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Spanish trip with a twist  ImmigrantR-@afsc.org
 Apr 26, 2007 18:46 PDT 

Spanish trip with a twist
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
The Montclair Times

Monica Lavosky's Spanish Club students from Montclair High School just got back from a Spanish trip. In the town they visited, they met and conversed with native speakers in Spanish, shopped in local stores, and tasted local foods.

Lavosky had assigned a scavenger hunt that had the teenagers scouring a Latin American market for ingredients to make a dinner recipe, asking for directions in Spanish from a local store owner, and capturing key information from Spanish-language newspapers, postcards, billboards and store signs.

To complete the scavenger hunt, they had to find a music store and learn the name of the number one song ("La Llave de Mi Corazón") and the artist who sings it (Juan Luis Guerra). They topped off the day with a meal featuring yucca and other novelties that many of the students had never even seen, much less tasted.

All in all, it was a complete cultural and linguistic immersion for the Montclair students.

The catch?

They never left New Jersey.

On March 29, Lavosky's students took a 20-minute bus ride from Montclair to Union City, taking advantage of the rich linguistic and cultural resources of this predominantly Latino community in Northern New Jersey. This Montclair Spanish professor knows that effective language learning cannot just take place with books and classrooms.

"I wanted to give my students an opportunity to interact with native speakers, and to use the language they've learned in class in a real life setting," she said. By taking her students outside of the classroom and into the community, Lavosky made the language real for her students. And they loved it.

"The best part for the students is that the native speakers understood them, and were friendly and very receptive to them. They were really able to communicate," Lavosky said. "And they were amazed to find a place so close to their home where everyone spoke Spanish."

The first stop for the students was Mi Bandera supermarket, where each student had to find the ingredients to prepare a dinner recipe they had been assigned. Kelsey Shimamoto, 16, was impressed with the variety of different products that she would never see in a supermarket in Montclair. The assignment helped her language skills as well. "I learned a lot of Spanish just by reading the labels," she noted.

While in the market, Lavosky and her colleague, Marivel Marte - also a teacher at Montclair High School - interviewed several of the employees about their various positions. They learned, for example, that one worker's responsibilities included washing the linens for the butchers.

After the shopping expedition, the students enjoyed a buffet of Latin American specialties at the Mi Bandera restaurant, including rice, beans, plantains and chicken. For dessert, some of the students bought fresh sugar cane while others discovered the joys of freshly made churros.

Out on Bergenline Avenue, the students eagerly undertook what turned out to be their favorite part of the trip: the scavenger hunt, where they searched for birthday cards, music and magazines while interacting with storeowners and people on the street. Julia Berlin, 16, noticed that the stores were less fancy - and more affordable - than many stores in Montclair.

Heather Hoffman, 16, was happy to have an opportunity to use her Spanish in a real-life setting. "There's only so much you can learn in a classroom," she said. "This way, you really had to speak Spanish. It was a great opportunity. And I loved that people really wanted to speak to us in Spanish." Sofija Razgaitis, 16, agreed. "It was interesting to be in a place where everyone spoke Spanish, and we really needed to speak it."

Heather was also impressed with the sense of family and community she saw in Union City. "There were a lot of people out on the street and walking with their families. It was very welcoming."

The welcoming nature of the Union City residents helped Heather overcome her initial fears about not being able to speak perfectly. "I heard a song in the supermarket that I really liked, and I wanted to ask what it was, but at first I was worried about whether my grammar was correct." She soon found that her efforts were encouraged, and saw that it is much more important to communicate than to let worries about perfect grammar and pronunciation get in the way.

And what was the reaction of Union City residents to the visitors? "Well, one person asked why the kids weren't in school!" said Lavosky. "But everyone responded well to the students and welcomed their efforts to communicate in Spanish."

Union City's Latino legacy dates back to the early 1960s, when thousands of Cuban immigrants fleeing Castro's regime settled there. The Cuban presence in the city nicknamed "Havana on the Hudson" is still strong, but the Latino population has since expanded to include newcomers from all over Latin America, including the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Union City also happens to be Lavosky's hometown, and she enjoyed sharing her heritage with her students.

By helping her students make immediate and personal connections to Spanish in a town just minutes away from where they live, Lavosky proves that in this day and age, many foreign languages don't need to be taught as "foreign" any more. It's an approach with benefits that will extend far beyond the classroom, in the students' lives, in the communities they will visit, and in the interactions they will have with native speakers in this country and overseas.

(And chances are, as a result, Lavosky's students will never be quoted saying the line that makes language teachers worldwide cringe: "I took four years of (x) in high school, and I can't speak a word!")

A Montclair resident, Ruth Kunstadter is a Spanish teacher at Rand School who is on a leave of absence to create Spanish educational materials.
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