Costa Rica – ¡Pura vida!

Kristine flyingI’d like to share my story about how I came to love languages and to share that love with my students. This blog post is an adaptation of the EDStory that I presented last Spring. I became an educator later in the game – not intentionally – I just took a few side paths. I think of it as having taken the road less traveled to get to where I am now. I needed some life experiences in order to be ready.

I was somewhere between 8 and 10 when I discovered that there were kids my age who were bilingual. My dad was a principal of an inner city school. 

He’d come home and talk about how he sometimes had to ask students to translate for their parents. This was disheartening to him as it put the child in an awkward role.Kristine calmDad didn’t speak Spanish but he did have an awesome behavioral plan. If a student could stay out of trouble and therefore out of his office over a set period of time they could come to our house, play with us, and stay for dinner – then we’d all pile into the station wagon and drive the student home. I was so jealous of kids my age who could speak more than one language! Dad set out to learn Spanish – but it didn’t go well – he once ordered “dos cabezas” while staying with a host family when he meant to order “dos cervezas” – for the non Spanish speakers – he ordered 2 heads instead of 2 beers.


So, anyway, that planted the seed and eventually, I wanted to become a language teacher. Having come to teaching at the advanced age of 40, I had a few life lessons under my belt – and many more to come – but my mantra was to keep calm and help my students learn Spanish.Kristine language

In my eyes teaching is coaching and so I lept off the cliff and ditched the textbook. This was not an easy thing to do. I had to keep explaining to my students that we were in this together and while it felt strange and different they really were learning the language instead of learning about the language.

Fast forward to today – I am a few months back from a trip to Costa Rica with my students. After many months of chasing down deposits, and payments, passport names and numbers we were off!Kristine map.jpg  This had taken many months of planning on my part – talks with travel consultants, guides, and a group that arranges homestays. Oh! I should back up for a second – I should clarify that not only do I teach Spanish, I also facilitate a community-based service learning class at my school. This trip was going to be a hybrid of Spanish and Community Based Service Learning.

We flew into the airport at Liberia, CR after leaving Vermont for Boston at 6:00 am in order to make our connecting flight to Houston and then landing in Costa Rica – a good 20 hours or so of travel. Still smiling, my students ate dinner and crashed at the hotel then were up bright and early for our bus ride to our host town, Nueva Guatemala, and our host families.

This is when the human side of growth and learning became crystal clear. My students were anxious – none of the families spoke English – how would they communicate? Their eyes were about as big as this little tree frog’s.Kristine and frog They were nonplussed at how much faith I had in them – yes I was a little worried but I also knew that they just had to relax and trust themselves. Luckily, our first gig Kristine and kidswas to play with the elementary students and after a round of introductions in the circle time – name, age, “I like..” we were off to learn the games they wanted to teach us. Imagine my students surprise when the first game was a sack race! The next game threw a curve by its name “cuchara y limón” but it turned out to be a variation of the egg and spoon race. And then they were off to jump rope and play soccer – or ‘bola’ as the kids called it. So the long and sometimes winding path to proficiency wasn’t letting my students down – there were a few times they got lost in the ‘weeds’ but they didn’t stay there for long and the smiles and confidence increased.

Kristine painting kiddosWe dove into the service work-refurbishing the elementary school playground – the little ones couldn’t stay away. I’m sure there are more than a few mamas were annoyed with me for sending their little ones home at the end of the day covered in splashes of paint (Thank goodness it was waterbased!) The hard work only seemed to deepen the bonds between my students and their hosts. At the farewell dinner, we discovered a few more universal truths – lots of people love to play basketball, roast marshmallows over a fire and dance!

As the day of our departure drew closer, we pulled away for a few side trips to see this beautiful country – we toured the Tenorio Volcano National Park – hiked to the Río Celeste waterfall to see the naturally celestial blues waters and soaked in some hot springs heated by the Miravalles volcano – that help soothe a few aching muscles!Kristine waterfallsI’m not sure who started crying first on the day that we left – my students or the host families but it was clearly evident that my students had broken through any language barriers that might have been holding them back – they sat with the discomfort of a new experience and once they relaxed into it they were off and speaking – and understanding!

Kristine and ssMy favorite quote was from a student who did not know I was nearby “I can’t believe how much Spanish I knew!” – that makes a teacher’s heart sing. To use a Costa Rican expression – hearing that was ‘pura vida’ – pure life. It’s an expression Costa Ricans use to say hello but also to express joy and happiness. Thanks for reading – and – ¡Pura vida!


Kristine B Kirkaldy
Rowland Fellow 2010
First presented at Rowland EDStory, Middlebury  2017