From June 24- July 4, 2016 my husband and I led a language immersion trip through Education First (EF) Educational Tours to Spain.  16 middle and high school students participated in daily classes, interactions with locals, and site seeing excursions in Madrid and Barcelona. We had an incredibly busy itinerary!  Students and adults alike came home changed because of all we saw and experienced during these 11 days.

We left from our local high school aboard a large yellow school bus and made our way to Indianapolis International Airport.  Once there, students grabbed a quick lunch in the food court and played some card games before we all headed through security together.  We flew from Indianapolis to Charlotte, NC and then connected to Madrid from there.  Although we had plenty of time in Indianapolis, we barely had time for a bathroom stop once in Charlotte before we were boarding again!  It worked out perfectly, all things considered, and our group of 18 began a long flight over many time zones and a large ocean to reach the adventure awaiting us!

Getting ready to board the bus at the high school.

The beginning of a very long day of travel.

My husband teaching the students how to play "Exploding Kittens." Yes, that's a real game. Look it up.

In line for our flight to Madrid.  Just in time!

We arrived in Madrid early in the morning.  The Barajas airport is kind of a weird shape, so you walk a long way from your arrival gate to where you meet your Tour Director.  After bathroom breaks, headcounts, the easiest immigration experience I have ever experienced and one tram ride later, we met Patricia, our EF Tour Director.  She would be our spunky, friendly, incredible source of invaluable information and encouragement in the coming week and a half.  We boarded a charter bus to help us get our luggage to the hotel in Madrid.  We traveled with strictly carry on luggage which I would HIGHLY recommend to anyone reading this.  A backpack, a small suitcase, and learning to do without...a great start to a great trip!

EF has a wonderfully horrible way of getting everyone adjusted to the dramatic time change:  you pack your first day so full of walking (without any rest after your flight) that you are DRAINED as soon as you get to the hotel and everyone goes to bed at like 8pm!  It sounds and feels a little rough initially, but from my experience it really is the only way to take advantage of every minute you have in country and get everyone's internal clock on the same time.  Thankfully I remembered this part from my training tour in Barcelona in 2014, so I prepped my students and parents for it.  Upon arriving at our hotel (Petit Palace), we stood inside long enough to get our luggage into the secured room and then we had a walking tour of the center of the city.  We walked from La Puerta del Sol to Plaza Mayor, past the Palacio Real and finished in the Plaza de España.  Patricia made each stop interesting:  in Puerta del Sol students had to ask locals where to find the oso y madroño statue and kilómetro cero, in Plaza Mayor they had to buy una bocata de calamares for lunch, and in Plaza de España we sat in the grass and got to know each other better through the name game (in Spanish, of course!)

Can you spot my students speaking with locals on their FIRST DAY in Spain?! #proudteacher

Not only did they find a restaurant and figure out how to order in Spanish...but they actually ate new food.  This was our "senior squad" and they were great leaders by example!

We had to say our name, our age and our favorite word in Spanish.  By the end, the students had to remember  A LOT!

Then we had dinner at Tasca de Figueroa before heading back to the hotel for the night.  We ate bread, pasta, fish, and fruit.  The students overall were not pleased with the amount of seafood in this country, but for everyone that was open to trying it, this restaurant served a delicious meal.

The next day, the students tried the metro for the first time.  What an experience for students from rural Indiana!  We started the morning by heading to one of the largest, most beautiful parks in Madrid:  Parque del Buen Retiro.  The day before, our tour director gave each traveler 10 euros for various challenges throughout the week.  3 euros went to the sandwich they bought in Plaza Mayor, and then 2 euros went to the boat ride.  The rest of the adventures were still to come!

The first day we shared 20-trip metro passes.

After that, each student had a 5 day pass for our time in Madrid.

Patricia explaining the history of the park to them.

4 to a boat...enjoying some free time!

While they rowed, took selfies and enjoyed some time in the sun, I got the chance to reunite with my host mom, Mauri, from my study abroad experience in college.  I could hardly find words to express how much this meant to me.  I had the best of intentions to meet up with friends, a professor and even see Mauri again, and they all ended up falling through...but at least I had this!

First time I have seen Mauri in just over 5 years.
We ate our 1 included meal this day at lunch (duck?!) and then boarded a charter bus to the lovely village of Toledo.  A local guide met us there and took us to a synagogue, the cathedral, and in and out of various streets and plazas as he explained to us the cultural significance of this ancient place.  The students marked this as one of their favorite experiences of the entire week.

