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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Fulbright recipient Leah McGinnis is 'Goldilocks' to her Spanish students

News and Information Article Photo
Fulbright recipient Leah McGinnis visits the Royal Palace in Madrid.
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Betty Vawter
Senior Editor, News & Information Services
A 2009 USI graduate is bringing the sounds of a native English speaker to the ears of first- and third-graders at a school in Spain.

Leah McGinnis, the recipient of an English Teaching Assistantship from the Fulbright Program, is spending the 2009-10 academic year at a school that serves children from age 3 through sixth grade in metropolitan Madrid.

"Basically, my job is to speak to the students in English so they can hear a native speaker as well as help the teacher with anything she needs during class," McGinnis said.

Students at the bilingual school have science, art, and English classes in English. Music, gym, Spanish, and math are taught in Spanish. In first-grade classes, McGinnis helps with all three subjects taught in English. In third grade, she works with students in science and English.

"One of the biggest challenges I have encountered is speaking to the students only in English," said McGinnis, who completed a double major in elementary education and Spanish. "Technically, the students are not supposed to know that I speak even a word of Spanish (much less that I'm bilingual). My third-graders are a little suspicious, because they have heard some of the teachers speaking to me in Spanish."

"My first graders still don't realize I speak Spanish even though I talk to them in Spanish all the time. There are times when I need them to understand me. Their English is still extremely elementary, so I have to speak to them in Spanish. I try to speak in Spanish only when absolutely necessary, but it happens quite frequently, especially when trying to resolve conflicts. When it is not imperative that they understand, I use an array of entertaining gestures and facial expressions."

McGinnis finds the atmosphere of the Spanish elementary school informal compared to schools in the United States.

"The teachers mostly dress in jeans and T-shirts. They usually pull into the school just before the bell rings and leave at the same time the students do," she said.

"The students address the teachers by their first names. Some of my first-grade students call me Ricitos de Oro (Goldilocks), which is perfectly acceptable. I call them Little Bear in return. Most mornings I get hugs from my students. If I am lucky, I get a couple of kisses as well, which is the way most Spaniards greet each other."

A self-described "morning person," McGinnis has had some difficulty adjusting to the "laid back and easy-going" daily schedule in Spain. Many people start work between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Stores may open as late as 11 a.m.

"The entire country shuts down around 2 p.m. for a lunch break and siesta. At 5 p.m., everything opens back up and stays open until around 11 p.m. Most people finish work at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., and no one eats supper before 9 p.m., when everyone eats a light meal, usually tapas if you go out to eat," she said.

The school day starts at 9:30 a.m. with two hours of classes before a 30-minute recess. Another hour of classes precedes a two-hour lunch break. About one-fourth of the students go home for lunch. Those who stay at school have an hour to eat a three-course meal and then an hour to play. Classes resume at 3 p.m. and school closes at 4:30 p.m.
A typical workweek for McGinnis runs from Monday to 1 p.m. on Thursday. She shares an apartment about a 10-minute walk from the school with two young women, one from Spain and one from Cuba.

"One of the things that I enjoy most about living in Madrid is the transportation," McGinnis said. "There is a subway system that connects most of the city including the suburbs. A train system connects Madrid with the surrounding cities, and a bus will take you almost everywhere."

She has traveled on weekends to other locations in Spain and plans to see other countries as well.

Among historic sights she has toured is El Escorial, a castle/monastery built by Philip II. She also has traveled to the city of Toledo. Not conquered by the Moors, it still has much of its original infrastructure.

"I also enjoyed visiting the town of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, which is the third most important pilgrimage site in the world after Jerusalem and Rome. The roads people take to get there are called St. James' Way. Hundreds of people walk to the town every year to see the cathedral and visit St James' tomb," she said.

McGinnis was born in Kenya and lived in Tanzania and Nigeria before moving to Costa Rica with her missionary parents when she was in fifth grade. She completed high school in Costa Rica before enrolling at USI. Having retired from mission work, her parents, Jeannie and Thad McGinnis, live and work now in Golden, Colorado.

The Fulbright's English Teaching Assistantship program places U.S. students in 43 countries. The teaching assistants help students in other countries improve their language abilities and increase their knowledge of the United States. At the same time, the teaching assistants enhance their language skills and knowledge of the host country.

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