Cultural immersion

DALLAS -- Dallas High School Spanish teacher Kurt Woolner led a game of "papa caliente" in class Friday, asking questions in Spanish only.


Dallas High School Spanish teacher Kurt Woolner will spend a year in Mexico on a Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange.

DALLAS -- Dallas High School Spanish teacher Kurt Woolner led a game of "papa caliente" in class Friday, asking questions in Spanish only.

Next school year, if things go as he hopes, the game will be "hot potato" and he will use only English while teaching English classes in Mexico as one half of a Fulbright teacher exchange.

Photo by Pete Strong

Kurt Woolner leads a Spanish class in a game of "papa caliente" (hot potato) Friday at Dallas High School. The game mixes questions about a story with team competition.

The exchange will take Woolner and his family to Puebla, Mexico, for a year starting in August, while an English teacher from Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla (BUAP), a university in Puebla, will come to Dallas High to teach Spanish.

Woolner learned to speak Spanish in Spain while on a church mission trip two decades ago. He hasn't spent much time in Mexico. For that reason, Woolner and his family are more than looking forward to spending a year immersed in the language and culture.

"I'm excited about the opportunity to get to know Mexico," he said. "The majority of the Spanish-speaking students I know are from Mexico and so I think that will be a good thing for me as a teacher, to enhance my ability to be able to incorporate aspects of Mexican culture (into classes)."

The Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange, a program of the United States State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, matches teachers in the United States and five other countries for one-year exchanges.

In Woolner's case, he and his match, Marina Rodriguez Garcia, will trade jobs. He will teach English and she Spanish at each other's schools. This is the second time Woolner applied for an exchange. Seven years ago, he was headed for Peru, but backed out in favor of moving from Centennial High School in Gresham to Dallas.

Marina Rodriguez Garcia

This time only a few formalities stand between Woolner and spending a year in Mexico.

Woolner and Rodriguez Garcia have been communicating via Skype and will meet in-person in late July to prepare for their new schools and new teaching roles before heading to their destinations. Each will be assigned a mentor at their host school. Woolner will be accompanied by his wife, Kristi Woolner, and three of their four children: Tori, Emma and Dalton. Their oldest son, Riley, is on a church mission trip in Peru.

Woolner knows little about Puebla, located in south central Mexico, except that it is a large city -- about 2 million people -- and it's the birth place of Cinco de Mayo, which isn't as widely celebrated in Mexico as it is in the U.S. It is not Mexico's "independence day," but the celebration of the Battle of Puebla.

"We are looking forward to the food, the culture, the experience," Woolner said. "It's going to be great."

He is eager to try to make a difference in the classes he will be assigned to teach, as well.

About four years ago, Dallas' Spanish teachers began using a "storytelling" method of teaching Spanish. It mimics the way children learn their native language by first listening to it being spoken by a fluent speaker through telling stories.

Graphic by Pete Strong

Woolner's teacher exchange will take him to Puebla, the capitol of Puebla state and Mexico's fourth largest city.

"If we can make language comprehensible to the students and repetitive so that they hear it a lot, they will quite naturally get to a point where they know and understand the language," Woolner said. "And then they start learning to speak it."

Teachers test their students' understanding by asking them questions about the story.

Woolner said the method has been successful at Dallas, more so than the traditional method that has students memorizing vocabulary and verb conjugation before learning practical use of the language.

"With the traditional approach, they are going to learn about the language," he said. "With the storytelling approach, they are going to learn the language."

Woolner hopes to be able to translate the Spanish storytelling approach that was used in the papa caliente game Friday to English when teaching at BUAP.

Dallas High School Principal Steve Spencer said Woolner's unique ability will be missed next year, but the school also is expecting him to return with new ideas and expanded cultural knowledge.

"It will be a year away, but it's an investment in time we are willing to spend," Spencer said, adding the school will also benefit from the talent Rodriguez Garcia will offer.

"You don't replace a teacher the caliber of Kurt Woolner, but we are excited to have the experience and will welcome him back afterward," Spencer added.

Outside teaching, Woolner is eager to explore the region with his family, traveling and learning about its history. He and Kristi are still researching school options for their children, but want to put them in an environment where they can learn a different language and way of life. Both Kurt and Kristi spent time in foreign countries -- he in Spain and she in the Netherlands -- and want their children to have the same mind-opening experience.

"I think anytime that you push yourself or are pushed to step out of your comfort zone and do something you haven't done before, it's a great opportunity to grow and learn and become better," Woolner said.


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