Local guide: Toledo

Holy Toledo!
Inside the synagogue in Toledo

In Toledo we stopped at a sword making shop.  Read: Boys like weapons.
When we got back to Madrid, we had the opportunity to eat dinner on our own.  Since our students weren't completely familiar with the area yet, and since I wasn't completely comfortable with releasing them yet, we headed to the opposite side of Sol and went upstairs in Museo del Jamon so that I could guide our first meal a bit:  I helped students figure out the concept of ordering tapas to share and splitting the bill.  It was a success, even for our large group!

At dinner: Mueso del Jamon

Up until this point, although Patricia had attempted to do most of our instruction in Spanish, I could tell the students were confused, uninterested and tired most of the time.  That all changed on Day Four of our trip when our students began their 5 days of language classes at the EF school.  We woke up, took the metro, and arrived at class around nine.  Students were with a teacher named Vanessa who was INCREDIBLE.  She tailored the day's instruction to each level of learner and had every student participating in class at all times.  She used group work, call and response, written activities among others.  In our experience, they do not like teachers to be present during these classes, so my husband and I had time to walk around, get a bite to eat and have one on one conversation about the day.  The students had a small break after about an hour and a half where they could enjoy time in the courtyard playing foosball, ping pong and badminton.  Then, they returned to class until about noon.

Students using maps of Madrid to answer questions in class.

A good time of learning different types of food words before heading to cooking class, and learning the different words that SPAIN uses in comparison to Mexico.

In the courtyard during their break.

The EF language school could not have a better location:  right by Avenida de America!

After class, we walked to our next activity:  a cooking class!  The students were instructed in how to prepare gazpacho, paella, tortilla de patata and tarta de Santiago.  Every student had a job at all times:  dicing vegetables, sprinkling spices, flipping the skillet or pouring the soup.  The instruction was 100% in Spanish (which from here on will be the assumption unless otherwise noted...HOORAY!) and was impeccable.  After cooking, the students (and adults) got to eat their creations, too!  You can follow Apetit-oh (the kitchen we were fortunate enough to experience) on Instagram here.

Tortilla and tarta made by our students!

 Then, we went to Mercado de San Miguel and the students were put in partners with a scavenger hunt to complete. I walked around and eavesdropped, as any good mom/teacher would do, and was EXTREMELY impressed by how students took leadership and left their comfort zone behind them as they engaged with locals, taste tested exotic foods and enjoyed learning by experimenting.

One of the groups in the market.

Two of our girls interviewing a local woman in the market.
A copy of the scavenger hunt they completed in the market.
Dinner was in small groups of 3-4 students close to our hotel.  No one needed a huge meal as we practically ate all day...but by this point I felt comfortable letting the students have structured free time around the hotel (our rule was always groups of at least 3, no metro, and from Sol to Opera).

One of my favorite additions to this trip was the intentional nightly group meetings.  We would meet in one of our hotel rooms and each student would bring a list of 5 words they had learned from the day.  Then, we went around the circle and asked questions, shared vocabulary and sometimes pictures or videos as well.  It was a good time of digesting our learning (in English, this time!) and prepping for the coming day.

The next day, we headed to morning classes to learn about art terms and the royal Spanish family history.  The topic helped greatly when, after a very quick snack-lunch, we headed by metro to the Palacio Real for a guided tour.  Students saw various bedrooms, dining rooms, the famous clock collection as well as learned about various kings who had resided here previously.  Despite the very heavy historical focus (which was presented largely in English this time), students seemed absolutely amazed at the intricate details of the architecture, artwork and interior decorations.

Right afterwards we headed to one of my all-time favorite places in Madrid:  El Museo del Prado.  I was initially disappointed when I learned that students would be doing a "self-guided" tour of Prado because a. it is enormously impossible to view unassisted b. a professional guide adds so many details to an art museum c. free time stresses me out BUT I think it was a good change of pace for the students to have a little less structure.  She gave them another scavenger hunt page to help them find certain paintings, and we put them in groups of 4 and set a meeting point/time.  I wandered around and made sure groups were on task, even getting a lot of cherished alone time with the most beautiful art in the world.  If you haven't been to the palace or the museum before, no photographs are allowed in the most beautiful locations I am describing.  You simply must go and see for yourself.  Also, book bags are not allowed in either location, so I suggest having students bring smaller over-the-shoulder purses.

