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Mischievous Monkeys Aside, Costa Rica Trip Enriches Students’ Spanish Skills

Rockford Immersion Program Offers Firsthand Cultural Experience

A monkey stole Evan Hoyle’s juice box and leafcutter ants bit Melanie McBain’s feet. Other than that, Costa Rica was wonderful.

So say the North Rockford Middle School students, who along with 20 others spent 11 days in the Central American country peering into volcanoes, exploring rainforests and soaking up the Latin culture. Most importantly, they sharpened their speaking and comprehension skills as part of Rockford’s Spanish Immersion program, which steeps students in the language beginning in kindergarten.

A white-faced monkey finishes off a juice box stolen from student Evan Hoyle
A white-faced monkey finishes off a juice box stolen from student Evan Hoyle

In meeting everyone from Costa Rican students to pro soccer players, and speaking Espanol most of the time, the Rockford contingent learned all about pura vida – a popular greeting literally meaning “pure life,” but which culturally equates to “everything’s cool.”

“We learned in depth what it was like to be in a country where Spanish is the first language,” said Samantha Zebell, an eighth-grader. “It helps you understand more about the culture and how different it is.”

The trip in mid-June was the second expedition for Rockford Spanish Immersion students, in what is planned as an every other year experience. For students who have been learning core academic subjects in Spanish, it’s a skill- and confidence-builder, said teacher Clare Adamus.

“The language opens doors for them with their worldly peers, and lets them experience things that would be impossible without Spanish,” said Adamus, who teaches sixth and seventh grades. “It is empowering for them and also helps them realize and appreciate their ability.”

Lush Jungles and Fascinating Creatures   

Adamus accompanied the students along with middle school Principal Lissa Weidenfeller and four parents. Students raised close to $6,000 to help families pay for the trip. No district funds were spent.

Arranged by EF Educational Tours, the trip took students from the capital of San Jose to a broad swath of Costa Rica’s abundant environmental wonders. Those included the Poas volcano with its mile-wide crater; the 230-foot La Fortuna rainforest waterfall; a “cloud forest” saturated with cool mist; and the spectacular Manuel Antonio National Park, with its lush jungle and dazzling Pacific coastline.

The teeming wildlife made a lasting impression. Andrew Masternak especially liked the iguanas. “They’re kind of like squirrels down there,” the eighth-grader said, recalling a restaurant where more than a dozen hung out in nearby trees.

Standing on a bridge above a river, students gawked in amazement at some three dozen crocodiles basking in the heat.

Then there were the monkeys. When seventh-grader Evan Hoyle went into the Pacific for a dip, he mistakenly left his food out in the open. When he came back, he said, “Apparently the monkeys stole my lunch.” One monkey guzzled down his juice box, then chucked it at the students when he was finished.

Melanie McBain’s issue was with leafcutter ants, sturdy creatures who saw through leaves and carry them on their backs in small armies. “If you stepped on the trail, they would climb on your feet and bite you,” said the seventh-grader, who found that out the hard way.

But Samantha Zebell thoroughly enjoyed the hermit crabs that congregated along the coast, scooping them out with her hands from underneath logs. “They were just so fun to play with,” she said.

Crocodile watch: Students observe 39 kiddo crocs from a safe distance
Crocodile watch: Students observe 39 kiddo crocs from a safe distance

Learning Spanish on the Spot  

Other natural wonders – the gigantic trees and ferns, two-toed sloths and poison-dart frogs – were worthy of “Jurassic Park,” fictionally set in Costa Rica. Torrential rains descended during the students’ stay, hurtling trees like torpedoes down rivers and covering roads with landslides.

That gave the group firsthand knowledge of derrumbe, the Spanish word for landslide, and many other words. It’s one thing to learn social studies in Spanish up in Rockford, quite another to joke around with the Costa Rican national soccer team staying at their hotel. They also visited a coffee plantation and a two-room school of K-8 students.

“We got to communicate with actual Spanish speakers,” Evan said. “My accent has improved, and my vocabulary.”

“We could understand them better in Spanish, because they did not speak English well at all,” Melanie McBain added.

Adamus reminded their tour guide to always speak to them in Spanish, and said he was “blown away” by their level of fluency.  When a zip-line operator tried to give them instructions in English for taking the 1,590-meter ride, she insisted he do so in Spanish. They all understood perfectly, she said.

However, Andrew Masternak had the misfortune of zipping the line next to Adamus, who exhibited her screaming skills. “I lost hearing in one ear,” he quipped.


Rockford Spanish Immersion

EF Educational Tours

Pura Vida

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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