Shifting and Building Perspective While Learning a New Language with Maria Antoine in High School Spanish

Holly Caldwell
Peer into this Upper School classroom and you’ll hear swirling discussions on the persistence of racial and socioeconomic segregation in American schools; or a comparative analysis of the 2008 economic crisis and what that might mean for young working generations in a post-COVID-19 reality.

While such academically rigorous themes are traditionally examined in courses including U.S. History, Macroeconomics, or Civics, you may be surprised to learn that they are just a smattering of topics covered in a typical day in “Profe” Maria Antoine’s high school Spanish classes. Here you will not find learning exercises that characterized world language learning of previous generations—an endless stream of verb conjugations that lacked meaningful context, bilingual vocabulary sheets and dictation exercises for the sake of rote memorization, or contrived dialogues designed to “improve” conversational abilities.

Learning Language through Meaningful Immersion
On the contrary, students at Shipley learn world language through an immersive experience. By using scaffolding techniques coupled with authentic materials in the target language, Profe Antoine helps students build their foundation of vocabulary and knowledge on a variety of topics. They then put their skills to practical use in a real-world immersive experience through opportunities like the pen pal program they have with a school in Spain. As students study practical vocabulary and grammar, they are then encouraged to communicate with teenagers halfway across the world to discuss meaningful topics in the target language. Such platforms will no doubt serve to chip away at the cliché that has plagued US schools for decades: “I took four years of Spanish and can’t string a single sentence together.” 

Developing Empathy & Fluency
Through live video chats and emails, Shipley students communicate with their pen pals in groups of varying sizes that allow for individualized levels of comfort. Topics examined this year include the ways in which our education system differs from the more equitable and publicly state-funded model in Spain, as well as the stark difference in earning potential between working men and women. These conversations were particularly eye-opening for some students, Profe Antoine noted, as many had not realized that working mothers in Spain essentially “work for free for several months” as compared to their male counterparts. It provided some food for thought as they think about their future careers and no doubt instilled in them a new level of empathy for others, a core goal of developing collective well-being.

Global Citizenship and a Growth Mindset
Such valuable teaching methods also build upon one of Shipley’s central models of providing rigorous academic training grounded in critical thinking. In so doing, they encourage students to formulate data-driven opinions, broaden their horizons, and develop different perspectives—elements that are all essential to becoming responsible global citizens. How, you may ask, is it possible for new language learners to engage in such fruitful conversations with native speakers? Providing a safe environment where students know their mistakes are welcome is key. As Señora Antoine aptly remarked, “Shipley’s World Language Department truly has a growth mindset when it comes to learning another language. We shift the perspective on making mistakes. I tell students, mistakes reflect what is yet to be learned, not of what we do not know.”


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.