Another part of the 10 euro challenge from our Tour Director was for our students to buy a postcard and a stamp and then write something in Spanish to a friend and mail the postcard while on tour.  It was more of unique experience than it might sound since students had to spend only 3 euros total and didn't have a post office to go to, nor any idea what a mailbox looked like.  They were successful eventually!

We finished the day with dinner at a restaurant named Daniela.  A very adventerous paella was on the menu:  complete with quite large creatures!  It was a good learning experience for everyone, myself included.  Most of the them enjoyed the challenge!

The following day students learned all about flamenco dancing, music and its cultural relevance as well as the various neighborhoods and communities of Madrid in their EF classes.  When we arrived to pick them up, we made a little detour to use the final 1-2 euros from Patricia's challenge. She showed us a local bookstore that sells donated books very cheaply and gives the profit to children who can't afford book rentals at school.  We were thrilled to be a part of something like this! Patricia gave each student (and adult) the name of another person in our group in the spirit of a "secret santa" exchange. In Spanish, this person would be our "amigo invisible".  We bought a book for them with our final euro, and wrote a note to them in Spanish recalling a favorite memory with them on the trip.  We would gift it to them and reveal our identity during our final dinner in Spain!

They were much more excited than they look :)

"You are buying much more than just books."
 Then, we headed back to Santo Domingo via metro, took an hour for lunch in area cafes, and then met up with another EF tour for a community wide scavenger hunt.  In small groups they interviewed students from the other tour, asking them questions about their likes and dislikes. Then, they had time to go around the plaza asking locals where one should go to fit those likes.  Finally, they had to compose an extremely detailed itinerary (prices, maps, transportation, time frame, etc) for the other group and present it to us later that evening.  I noted quite a bit of hesitation to go out on their own at this point, but 3 of our 4 groups did an outstanding job communicating with locals to get their opinions, so I consider that successful.

My girls meeting their counterparts from the other EF tour.

After that, we headed to a studio for individualized flamenco lessons.  The students were COMPLETELY engrossed by the teacher, and the constant saying, repeating, and demonstrating.  They even ended up presenting what they had learned on stage in groups of three!  And...yes, myself, my husband and our Tour Director apparently counted as a group of three and we had to do it too...#yolo.  After sitting outside for a quick 15 minute transformation, we got to watch an absolutely incredible show of professional flamenco dancers.  Students were awe-struck.  They sipped Cokes while recording videos and clapping constantly.  It was truly an incredible display of talent.

Learning the different motions.
Students presenting on stage!

And now, leaving it to the professionals!
Dinner this night (Viva Madrid) was a yummy chicken-noodle like soup with "cocido" afterwards:  a combination of every type of meat and potatoes and veggies all cooked together.  Students enjoyed a not seafood option and the wide variety of food made it easy for everyone to pick something they liked.

Students spent the next day learning all about local teen culture, helpful phrases for starting conversations and how schools typically function in Spain.  Then, we boarded a bus and took an hour ride to a local summer camp just outside of Madrid.  For this visit, we rode the bus and spent the whole day with the second EF group I mentioned earlier.  Our students mixed in with Spanish students (of varying ages and English abilities) and ate lunch with them in the cafeteria.  It was very fun for me to see and hear our students practicing some Spanish and then also having the opportunity to practice listening (empathetically!) to students try English.  Each group appreciated the struggle of the others in a new way, I imagine.  Then, they got in groups and started playing tennis, basketball, and of course soccer.  Our USA team won 4-2 just as the bus was pulling up to take us back!  Our group really loved getting pictures with their new friends and even getting social media contacts from them.

Initiating conversation with campers.

Ready for lunch!

Getting to know each other.

The whole group!

Three of my girls with their new friends.

The intense soccer game!
 In the evening we had some free time so I thought it would be fun to take a group of students on the Teleferico (similar to a sky-ride at an amusement park) for a neat view of Madrid at sunset.  We grabbed sandwiches for dinner, headed to the metro, found the Teleferico...and got there as they were shutting the doors! Bummer.  I highly recommend it to any teacher/group who travels to Madrid and has free time...but get there by at least 8:30pm just to make sure!  You will see incredible views of Casa del Campo park, the Royal Palace in the distance and a beautiful outlook of the entire city for only 8 euros a person.

Since we missed out, we headed to Templo de Debod to watch the sunset and then headed back to San Gines Chocolateria for churros con chocolate (open 24 hours a day, by the way and on the road that lead to our hotel! WIN.)  Overall, it was a great experience for all of us even though it didn't go as planned.

