Spanish III Honors students at Nobles participate in a unique exchange program that allows them to travel to Central America from the seats of their classroom. Once a week during the Guatemala unit, students engage in a virtual language exchange, participating in 10-15 minute conversations with a native speaker from Project Olas in Guatemala.

Project Olas’s mission is to create relationship-centered education by connecting language students with mothers who live in Zone 3 of Guatemala City, which is also home to Safe Passage, a partner of the Nobles EXCEL program. Facilitated by modern language faculty member Liz Benjamin-Alcayaga, the opportunity connects students to the people of the country they are studying as they learn more about the Spanish language and Guatemalan culture. Ms. Benjamin-Alcayaga first discovered Project Olas through her connection to Safe Passage, an EXCEL program partner, and is now in her third year of partnership with the program.

In the second semester, students in Spanish III Honors first learn about Guatemala by exploring topics such as technology and environment.. Each unit begins with vocabulary and grammar lessons based on a particular theme, allowing students to build on those skills as they become familiar with the topic. The first session with the Olas mother is a group seminar with the entire class, during which the students introduce themselves and the Olas mother shares information about everything from her occupation and interests to her community and her experience with Project Olas. Students prepare questions for the conversation on a range of topics from Guatemalan geography and culture to climate, traditions, food, and other interesting topics.

After the initial group meeting, students meet with the Olas mother once a week during class, both individually and in pairs. By the end of the unit, each student will meet with the Project Olas mother twice. Ms. Benjamin-Alcayaga explains that while weaving these sessions into the syllabus can be challenging since students cannot miss new material, careful planning for project-based work and review of previously introduced material during those class periods allows for the partnership to work within the pace of the curriculum.

“At first, students are slightly nervous and hesitant about holding and sustaining a conversation with a stranger,” says Ms. Benjamin-Alcayaga. “But I reassure them that this is a low-stakes opportunity to practice their Spanish in a real-life situation. There is no grade attached to it, no pressure to speak or understand perfectly; it is a space to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them while improving their interpersonal language skills and developing their cultural knowledge. After their meetings, students return to the classroom excited about having maintained a conversation, often remarking on our Olas moms’ genuine kindness and ability to connect with them on a personal level. Our Olas moms similarly enjoy connecting with our students and learning about their lives and interests. These women have told us that Project Olas has given them a space to feel empowered to share their own culture and experiences with people from around the world.”

In March 2024, 12 students will join Ms. Benjamin-Alcayaga on an EXCEL trip to Guatemala, where they will volunteer at Safe Passage, learn more about the program, and meet their partner from Project Olas. The trip will be the first time that EXCEL’s Guatemala trip has run since 2018.

Rory Taylor ’24, who took Spanish III Honors as a sophomore and will be attending the trip in March, shared the following reflection: “Working with the Project Olas organization has been my favorite project from all of my classes at Nobles. Not only did I have the opportunity to hone my conversational skills with a native speaker, but I also forged a meaningful relationship with a woman named Evelyn. Our Zoom meetings were filled with laughter and curiosity, often discussing our daily routines, interests, or the contemporary challenges faced by the people of Guatemala. Seño BA would often highlight to me how I would walk into the classroom after my meetings with Evelyn with a huge smile on my face. Our meetings brightened my days, and the feelings of accomplishment, growth, and connection after every meeting were immeasurable. This collaboration was instrumental in broadening my perspective while also learning much about Guatemalan culture. My interest in Guatemala stemmed from this experience, and I am fortunate to have the chance to explore the country further this spring through EXCEL, doing service in the very city where Evelyn lives.”

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