There I am. This year’s Staff Homecoming Queen, elected by the students of Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley, CA where I have been a Spanish Teacher for past eight years, or should I say, since I graduated from the Teach and Learn in Spain Program of Alcala de Henares. Currently, I am the Department Chair of World Languages, a Reflective Coach (mentor) for new teachers in their first two years of teaching, a presenter for various site and district professional development workshops, and a seasoned Group Leader and Global Ambassador with EF Tours, where I take my students abroad every summer to either Spain or Costa Rica. I have taught all levels of Spanish, for both native and non-native speakers, I serve as an assessor for Riverside County’s Seal of Multiliteracy, and organize an annual ceremony at the end of each school year that recognizes the bilingual scholastic achievements of our students.
Why do I share all of this with you? I promise it’s not to bore you. I share these details about my life, and what I do, because so much of the experiences I had at the IUIEN (it was called that before it was renamed ‘Instituto Franklin-UAH’), in the Teach and Learn in Spain Program led me to do precisely the work that I am doing now, and I am grateful. Very grateful.
If I may, allow me to give you some history about that first year of this amazing program…
There were 40 of us in that first cohort of students to have graduated from the Teach and Learn in Spain Program, during the 2008-2009 academic school year. We were young people from all over the United States. I still remember getting an invite to join this relatively new thing called ‘Facebook’ by one of my classmates who was gathering us all in the same group so we could be in communication prior to our arrival in Alcala. Most of us had just graduated from college, possessed Bachelor degrees in a number of different disciplines, spoke varying levels of Spanish, and had, in one way or another, been lucky enough to have heard about this new opportunity.
In 2007 I was 22 years old, and I had just graduated from the University of California, Riverside. I remember sitting there, in the ceremony, next to my boyfriend (who is now my husband, Sergio!), and asking him, “Is this it?”. I did not feel like I was ready to enter the ‘regular’ workforce of typical, middle-class American society. I did not want to do the ‘9-5’ till you’re 65 years old…at least not at that time. It was then that I began searching for international opportunities, and it was then that I stumbled across the IUIEN (Instituto Universitario de Investigacion en Estudios Norteamericanos). Rosi Garcia-Barroso (love her!) responded to an email I had sent to her inquiring about the program, and she explained that it was a pilot (first time) program that the Universidad de Alcala was trying out. The idea was that the University would offer a scholarship (yep, that’s right folks…in our day, it was FREE, and we received a monthly living stipend!) for one to receive their Master’s degree in Spanish Literature and Culture (Master en literatura y cultura en el mundo hispanico —this was the only Masters being offered at the time), in exchange for agreeing to work 25 hours per week at a bilingual primary school as an auxiliar de conversacion and while attending Master’s classes twice a week in the evenings.
In August of 2008 Sergio and I arrive in Madrid, we look for a piso, and classes/work started the following month. Sergio was very fortunate to have found a job for an English school in Mostoles, while I went off to Alcala to start my classes and be assigned to an elementary school. This program of Teach and Learn in Spain was new not only to Alcala, but indeed, most of Spain had just started implementing bilingual education. In the primary school that I was assigned to, Villa de Mostoles, I was the very first auxiliar de conversacion that they had had. Getting things organized at first was quite challenging because neither I, nor the school, was really sure what my job would be exactly, and how I would dedicate my time. Eventually, we worked it out, and we loved our arrangement (in fact, we loved it so much, that the school hired me on as a regular full time teacher after I graduated from Teach and Learn in Spain Program, which allowed me to stay in Spain for a second year!).
I don’t know how the program works now, but in that year, most of us had the same deal. We’d work at our schools, which were spread all over the different zones of Madrid, everyday from 9am until the end of the school day, and then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we’d get out of ‘work’ early, so we could make it to our classes in the evenings. We were responsible for devising our activities and lessons with our students as ‘auxiliares’ in English, as well as for completing all required coursework and readings the professors assigned us in our Master’s classes. I won’t lie…since it was a pilot year, there were a number of times where things were miscommunicated, where payments and stipends were dispersed late, and there was even a time when we (the students) all signed a petition stating our complaints to the directors. Honestly though, I can tell you, I don’t even remember what those complaints were about, because now, in retrospect, all I can remember are the positive things I received and experienced, and still use today, from this program.
The experience I got from engaging elementary school children in a foreign language (English) is what solidified what my future path in life…to be a teacher. I enjoyed (almost) every minute I spent with those kids, and to this day, I remember many of their names and faces. Even the difficult moments taught me a lot about how the brain perceives language, how we learn in context, how culture cannot be separated from language, and how having fun and being goofy is what keeps students engaged and wanting to learn more. The silly games and songs that I used to play with my first-graders at Villa de Mostoles are much the same games and songs I use with my high school juniors here in my Spanish classes. In regards to my experience as a postgraduate student, the gruesome details, realities, and repercussions of the Spanish Civil war taught by Prof. Julio Cañero, to the appreciation and passion for architecture, art, and art history shared by Prof. Antonio Fernandez, to the careful attention that Prof. Angelica Giordano dedicated to distinguishing instruction between heritage learners of Spanish versus non-heritage learners, to the book (La sombra del viento) assigned to us by Prof. Marta Walliser that literally changed my life, and finally converted me, at 24 years of age, into an avid reader and lover of literature, are quite literally the pearls of knowledge that I carry with me everyday. If most of us are honest, when we think back to our teachers in our elementary, secondary, and even in our college years, perhaps only a few stand out as having taught us something that we still actually use today in our real lives. I will tell you that I feel so blessed to have stepped foot through those beautiful doors at the Trinitarios building of the Universidad de Alcala where I sat through the classes of these amazing instructors and learned things that I use often now in my own classes, with my own students. Tattered, and with faded pencil writing from 10 years ago, I still preserve the spiral notebook I took all my notes on in these classes, and it is something I preserve with great joy and reverence, from this learning that so few get to experience.
I was selected by the students at my school to be their Staff Homecoming Queen, and even though this title really means nothing, what it proves (I hope!) is that the students like me, that they enjoy my class, and that they’re learning something they consider of value. A large part of what goes on in my Spanish classes is rooted in the experiences that I had as an auxiliar de conversacion, and in the wisdom and perspective that I attained from my professors in the Master Teach and Learn in Spain Program. I still cannot believe its been 10 years since the 40 of us first arrived in Alcala to be apart of this pilot program, but it is quite impressive to see the incredible strides that the program has made, propelled by the passionate and truly one-of-a-kind people that staff the Instituto Franklin-UAH. With all sincerity, and humility, I say…
Adriana Vargas. Franklin Alumni Master Teach & Learn in Spain 2008-2009
Now she is working as a Spanish teacher at Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley, CA.