- Associated Press - Saturday, November 1, 2014

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) - When Michelle Clarkson caught her first glimpse of Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona, Spain, in January, she was awestruck.

The unfinished, expiatory church, designed by Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) is a UNESCO World Heritage site that combines Gothic and Art Noveau forms.

Thousands of visitors to the Provence of Barcelona are amazed by the architecture, and Clarkson, 40, was no exception.

“We got off the bus a couple blocks away, and I literally stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and put my head back and went, ‘Wow!’” recalled Clarkson. “It was breathtaking to know that this is something I’ve seen pictures of for 25 years, and I’m here.

“I can see it. I’m there, and I can touch it.”

Clarkson, a Spanish 2, 3 and 4 teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, wants to make the Spanish language relevant to her students as she prepares them to become “global citizens.” Recent trips to other countries are one way she educates herself and passes her own education to WWHS students.

Her students look at pictures she’s taken in Spain and Mexico. They explore places where they’ll get opportunities to speak Spanish, from local restaurants to Chichen Itza, Mexico, to Barcelona.

Most Mexican restaurant owners and workers in the community - a population that is growing - are helpful in teaching the kids to learn a second language, said Clarkson.

“Last year, I took a group to El Mariachi,” she said. “They had to order in Spanish.”

Afterwards, owner Jose Rizo - an Oak Hill High School graduate - applauded the kids’ efforts.

Vivacious and engaging, Clarkson, who with her husband Bobby is mother to Makayla, 11, has a natural likability that translates well into any language. She’s also had a diverse work experience that shows she’s not one to be boxed into a category: Her resume includes service in the United States Army, teaching and furniture sales.

She said that teaching Spanish to students is her way of preparing them for life and giving them a vision to think beyond Beckley.

“It’s important across the board,” she said. “There’s no job I can think of that it’s not a possibility that you would speak Spanish to someone.”

The numbers of Spanish-speaking Americans increased by at least 233 percent from 1980 to 2013. With 37 million Americans speaking it, Spanish is currently the fastest-growing, non-English language in the United States.

Clarkson likes to point out to students that the Spanish influence is prevalent in American history. In fact, the Spanish were the first to reach the Appalachian Mountains, with explorers from the Ponce de Leon and Juan Pardo expeditions reaching the southern range in the 16th century, according to online history resources.

Clarkson said she emphasizes to her students that Spanish is a subject that relates to their lives, from history and pop culture to the English language, which has adopted Spanish words like “quesadilla.”

“Mayans, the Aztecs and Spanish are in every subject,” she said. “The Mayans created the zero. It’s everywhere.”

Some of Clarkson’s students have never been out of Raleigh County so she says learning a different language is a way of inspiring them to think beyond their current boundaries and connect with world events.

“They need to learn that there’s a whole world outside of Beckley,” she said. “When we’ve gone to Charleston, I’ve had kids say, ‘I’ve never been here.’ There are kids that their parents just don’t have the money for them to participate in trips. I just want them to be culturally aware.

“So everything I do in my class, if it mentions a place or a person, we pull that up on Google so that that way, they become more globally aware,” she continued, adding her classes have listened to Shakira’s new album and have also studied a chapter on the World Cup. “I want them to know what’s happening right now, who’s in the news right now.”

“That’s why I started wanting to plan a trip,” she said. “My goal was for them to go and see and put their hands on, if they could, all of the stuff they’ve seen in books.”

With most school districts strapped for money, school-sponsored trips to foreign countries aren’t as plentiful as some students and parents would like.

Clarkson has begun planning trips for students in her spare time. So far, she’s taken students on two trips and said she’s planning a second trip to Mexico for the summer.

All of the trips are led by Clarkson during her own summer break.

Last year, she took a group of six students to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where they spent several days exploring Mayan ruins and learning about the ancient civilization.

“I remember the first night, we were sitting down and they ordered a Coke,” she said, “and they were nervous as to how to order a Coke.”

Clarkson said she started to feel disappointed that the students were too nervous to try to order in Spanish while in Mexico. The next day, though, lessons from WWHS started to “click” as the students visited a shop in Merida, the capital city of Yucatan.

At that store, the shopkeeper caught on that the Raleigh County kids were students, and he helped them, she said.

“One of the kids was looking for earrings for a friend of hers,” she said. “This shopkeeper would speak to the kids in Spanish, and every time they tried to flip back to English, he would make them say it in Spanish.”

The shopkeeper’s aid emboldened the girl ordering the earrings, and she began bartering in Spanish.

Clarkson was thrilled.

“I thought, they get it,” she recalled.

Later, a girl ordered ice cream for her mom from the menu, using only Spanish.

“She was so proud of herself, and her mom was proud,” said Clarkson. “That was huge, the kids participating in the actual environment.

“By the time we left, they were so much more comfortable about speaking Spanish and comfortable with themselves and were not nervous about making mistakes.

“That was probably one of the best things that ever happened . watching those kids go from being nervous about ordering a Coke with dinner to bargaining with a shopkeeper about earrings.”

Clarkson was also more than a little in awe when she and fellow WWHS Spanish teacher and chaperone Megan Lilly stepped onto the grounds of the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, Mexico, during their last visit.

After all, she said, she’d first seen a picture of the same pyramid in a Spanish 1 textbook as a teenager at Oak Hill High School in the 1990s, when she was beginning to learn Spanish from one of her favorite teachers.

“I’ve seen that pyramid for 25 years,” she said. “I went from being 14 years old in Janet West’s Spanish 1 class to being in Chichen Itza, learning about the Mayans.

I’m right there, at that pyramid.”

Clarkson said the experience of visiting a Spanish-speaking culture is so crucial for students that she intends to continue to plan student-driven trips to Latin countries on her own time and to pay for her portion of the trip herself.

She also tries to make the trips affordable to families.

“We were supposed to go to Europe, and the kids said they didn’t have enough money,” she said. “They asked if we could go to Mexico again, because it’s half the price.

“I’m not crazy about going to Mexico again in the summer,” she admitted. “It’s a little hot that time of year, but the students are determining the destinations.

“If Mexico is where they want go, then, let’s go!”

An Oak Hill native, Clarkson started her career in Raleigh County in 2002, teaching at Park and Trap Hill middle schools. The following year, she began her current position at WWHS.

She said she’s satisfied with preparing kids for a better career and future while using her love of Spanish.

“It’s a big plus, if they can put on their resumes that they speak a second language,” she said. “It interconnects with all other subjects.

“Speaking a second language is a very important skill,” she said. “It only makes you more marketable in today’s world.”

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Information from: The Register-Herald, https://www.register-herald.com

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