Our small group enjoying a nice evening exploring.

Templo de Debod.

This day was highly anticipated by many members of our group!  Before we got to the afternoon's activities, though, my lovely students GRADUATED!   Yes, they celebrated a week's worth of daily language immersion in 3 hour blocks with graduation hats, graduation music, formal certificates and even a little speech.  Their teacher from EF was so proud of them, and it was obvious that they had become extremely attached to her.  This was the first time that it really felt like our experience was coming to a close.

Group hug with Vanessa

The famous cap-toss.

The whole group with Vanessa on the last day of classes.

The sadness didn't last long though...because we took the metro to Estadio Santiago Bernabeu!  We had many soccer enthusiasts on our team (including my husband), but even those of us who didn't expect to be interested really enjoyed the self-guided tour of the stadium.  It was complete with amazing technolgoy, a sensory room, multiple photo opportunities and even a time to walk down on the field!  We were so glad we requested to have this added to our itinerary.

Our group heading to the entrance of Real Madrid's legendary stadium.

In the sensory room, the girls were able to hear recorded heartbeats, practice conversations and famous announcers.

We even got to go down on the field and take a picture!
We had a bit of time to relax and get showered before we headed out for dinner.  Tonight was a very unique experience for the students:  they would eat in the homes of local families by finding their own way there.  The girls and myself headed to one location, while the boys went with my husband to a different house.  We took a map, our metro passes and the addresses written down on a piece of paper.

The girls did an excellent job finding the winding streets that we should take.  We even arrived a few minutes early to the home of Cristina:  a sweet, hospitable woman from Madrid who hosts international students in her home and is well accustomed to helping young people learn Spanish for the first time.  She served us innumerable "tapas", or Spanish appetizers, and allowed the girls to graze throughout the evening as we sat and chatted.  Cristina also invited two of her close friends over to talk with us.  The students did a great job of listening, trying to engage and answer questions as they came up, but most of the evening was spent wading through the confusion that is second language learning and immersion.  I could tell the girls left somewhat frustrated or disappointed, but from a teacher's perspective I truly valued the authenticity of the dinner: they navigated the streets of inner-city Madrid, introduced themselves to a woman they had never met before, tried new foods, and were part of over 2 hours of Spanish conversation, much of which was way above their level of comprehension.  For other teachers that may go on this same trip, something to keep in mind is that your group will be split up into various houses for this evening: you will want to have at least one adult who is proficient in Spanish that can go with each group, because our experience did not involve any English speakers at all. Again, we were overall very challenged and stretched by this experience in positive ways, but as the person in charge of the safety of these students, I made a few notes for the future.

The girls trying to get all they can from one of Cristina's friends.

Cristina, her second friend, and as many girls as could squish in the picture!
We got back to the hotel late, relaxed and got packed, and then headed to bed quickly because we new the following day we would depart Madrid and head for Barcelona!

We took a charter bus to the Atocha train station and boarded a AVE high-speed train to Barcelona to finish out the final 3 days of our trip.  It was a comfortable ride (most of us slept!) and provided a great view of the countryside of Spain.

On the train and ready to sleep, haha
 We had another beautiful, perfectly located hotel in Barcelona:  Hotel Abbott.  We checked into our rooms early (yay!) and spent a bit of time getting unpacked and adjusted after the trip,  Then, we started a walking tour of the city so that students could get their bearings and see the differences between the capital and the second major city in the country.  We ate a fun lunch in small groups in the most famous market in Barcelona:  La Boqueria.  There were numerous small cafes, food stands, restaurants and stores to buy from...something for everyone!

La Boqueria
  We continued walking the major parts of the city as we learned all about what makes Barcelona unique. We saw the unique architecture of "El Barrio Gotico" and enjoyed the busy bustle of the main shopping street:  La Rambla.  Most of our group opted to pay 18 euros to take a bike tour so we could see a different view of the city.  Those who weren't interested, hung out with Patricia and shopped for a couple hours.  Everyone else strapped on helmets, mounted small green bikes and made our way through extremely busy bike trails and few iconic stops along the way.

Re-learning the metro system:  Barcelona edition

La Rambla

Our group posing in front of the arch that replaced the Eiffel Tower (which Barcelona didn't want because it was "ugly"...)

Returning our bikes after a great adventure (and only a few minor dings and scratches...)

