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Virginia Journal of Education

by Margie Shepherd

Imagine this: 30 high school kids, living with a dozen Guatemalan families, taking five hours of Spanish a day for three weeks. Then, add service projects, cultural activities and weekend adventures, along with a high school credit. It happened, and the results were fabulous!

I’d taken students on tours put together by travel companies, and they were terrific vacations to wonderful places, with nice hotels and great food. But after a few trips, I wanted more. More learning. More non-tourist destinations. More “real.” And access for more students.

A long Internet search brought me to Casa Xelaju, in Quetzeltenango, Guatemala. Quetzeltenango, or Xela, as it is called locally, is in the mountains, with a majority indigenous population, and cool summers. The school set up a package for me with all I wanted: flight, immersion education for Spanish I–IV, home stays, activities, service projects and weekend travel.

Next, I proposed to our school board that students receive one full year’s credit in Spanish for their work in Guatemala. I calculated the hours in class, cultural activities, and meals with families, and it was almost the 135 hours in a school year for one course. The board allowed the credit if students would submit their work and a photo journal, and pass the county Spanish exam. Students who submitted all that, but did not pass the exam would receive an elective credit for “Guatemala – Language and Culture.”

The package was affordable, different and educationally justifiable. In 2005, the first year, 30 students made the trip. The second year, the superintendent asked me to do a trip for 20 teachers, social workers, and nurses. Teachers earned recertification points and could use staff development money toward the cost. Thirty-five students went in 2008. Another teacher at my school took groups in 2009 and 2010, and I took a small group earlier this year.

I don’t teach Spanish, and I struggle with languages myself, so I’m sure there was skepticism among the high school Spanish teachers about these trips initially. But a couple years after the launch, a Spanish teacher stopped me on the street and said, “I just want you to know that all but three of my students in AP Spanish were on your trip, and they’re all doing well.” Success!

Of course, any group going on such a trip will be a self-selecting great bunch of kids. If you tell teenagers that they are going to have 25 hours a week of Spanish class of two to four kids (no slouching in the back!); that they will be working with Habitat for Humanity or helping kids in an afterschool program; that they will learn about weaving cooperatives, or Guatemalan cooking or glass-blowing; that they will live in a household where only Spanish is spoken, where the meals are simple, there is no TV,  no long, hot showers, and where they may have to share a room, all on their summer vacation; if you tell them all that, and they still want to go–that  is a great bunch of kids. The first year, one boy complained for several days that his shower wouldn’t get really hot, and that there was no cable TV at his house. I finally told him, “This is the way the world lives. You can do it for three weeks.”

A year later, he came by my classroom. “I think about that trip all the time,” he said. “My only regret is that I wasted that first week complaining.” Mission accomplished.

For teachers, there is a free trip for every 10 students, which meant I also got one-on-one tutoring, a home stay, and weekend trips. I only had to pay for a few meals on weekends. Of course I always end up buying crafts there–scarves and tablecloths woven on backstrap looms at the Trama Women’s Cooperative, handblown glasses from Copavic, carved wooden figures from the market at Chichicastenango, and as much coffee as my suitcase can handle. I justify the expense by turning most of my purchases into gifts.

Going to Casa Xelaju isn’t as easy as a more expensive, more defined trip from a travel company. You have to collect the checks. You have to be flexible. You have to go to school. You have to trust that the people are watching out for you (they do). But oh, what an experience! When I go back, there are hugs all around. When we leave, they throw a graduation party. When it is someone’s birthday, there is a piñata and cake. We all gained confidence and competence in speaking Spanish – through classes, meals in our houses, in the coffee and ice cream shops, and in negotiating in the markets.

This past July, as I came out of Casa Xelaju during our first week there, I ran into Maggie, a student I’d brought three years before. She’d gotten a scholarship to study there for eight weeks, from the University of Chicago, and she’d decided to double major in anthropology and Spanish. As a teacher, these lifelong connections, these bits of evidence of change, this initiative for learning–this is what it’s all about.
To learn more about Casa Xelaju or leading an immersion trip, go to, or contact me at

Shepherd, of Albemarle County, is a retired lifetime VEA member, who left the classroom after last year.


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