by Jim Boyle
One of B.J. Brent’s first jobs out of college was that of a bilingual salesperson.
It was a good job. Knowing two languages made it easier (and more lucrative) to work on commission than it was for his office counterparts. Being the company’s first bilingual salesperson means he can even lay claim to translating the first office manual. (There are now dozens of bilingual salespersons at this company.)
But nothing could change the fact that this job meant working in a cubicle.
“I was not cut out for that,” said Brent, who had already been a high school foreign exchange student in Mexico, a college student in Guatemala City and someone who after college backpacked through Central America down to Ecuador.
That job was not going to contain his zeal for life. Nor was it going to quench his thirst for knowledge and understanding of people and cultures, let alone his desire for travel.
Brent decided it was time to pursue his dream of being a teacher. He had already nailed down degrees in Spanish and American racial and multicultural studies. He turned his attentions to earning teaching degrees in Spanish education and social studies.
He landed what has become his dream job in 2006 at Rogers High School. He teaches Spanish and has added an every-other-year opportunity for his students to travel to Costa Rica.
It’s something other teachers across the Elk River Area School District are doing. Three of them, with their students who went on these trips in tow, explained their experiences at a recent meeting of the Elk River Area School Board.
Educators say there’s no better way to bring subject matter to life than to travel. And not just for foreign language courses.
Brent brought biology students along on his second trip to Costa Rica. The lush landscape with rapids, waterfalls and rainforests was rich with wildlife and a treasure trove of plant material.
Anne Webskowski, an Elk River High School Chinese teacher, joined forces with social studies teachers Troy McGowan and LeRoyce Chapman as well as educator Michelle Weber.
“There’s more to learn than just a language,” Brent says. “There’s the culture, the geography, science …”
Laura Crepeau, a social studies student who was one of 23 students to travel with Webskowski and McGowan to China, couldn’t agree more. She’s now in an AP economics class that has come to life for her after an 11-day tour.
“There’s so many things that are relatable,” she said.
Twyla Sha, a German and French teacher at Rogers High School, has known this for years. She takes a crew every other year to Germany, and on the off years she takes a group to France and Italy.
She says students are always so delighted to see things are just as they are portrayed in the textbooks. “But they don’t believe it until they see it,” she said.
Sha now knows the trips can be life-changing. One of her students teaches English in France.
“The trips are inspiring,” she adds.
They’re also practical in today’s global economy. Evan Caldon plans someday to help his father run a business that has offices in America and China from which parts for printers and copiers are sold. The high school junior in his third year of Chinese.
“It’s important for me to learn the language,” he said.
And now it’s exciting, too.
“I loved it in China — how different it was,” Caldon said. “I loved going off and exploring, too.”
Webskowski, Sha and Brent all agree.
“It’s easy to get stuck in Elk River,” Webskowski said. “There is a bigger world out there.”
Word of Brent’s trip to Costa Rica has spread fast. He had an informational meeting recently and 50 students showed up, along with some parents.
“It’s good to learn from our worldly neighbors,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but the students come away with so much. They’re inspired. Prejudices are reduced.
“They develop a global perspective and incredible insight on how much we take everything for granted here.”