To finish day one in Barcelona we headed towards the cathedral.  If you take students and want to enter, make sure shoulders and knees are covered (we didn't know until we got there! bummer.)  There was a mass going on, so most of the cathedral was blocked off anyway, and with all the celebration and large group dances that were going on in the plaza, the students didn't seem to care one bit!

Catedral de Barcelona

Can you see the circle of people dancing together? We watched for a long time!

This was most of the student's favorite dinner experience of the trip!  We ate a restaurant named Balthazar, which was a very elegantly designed place with an entirely seafood-free meal.  We ate a very delicious salmorejo and bread to start, then enjoyed a Moroccan style beef with curry sauce and rice for our main dish.  By this point in the trip, students were joking in Spanish, understanding so much more of what our tour guide explained and relaxing enough to really enjoy the experience.  We were laughing so hard at this dinner that our sides were hurting!

Salmorejo: A fancier, thicker (read: BETTER) Gazpacho with hardboiled egg & bacon on top!


Our final day of site seeing was pretty packed full of incredible experiences.  In a desire to redeem the failed Teleferico de Madrid, we headed to Mont Juic and most of our group paid an additional 12 euros for a great, slow paced view of Barcelona.  This was something Patricia and I decided to add last minute to our itinerary, to eliminate additional free time in an area they didn't know as well.

At the very top of the cable cars!

Our group at the top, and blocking the whole city behind us, haha.

You first ride all the way up, then you can get off  at the top and again half way down.

The boys are really excited about it, obviously.

In the park on our way to Sagrada Familia!
As we walked down through the park and gardens in Mont Juic, we finally made our way to La Sagrada Familia.  I will say, this day we had practically no lunch.  Students had about 8 minutes to find whatever they could, down it quickly, and then we headed in to see the incredible beauty of Gaudi.  We had another local guide with us here who did a great mixture of Spanish and English instruction and gave us tons of new details about the building.  I had been here twice before, and I learned many new things from her!  Also, the construction has been ongoing for YEARS.  And you really can see the progress they are making if you continue to go back!

Getting ready to enter Sagrada Familia

The stained glass is absolutely breathtaking.

Construction continues!

After the Sagrada Familia, we walked, took the metro and then boarded a bus to Park Guell with the same local guide.  This is where my experience and the group's experience differ:  I went back to the hotel with a sick student and my husband, the Tour Director and the other students went to the park together.  We met back up with them around dinner time.

Our final dinner was a choice of either a Barcelona-famous sausage dish, or chicken. Both came with french fries, which the students loved of course. My favorite moment from dinner was when Patricia orchestrated our book exchange.  Each student (and adult) got up, found their "amigo invisible" and surprised them with the personal book they bought earlier in the week and a simple Spanish message written inside.  I GOT ROMEO Y JULIETA!! #iwon

Book exchange.
 My husband and I then took two separate groups to do last minute souvenir shopping (for their friends and families, and let's be honest, for my daughter, too) before heading back to the hotel for the night.  The bus to the airport would come very early the next morning!

We boarded our charter bus, headed to the airport and made our way through security, customs, etc until we were FINALLY boarding our flight back to the USA.  Let's just say it was an extremely long day of travel, but we all made it, in one piece.  We connected in JFK and then ended up in Indy.  We pretty much re-traced our steps as we ate in the food court on the way out, boarded the school bus and made our way back to the high school.

The students bought Patricia a gift and wrote her a nice thank you note.

At the airport in Barcelona ready to head home.
Everyone gave Patricia the typical "dos besos" from Spain as a goodbye.
We traveled with an absolutely incredible group of students who learned so much through these 11 days.  Based on discussions with individual students, this trip gave many a passion to continue traveling, and studying Spanish.  It also (THANKFULLY) showed some for the first time that Spanish is not innately "hard" or "boring" but can be acquired at an amazing rate in the context of immersion and relationships.  My husband and I were SO glad to be a part of this experience.  We are not actively planning anymore trips with students in the near future, but we are REALLY looking forward to doing this again for many years when our family is a little older :)

Check out more pictures, tweets, updates and perspectives from other travelers by searching our hashtag: #WCSespaña2016 on any social media outlet.  Our tour details can be found at this website.  This wasn't our first trip with students!  Check out where we went in 2015.. If you have any questions about my experience with EF, suggestions and resources for traveling with students, or anything related to this trip, comment here and I would be happy to help.

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