East Grand Rapids — Lifelong learning is a trait that Spanish teacher Meredith Bonner hopes to instill in her students. But she doesn’t just teach it; she models it.

Thanks to a scholarship from East Grand Rapids Schools FoundationBonner spent part of July in and around Madrid, Spain, working to strengthen his fluency in Spanish and conversation skills.

“I am a non-native Spanish speaker; I learned Spanish going through East Grand Rapids’ K at 12e school curriculum and then go to college,” said Bonner, who teaches Spanish at the middle and high schools she attended. “And just like our students, my use of Spanish can sometimes take a break during the summer, as I don’t teach every day.

Bonner is pictured with her Spanish teacher, Rocio (courtesy)

“It’s so important to me to hold myself accountable to keep using the language and making progress in the language, because even though I’m fluent, there’s always more to learn. And the best way to do that is to immerse yourself in the language.

In Madrid, Bonner takes conversation classes Luis Vives Spanish School. For two hours each day, she met a one-on-one teacher and conversed in Spanish, correcting grammar when necessary and learning new vocabulary through 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 visited the same variegateia (bakery), order a pastry and coffee with leche (coffee with milk) and lingers over his breakfast listening to people order food in Spanish. In the evening, she sought out an authentic paella dinner or discovered new Spanish tapas while acclimating to the local culture of afternoon siestas and late-night dinners.

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

“Madrid was an amazing experience because people weren’t using English on the streets or when I walked into shops – it was just this total immersion, at the grocery store, in a restaurant or just sitting on a bench watching and listening to people,” she said. “I know I’ve grown so much from this, and conversation skills are even more important when I teach at higher levels.”

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

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

Results in better teaching

His situation is not unique; Bonner said; for geographic reasons, many Michigan Spanish students grow up with greater exposure to both Latin American Spanish and its culture. She said she was especially looking forward to leading her sixth-grade unit in Spain this year because of her experiences over the summer.

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

“I think it’s very good for my students to see firsthand what can happen with this scholarship. A lot of times they don’t think their teachers are continuing to be students, so I think that opens up a really good conversation about how much I still have to learn and how even though I know the language, I still need to hold myself accountable.

– Meredith Bonner, middle and high school Spanish teacher

With the help of his teacher in Spain, Bonner hopes to establish a correspondence/email relationship between his students and Spanish students their age in Madrid. She would also like to invite some of her connections from the Luis Vives school to talk to EGR students remotely via Zoom.

“I think it’s great for my students to see firsthand what can happen with this scholarship,” Bonner said. “They often don’t think their teachers are continuing to be students, so I think that opens up a really good conversation about how much I still have to learn and that although I know the language, I still need to hold myself accountable.

“At the end of my stay in Spain, I felt really confident in my abilities and excited to return to class. Especially when I share with students the practical application of knowing a second language and the doors that open open for you when you can use that language.