"Bienvenido a Madrid. Welcome to Madrid."
These were not words Father Peter O'Leary spoke as pastor of St. Monica Church in Barre but as captain of an Iberia Airline Boeing 737 that took students from St. Monica-St. Michael School on a virtual trip to Spain.
Culminating their study of Spanish language, art, geography and culture, students embarked on the April 14 trip in the hall outside the school conference room where older students screened bags and checked boarding passes before Principal Denise Maurice–the flight's uniformed co-pilot–greeted them as they entered the jet and sat in the school's 18 smallest chairs (this was coach travel) lined up in pairs in front of a screen that showed a simulated flight video.
Father O'Leary welcomed his passengers, and older students provided flight safety information and snacks for the 7-hour flight to Madrid that took them only about five minutes in school time.
Once the children debarked, had their handmade passports stamped and picked up their luggage (backpacks), they were escorted to the school gym where six stations representing places in Spain were set up for their learning and enjoyment: Plaza Mayor (city center with street entertainers portrayed by older students); Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao with modern and contemporary art recreated by students in art class; Parque Guell in Barcelona; The Cave at Altamira, with student-recreated prehistoric paintings and engravings; Beach at Malaga complete with sand and water tables and beach chairs and umbrellas; and El Toro Café with tapas-style Spanish cuisine like olives, Spanish omelets and Maria cookies served by older students.
Edda Concessi, the school's Spanish teacher, said the virtual trip was a cultural experience. "Learning a language is more than learning how to speak," she said. "It's also about understanding food, music and how people live their lives."
St. Monica-St. Michael School offers Spanish to all its pre-kindergarten through grade-seven students twice a week. "We teach Spanish here so it made sense to take a virtual trip to Spain," said grade-three teacher Amy Deutl who proposed the idea for the project.
She collaborated on the project with Concessi and art teacher Heather DeLeone.
"Moi. I know 'hola' and 'gracias,'" Deutl said with a laugh.
"I would love to take the whole school on a plane" to Spain, "but that is not possible," she said. So the simulated trip helped students become more knowledgeable about travel as well as about Spain.
During the "trip," older students took on the "helping" roles for the younger students, serving in such capacities as flight attendants, wait staff, airport security and street performers.
Autumn Lewis, a sixth grader, was a caricature artist. "I like doing this for the little kids to have a chance to have fun and experience Spain as if they were there. And it's fun," she said.
Seventh grader Phoebe Osadchey Brown was a waitress at the café. "We're learning more about Spain than we just would in class," she said. "It's fun, and we get to interact with the little kids and teach them about Spain."
Classes took turns embarking on the "trip" which took about an hour from beginning to end. (No return flight; some students pretended they were staying in a hotel.)
It was indeed a major experience of pretending. "When you're pretending, you're learning in a different way," Maurice said. "It becomes experiential."
Most students have never been on a plane or out of the country.
So in addition to learning about Spain, the students gained important experience in what travel involves from securing a passport, to having baggage screened, to riding on a jet. (A large fan was turned on in the back of the room when children were "flying" to simulate the noise.)
"Travel enriches your life," Concessi said.
"Learning to navigate through the systems we use to travel is an important skill," Maurice added.
First grader Ava Strassberger called the virtual trip to Spain "pretty cool." She especially liked the beach experience.
Liz Bevins, the mother of three St. Monica-St. Michael students, participated in one of the flights and tours. "It's a great experience for a lot of kids who don't travel," she said. "If they haven't traveled, it's beneficial to have a frame of reference" for what it entails, she said.
Article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer.