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Teacher as student: Sí, por favor

Schools Foundation funds trip

East Grand Rapids — Being a lifelong learner is a character trait that Spanish teacher Meredith Bonner hopes to instill in her students. But she’s not just teaching it; she’s modeling it. 

Thanks to a scholarship from the East Grand Rapids Schools Foundation, Bonner spent part of July in and around Madrid, Spain, working to strengthen her Spanish fluency and conversational skills. 

“I’m a non-native Spanish speaker; I learned Spanish by going through East Grand Rapids’ K through 12th grade program and then studying in college,” said Bonner, who teaches Spanish at the middle and high schools she once attended. “And just like our students, my use of Spanish can sometimes take a pause over the summer, because I’m not teaching every single day. 

Bonner, left, is pictured with her Spanish professor, Rocio

“It’s so important for me to hold myself accountable for continuing to use the language and grow in the language, because even though I’m fluent, there’s just always more to learn. And the best way to do that is to be immersed in the language.” 

In Madrid, Bonner took conversation classes through Luis Vives Spanish School. For two hours every day, she met one-on-one with a professor and conversed in Spanish, correcting grammar when necessary and learning new vocabulary thanks to the natural flow of conversation. 

She spent the rest of her time establishing a routine in the city and trying to use English as little as possible. Every morning, she’d visit the same panadería (bakery), order a pastry and café con leche (coffee with milk) and linger over her breakfast while listening to people order food in Spanish. In the evening, she’d seek out an authentic paella dinner or discover new Spanish tapas while acclimating to the local culture of afternoon siestas and dining late at night. 

She also took a private tour of the city entirely in Spanish, where she and her guide talked about everything from history to culture to his daily life in Spain. 

“Madrid was an amazing experience because people didn’t use English on the streets or when I walked into stores – it was just that full immersion, in the grocery store, at restaurants or just sitting on a bench watching and listening to people,” she said. “I know that I grew so much from that, and conversation skills are even more important when I’m teaching at the higher levels.” 

One of the reasons Bonner chose to study in Madrid was to increase her understanding of Castilian Spanish, the variety of that language spoken in most parts of Spain. In 2019 she had a professional development opportunity in Quito, Ecuador – also through the foundation’s William and Shirley VandenBerg Scholarship – and she did not want to limit her immersion experiences to one region or dialect.

“The accent changes depending on which country you’re in, the vocabulary changes, the expressions change – I wanted that exposure to Castilian Spanish so that I could understand the difference. And even a lot of the Spanish that I’ve used here in Michigan is with people from Central America or Latin America, so I don’t get as much practice (with Castilian dialects).”

Translates To Better Teaching

Her situation is not unique, Bonner said; for geographic reasons, many Spanish students in Michigan grow up with greater exposure to both Latin American Spanish and its culture. She said she’s particularly eager to lead her sixth-grade unit on Spain this year because of her experiences over the summer. 

“Sometimes, when we talk about food in Spain during the unit, (students) might start listing, like, tacos and burritos, and that’s not the food there at all – so I really enjoy teaching about the foods that are eaten, because that ties into the culture and food is always the way to students’ hearts. We’ll have a big unit on tapas and paella, and so I was studying the paella in Spain, researching how I can improve mine.” 

‘I think it’s very neat for my students to see directly what can happen because of that scholarship. They often don’t think about their teachers continuing to be students, so I think that opens up a really great conversation about how there’s still more for me to learn, and about how, even if I know the language really well, I still need to hold myself accountable.’

– Meredith Bonner, middle- and high-school Spanish teacher

With the help of her professor in Spain, Bonner hopes to set up a pen-pal/email relationship between her students and Spanish students their age in Madrid. She’d also like to invite some of her connections from Luis Vives School to speak to EGR students remotely via Zoom. 

“I think it’s very neat for my students to see directly what can happen because of that scholarship,” Bonner said. “They often don’t think about their teachers continuing to be students, so I think that opens up a really great conversation about how there’s still more for me to learn, and about how, even if I know the language really well, I still need to hold myself accountable. 

“At the end of my time in Spain, I felt really confident in my ability and excited to get back into the classroom. Especially when I’m sharing with students the real-world application of knowing a second language and the doors that are open for you when you can use that language.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter (covering Cedar Springs, Grandville, Lowell and Rockford), editor, copy editor and social media manager. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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