Learning more than language

by Jim Boyle

One of B.J. Brent’s first jobs out of college was that of a bilingual salesperson.

Following an uphill hike, Sarah Kornovich, Erin Trisko, Amber Paul, Colleen Reeves and Kendra Burr of Rogers High School pause at the rim of a crater on the Poás volcano in central Costa Rica. An increasing number of students are bolstering their educational experience with such trips.

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.

A white-faced monkey, one of the three species of monkeys seen on the trip, just off a beach on the Caribbean.

“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.

Some jubilant girls from the group on the Pacific coast in the town of Jacó were Ele Nies, Syndey Moyer, Austin Yantes, Erin Trisko, Amber Paul and Chelsea Strak. Others on the tour them were Ben Burney, Caleb Fitzsimmonds, Chase Cleveland, Austin Lampson, Kendra Burr, Sarah Kornovich, Sydney Stangeland, Tanner Hoover, Corey Jensen, Rocky Marchetti, Alyssa Meyerdirk and Colleen Reeves.

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.

Adventurers navigate a stretch of rapids in the Sarapiquí River during a trip to Costa Rica.
A river guide awes the group while feeding chicken to a wild crocodile.
Back row: TJ Scott, Joleen Baker, Samantha Von Bank and Lucas Joseph. Middle row: Courtney McClay, Courtney Steeves, Nicole Miller, Twyla Sha, Kayli Basel, Crystal Soderberg, Lacy Larson, Haley Von Bank, Stephanie Dodd, Ashley Bartlett and Taylor Lemcke. Seated: Abigail Gellrich and Cristina Rousselet.

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.

Laura Crepeau reported the Shanghai skyline rivals the New York City skyline.

“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.

A member of the undefeated state champion Royals soccer team from 2010, Amber Paul, plays soccer with some students from an elementary in the rainforest region of Sarapiquí. Colleen Reeves, a former teammate of Paul’s also made the trip and played soccer with the kids in Costa Rica. Both play D-1 soccer now.

“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.

Students were amazed to watch Chinese citizens celebrate 90 years of communism in front of “The Forbidden City.”

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.

Among the students on the trip to China were Aaron Hannan, Renee Crepeau, Anna Ryan, Sonja Richardson, Victoria Mattson, Aric MacDonald, Brooke Underdahl, Caleb Beaty, Maxwell Borg, Evan Caldon, Kara Budreau, Katelyn Osberg, Laura Crepeau, Rachel Cawthra, Samantha Phillips and Sam Goerke

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.

Elk River students on the street talking with some Chinese students.

“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.”


An unforgettable view of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower.
T.J. Scott said he loved visiting the Colosseum in Rome and seeing the old roads that are still there.
The rocks off of the coast of the island of Capri, in Italy. One student reported in amazement “that we travelled through the hole on a boat.”
“I can’t believe I’m standing here,” remarked one student.
Bamboo boat rides in the Li River in Guilin.