A perfect place to learn


Last week, I experienced the ideal learning environment.

For five days, I learned Spanish at an adult immersion program in Samara Beach, Costa Rica. The fresh air, the warm sun, the sound of the ocean, the small classes (just six students with an instructor), and the motivated students were all big factors — and ones we (sadly) cannot realistically replicate in our public high schools.

But there was much to this experience that we can replicate, and I’m going to try.

#1 – We didn’t talk about the growth mindset, but we lived it. I wish I could honestly report how many mistakes I made trying to speak Spanish, but I’m sure I didn’t even notice most of them. Confusing ser y estar, using preterite when I should have used imperfect, mixing up por y para — that was just the beginning. When we checked homework assignments, I discovered dozens of written errors, too. But somehow it was all OK. We just kept at it, kept practicing, kept getting better. I never felt dumb, embarrassed or slow. The profesora would smile, gently correct me, and keep going.

#2 – We had fun. I remember high school Spanish being fun, too, which is probably why I worked so hard at it. One day last week, we shared stories about our childhood best friends. (Mi amiga mejor era Annamarie.) Another day, we talked about learning to drive. We discussed favorite foods, favorite games, where we liked to go on vacation, what we did for fun on the weekends. It was often hard to come up with vocabulary words, but the stories were funny, and I got to know my classmates — four suizos (Swiss people) and one Brit — and my profesora very well in a short time.

#3 – We had no stress. This was partly thanks to Samara Beach, which is located in one of the world’s “blue zones” — places where people live extremely long and healthy lives. In that area, everyone talks about the “pura vida,” which basically means living the good life. You eat fresh fruit and fish, enjoy the animals (monkeys, sloths and exotic birds), breathe fresh air, spend time with your family and don’t get worked up about tests or GPAs or college admissions or anything, except maybe the Costa Rica v. Mexico futbol game on Friday night. But it was also due to the structure of the class. We ended with a test on Friday, but it was so little emphasized that I didn’t even know it was coming!

#4 – La profesora took her time. Although she explained our learning objectives every day and tried to keep to the schedule, she was always willing to spend extra time on an idea or concept we found difficult. When it was clear we weren’t getting preterite v. imperfect, she came up with a new game for us to play — we had to compose stories using an assortment of vocabulary cards. I never felt like we had to push on to the next thing.

I know I won’t be able to perfectly replicate even these four aspects of the perfect learning experience, but my goal for the rest of this semester is to help my students slow down, de-stress, relax about mistakes and enjoy what we’re doing.

Learning should be challenging, but it doesn’t have to feel like a rat race. Everybody should have the chance to learn, at least once, in an environment like Samara Beach.