Edgerton students expand Spanish education with Costa Rica trip

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Jim Dayton
Saturday, September 16, 2017

EDGERTON—School is back in session in Edgerton, and students in Marnie Weis' Spanish class have returned to the rectangular classroom decorated with posters from Spanish-speaking countries.

It looks like any other high school classroom, and by all appearances it's a comfortable learning environment.

But Weis knows it's no match for being immersed in a native-speaking country.

This summer, 10 of her students spent two weeks living with host families in Costa Rica. They traded the familiarity of desks and whiteboards for mud-soaked soccer fields and remote, locals-only waterfalls.

It was the first year of a new Spanish exchange program with a school in Costa Rica. Eighteen Costa Rican students came to Wisconsin last winter, spending time walking the Edgerton High School hallways and touring Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago.

“We tried to give them a winter Wisconsin experience,” Weis said. “It's really cold for them.”

She previously worked in Monroe, where the school district had done foreign exchange programs for several years.

When Weis arrived in Edgerton, she wanted to start something similar.

She traveled to several Spanish-speaking countries. But she had a connection through her Monroe days that could facilitate a host family program, which was better than a more tourist-centric trip, Weis said.

“Tours are fun and good … but living with the family is a whole different experience,” she said.

“I wanted our kids to get that connection and that language practice because I could see on the tours they were using their English all the time. I wanted them to be able to use their Spanish.”

Alyssa Conklin-Sayre, an Edgerton senior this year, said getting to know her host family in Costa Rica was more authentic than staying in a hotel.

The students toured San Jose, the country's capital, when they arrived. It was a much different environment from the rural Osa Peninsula where they stayed, Conklin-Sayre said.

There, they played soccer in a downpour and walked miles down a shallow river to find a waterfall buried in the rainforest, she said.

That kind of adventure can't be replicated in a classroom.

“You can only get so much from sitting in a chair and hearing someone tell you about something,” Conklin-Sayre said.

“It's different to go out and actually experience it and learn from people who live what you would be listening to.”

Costa Ricans don't have extravagant lifestyles and work hard for the little money they earn. But they seem to be much happier and have a better work-life balance than Americans, Conklin-Sayre said.

Weis said immersion programs are the best way to become fluent in a foreign language.

Conklin-Sayre said there was an adjustment period, but she was thinking in Spanish by the end of the trip.

Weis is eager to see the program expand for the Edgerton and Costa Rican students involved.

She remembered the impact visiting a foreign country had on her years ago.

“Your life is rocked. Your life is forever changed,” she said. “Like, 'Oh my gosh. I need to start doing these things. I need to start going places, meeting new people.' I wanted to create that experience for my students.”

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