr. Eckart Altenmüller is both a medical doctor and a classically trained flutist who directs the Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine at the Hannover University of Music and Drama in Germany. His research is built upon helping suffering musicians play their instruments as naturally as possible, regaining performance ability and confidence. Dr. Altenmüller’s presentation encapsulated his work in music and medicine, focusing on particular neurological disorders that can be devastating to musicians. I took some of his more specific information about body posture back to my classroom. Health and wellness is a large portion of the instrumental music curriculum. I want my students to be able to play without straining or hurting themselves, as is prone for string players, so Dr. Altenmüller’s presentation was applicable for my classroom.

Another talk I attended presented the idea of Charles Darwin as an ethnomusicologist. We tend to think of him solely in terms of evolution theory, but he was documenting cultural practices the world over. Dr. Nicholas Bannan, PhD, gave many examples of how Darwin documented sonic phenomena and music of other cultures. After discussing Darwin’s travels, Dr. Bannan went on to discuss the process Progressivism, or how European music became “standard” and “superior,” versus Universalism, which holds that cultural musics rise out of language, and that human song is the bridge between animal sounds and speech. Ultimately, Dr. Bannon asks an incredibly relevant question I take back to my classroom: How do you share and create a holistic musical experience? If I have my students perform music from another culture, is that truly an authentic experience?

Tying together the themes of authentic cultural experiences and song/speech music making, I also attended a session given by Brazilian music teacher educator Maura Penna. She began her presentation giving a quick overview of music education in Brazil; she related that most music study focuses on 20th and 21st century European classical music. Looking to bring more native authentic experiences to her students (and their future students), she designed a really neat activity. Students are given a poem, in this case, a Brazilian poem about a train. Students are then to create sounds with bodies to narrate the poem. The final product is a performance, the poem is recited along with the body percussion/sounds to help narrate the story. While this particular activity is aimed more at elementary-age students, it gave me great insight into current practices in Brazilian music classrooms.

Brazilian Music and Cultural Experiences

The first night of the conference featured an amazing opening ceremony concert. Traditional Brazilian musics, musical instruments, and cultural phenomena of import were featured in this special presentation. Folk instruments seemed to be most common, guitars, accordions, and simple percussion instruments such as tambourines and drums, however, a modern jazz trio (saxophone, electric bass, and drum set) also served as a back-up ensemble.

Famous Brazilian singers and instrumentalists were featured along with children’s choirs, a scholastic string orchestra, and a recorder (simple woodwind instrument) ensemble. One of the central themes of the opening ceremony was music throughout childhood. The puppeteering company featured “Mandinho,” a Brazilian puppet character, whose name means “little child” in South Brazil. Mandinho was a central figure throughout much of the beginning of the presentation, following a story from birth through late childhood. The accompanying musical selections depicted a range of childhood activity, from a lullaby in infancy to childhood play and dance songs. The group performed traditional Brazilian music and recently composed, showcasing Brazil’s rich musical history as well as forward artistic progress. While the musicians performed, puppeteers and dancers also performed interesting routines. I had no idea that chickens and puppets (marionettes, hand puppets, and oversized stick puppets) were so important to Brazilian culture! (Editorial note: I wound up taking many more videos than I did still shots of music performances, better to share with my students upon my return to school.)

The music presented during the conference was a celebration from all over the world. A collegiate women’s choir from the US presented a concert, but I also heard a xylophone ensemble (which would hail back to African musical roots), guitars, and native vocal groups. It was an incredible opportunity to hear and learn about diverse music from all corners of the globe.


I am so very grateful for this experience. The conference was amazing, a professional development and networking experience unlike any other I have experienced thus far. The breadth and depth of research and its applicability and relevance to my classroom would not have been available anywhere except at this international conference. My students are mesmerized when I talk about my travel experiences, and Brazil has been no less. I was inspired to select a piece for my orchestra that features samba, a Brazilian rhythm/dance/music style, bringing my experience further into my classroom. I was able to share these reflections and a general overview of my trip with colleagues at our district inservice in August, as well as with my colleagues at school. I am thankful for the people I met, the acquaintances I made, and new lifelong friends found. I realized that a key similarity among people of any culture is that we have an innate curiosity about each other, and the best way for us to satiate that curiosity is explore it firsthand.

2014-2015 Council Scholar: Molly Rowland (South Mecklenburg High School)

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.

Madrid, Spain          

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.

Lisbon, Portugal

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.

Culture Shock

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.

Thank you!

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.