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NRHS Spanish students travel to Guatemala and Belize

During their 10-day trip to Guatemala and Belize, NRHS students explored Tikal, an ancient Mayan city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On the afternoon of June 16, a group of NRHS Spanish students said "adios" to New Richmond and began a seven-and-a-half-hour journey to Guatemala.

Led by Spanish teachers Michele Haasch and Heidi Stephens, the 18-person group boarded two planes and a bus before setting foot on the cobblestone streets of Antigua, a small town about an hour from Guatemala City.

This is the second time in four years that Stephens and Haasch have led the trip, and Haasch said it becomes more and more beneficial as the United States gains racial and linguistic diversity.

"Foreign language helps students gain a broader perspective and appreciate diversity," Haasch said. "It provides them with the tools to communicate with the bigger world."

The 10-day trip began in Antigua, where students paired up and spent several days living with host families, taking advantage of the opportunity to interact with native Spanish-speakers and cultivate their language skills.

During their stay in Antigua, which Haasch said is one of the country's leading areas for Spanish education, the students spent a day at a makeshift school for all ages, playing with children and helping instructors with daily tasks.

"Most of the kids' parents are single moms who have to work all day," Haasch said. "There were so many kids out on the streets all day that some volunteers started a school for them."

Besides taking salsa-dancing lessons, bartering in the marketplace, and zip-lining in the rain forest, the group had the opportunity to climb Mount Pacaya, an active volcano just outside Antigua that had its last major eruption in May 2010.

"There was no lava flow when we were there, but there was a bunch of steam pockets," Haasch said. "The kids got to roast marshmallows over them."

The students continued their journey in the ancient city of Tikal, where they stayed in huts just outside of the site of the Mayan ruins. They got up at 4 a.m. to climb one of the temples and watch the sunrise, hearing the jungle come to life with the shrieks of monkeys and chirps of birds.

The students' experience in Tikal was enhanced by a unique opportunity secured by Jim Almendinger, a scientist at the Science Museum of Minnesota and the husband of NRHS English teacher Amy Almendinger. Because both Almendingers chaperoned the trip, Jim obtained permission for the group to receive an exclusive tour of the St. Paul museum's new Maya exhibit before it was open to the public.

Haasch said the exhibit helped prepare the students for what they would see in Guatemala and provided them with a solid educational base before the trip began.

"Now that we're back, we want the kids to go to the museum again with their parents," Haasch said. "They can share their own experience and knowledge with them now."

Although many of the group's excursions mirrored those of the Spanish department's first trip to Guatemala, Haasch and Stephens decided to add a four-day extension to Belize, where the group stayed on an island off the mainland and enjoyed a relaxing end to an otherwise eventful journey.

During a layover on the flight back to the United States, Haasch and Stephens asked the students about their favorite and least favorite parts of the trip. According to Haasch, there was little consensus among the group. Some kids liked staying with host families and some liked snorkeling in Belize, while others had a hard time living without electricity and running water.

"My favorite part was watching the kids use the language when they didn't know I was looking," Haasch said. "I got to see them try to take what they learned in class and use it in a real-life setting. Not many other content areas get the opportunity to see all of those reasons for teaching come together and gain relevance."

Although living in another culture can be intimidating, Haasch said she was proud of the way the students tackled the linguistic barrier.

"They wanted to speak Spanish, and they used it on their own accord," she said. "We didn't have to do much prodding, because they did it on their own."

Despite the increasing turmoil in Central America, Haasch said she wasn't at all concerned about the group's safety while she was in Guatemala. However, the students were required to take precautionary measures, like always traveling in groups of four. They also chose to fly to Tikal from Antigua to avoid driving at night.

"You have to travel smart," Haasch said with a shrug. "It's a Third World country, so the kids really gain an appreciation for what they have and how fortunate they are to live in this country."

Because New Richmond does not provide students with many opportunities to use their Spanish in an authentic situation, Haasch said traveling abroad is invaluable. Based on the 2010 census, New Richmond is 95.5 percent white, and although the largest racial minority is indeed Hispanics or Latinos, they comprise only 2.1 percent of the population.

Despite New Richmond's lack of racial and linguistic diversity, Haasch said the Hispanic presence in town will likely increase based on current immigration trends. Indeed, the United States Census Bureau predicts that non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the majority by 2043. For the first time since the nation's inception, an ethnic minority is set to become the most prevalent demographic group, foreshadowing a new dynamic for the country's race relations and presenting a unique challenge to the coming generations.

"There's a lot of stuff that we try to teach students in the classroom about culture and grammar," Haasch said. "But cultural competence is becoming incredibly important, and the kids really gain that skill when they travel abroad."

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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