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FHS students get ‘authentic language experience’ during trip

March 27, 2013

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A group of 10 Ferndale High School students traveled to Spain with their Spanish teacher from Feb. 14-23. Standing in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid, from left are sophomore Asia Turner, sophomore Isabel Edwards, freshman Krystal Rivas, freshman Maddie Parks, senior Gabii Paul, junior David Paul, junior Shelby Simpson, junior Haley Jackson and sophomore Joey Pettey, with sophomore Lily Arnett in the center, stand in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid.

FERNDALE — When Julia LoPiccolo brings some of her best Spanish students on a trip to Spain, she makes sure that they are not sheltered from the rich new world of culture that surrounds them.

“I don’t want these kids to travel all the way to Spain just to have a tourist experience — I want them all to have an authentic language experience,” said LoPiccolo, who has run Ferndale High School’s Spanish travel program for the last 11 years. “Once we’re over there, I don’t coddle my students; I make them do things for themselves. I make sure that they’re forced to actually use their Spanish skills and learn about the people and the culture.”

From Feb. 14-23, a group of 10 FHS students traveled with LoPiccolo to Spain and were fully immersed in a world very different from the one they know at home. The students, who are all in Spanish 3 or higher and in good academic standing, made the journey along with 2004 FHS graduate Janelle Wolak, who was part of the very first FHS trip to Spain back in 2003. In order to make their excursion possible, the travelers spent about a year holding fundraisers and also participated in six after-school study sessions to prepare.

LoPiccolo and her students spent their first few days in Spain exploring the city of Madrid, where they visited the Royal Palace and the Reina Sofia Modern Art Museum and enjoyed a traditional tapas dinner. They later traveled to El Escorial, a monastery in San Lorenzo where the royalty of the Spanish crown are buried. They then made their way to Segovia to see El Alcazar, an ancient castle, as well as the 2,000-year-old Roman Aqueduct.

All FHS students also spent six days of their trip living with host families in Sesena, located near Toledo, where they attended school and enjoyed more sightseeing.

According to LoPiccolo, “That’s always the most interesting part of the trip. When I dropped the kids off with their host families, some of them were a little hesitant to go at first. But when they came back six days later, they didn’t want to leave; I had to practically drag them back onto the bus.”

This was certainly the case with FHS junior Shelby Simpson, who was traveling outside the U.S. for the first time. She was taken aback by how quickly she grew close with her host family.

“They were just really patient, welcoming and comforting for me,” Simpson said. “They immediately took me in as part of their family and treated me like I was one of their own children. Their daughter spoke pretty good English, and I would try to speak a little bit of Spanish with her, so we could communicate pretty well. … She was crying on my last day there, which was really mind-blowing to me. These people were complete strangers to me only five days earlier, and now suddenly they felt like family.”

For FHS sophomore Lily Arnett, it took a little bit longer to warm up to her host family. But once she did, an enduring bond was formed, particularly with host daughter Andrea.

“It was really fun staying with my host family, but it was kind of a culture shock at first,” Arnett explained. “My first couple days were a little tough because I was living in this new house with people who I didn’t know. But the entire family really opened up to each other on my final night there. Before that, we were still kind of like strangers to each other, but then I feel like we were really able to connect.”

When comparing the overall lifestyle to those in the U.S., both students remarked that the biggest difference was how much — and how late — their Spanish families ate, as well as how late they would stay up each night. As is customary in Spain, Simpson’s family would eat a large late lunch, then eat an even bigger meal for dinner around 9 p.m., followed by dessert. Arnett’s family followed a similar pattern, but they often would not sit down for dinner until around 11:30 p.m., so they never went to sleep before midnight.

But as LoPiccolo pointed out, introducing students to new customs and experiences and ways of living is a huge part of what the trip to Spain is all about. She noted that, in the past, many students who made the trip returned home feeling more excited to learn about the language and culture than ever before, and many were inspired to stick with Spanish all the way through college.

“My No. 1 goal is to give these kids a deeper world perspective,” LoPiccolo said. “There’s an entire world out there outside of the U.S. and Michigan and Ferndale that’s not strange or weird — just different from what they’re used to. I want them to have a greater appreciation of that and let them know that they have a lot of different options in their life.”

In addition to the time spent with their host families, Simpson and Arnett were excited to get a chance to see some of the most beautiful sights that Spain had to offer. Simpson was really taken with the old architecture, especially the numerous ancient churches and cathedrals. Meanwhile, Arnett, who plays on the FHS varsity soccer team, was particularly impressed with the Real Madrid soccer stadium and relished the opportunity to tour the facility.

Could this trip have been the start of a lifelong relationship with their new favorite travel destination? Simpson thinks so.

“All of us who went on the trip want to go back to Spain again this summer as a group,” she said. “Or we might see if we can have our host families come visit us here, since we’re still communicating with them on a regular basis.”

The only thing standing in their way could be the cost of making the trip overseas again. As Arnett put it, “We all really want to go back to Spain together over the summer, but that’s going to be really expensive to do. I guess we’ll see.”

Regardless, all 10 students are grateful that they were able to make the trip in the first place and get a taste of life in a different part of the globe. But as LoPiccolo explained, their journey to Spain was not just a vacation; it’s no coincidence that she chose a destination far north of the Equator during the middle of winter.

“I purposely don’t bring them anywhere with a warm, tropical climate,” she said with a laugh. “I try really hard to pick a trip that’s going to be educational and not turn into spring break.”

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