Barbara Nelson\'s Global Classroom

Barbara Nelson's Global Classroom

Professor Barbara Nelson started her language instruction Web site on a dare. Now in a class of its own, it has a worldwide following.

By Lauren Pongan '09

Gracias, Barbara Nelson

“I am housebound and have just begun to teach myself Spanish. … Because I am elderly I need loads and loads of practice as I teach myself each new piece of grammar. … You seem to be just about the only person on the planet who can (or can be bothered to) use the great potential of the computer/internet technology for foreign language teaching. The exercises are so clever, imaginative and of a really high presentational quality. It’s great to see such attention to detail without becoming humourless. The project obviously takes a great deal of time as well as skill in order to achieve these kinds of standards.”
Sandy from England

“Just a quick word to say thank you for all the work you have done in creating such a brilliant site. It’s BRILLIANT—and yes I am shouting that. P.S. Some of my friends who teach French are jealous.”
Michael from Ireland

“Thanks for the wonderfully creative study modules you have posted and made available on the web. I am a lecturer at two universities … and in these days where I see more and more ‘territorialism’ and egos abound, at least within some departments, I am hopeful when I stumble upon a site like yours. Kudos.”
Sarah from North Carolina, USA

“… There are days I curse technology and all of its depersonalization of our world. And then there are days when I see all the wonderful things that can be done (and with such artistic taste in your site!), and then I see the great benefits of computers.”
Molly from Minnesota, USA 

“… I came across your website while searching for Spanish grammar tests, and among the ones I have visited yours is the best one! As a web designer I think not only the rich content but also the elegant design of your site is worth congratulating.”
Ozan from Turkey

“I am a middle school Spanish teacher, and I must say that I freaked out a little recently when it looked as though your Colby site was to be discontinued. I so love the site, and have used it to drill and challenge my students for several years now, since I discovered it. I am relieved to see that you will continue it—THANK YOU THANK YOU! I’m sure you hear from only a fraction of the teachers that use your site—I hope to be able to share with you some materials of my own someday.
Gretchen from Massachusetts, USA

“I love this resource. Thank you for sharing it with so many people. It is a tribute to your work, innovative spirit and generosity. I only wish I were close by so I could take an in-person class from you. I share your site with anyone I meet learning Spanish and they are grateful.”
Toni from the USA

The wizard behind the curtain is fair-skinned, with short bobbed hair, glasses, and a wide smile. But don’t let her unassuming demeanor fool you. Nelson is hard-working and dedicated enough to serve both her Colby students and her global audience. And she does so from the place where she first discovered her passion for Spanish and without trying to make a penny from the site.

When Nelson decided to teach at Colby, in 1978,  it was a return to her old stomping grounds, where she majored in Spanish as a member of the Class of 1968. In her junior year she studied in Madrid to become fluent. As a senior she started a Spanish program at Lawrence High School in Fairfield, next to Waterville.

After earning a master’s degree in Spanish literature at Middlebury in 1971, Nelson returned to Maine and taught Spanish at Lawrence High School for several years, leading school trips to Mexico and Spain. “Wonderful kids,” she remembers. But when she learned of an opening at Colby, Nelson immediately applied. Henry Holland, then chair of the Spanish Department, offered her the position without an interview.

Almost 20 years into Nelson’s teaching career, the opportunity to apply for an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant for developing technologies presented itself. Knowing Nelson’s teaching style, and thinking that Nelson could benefit from creating a Web site, Jackie Tanner, a friend and Colby colleague (now retired), dared Nelson to apply. When Nelson expressed reluctance, Tanner applied for her.

To her surprise, Nelson won the grant. “It was serendipitous,” Nelson said. “I had absolutely no interest in making a Web site. None. But I got hooked, and I loved doing it.”

When Nelson began designing her site, she had no knowledge of HTML (the markup language that is the foundation of most Web pages) or the principles of Web design. Embarrassed as she recalled her pilot version of the site, Nelson admitted, “It was a slow learning curve.”

Keith McGlauflin, Colby’s Web technology specialist who monitors Web statistics, praised Nelson’s adaptability and willingness to learn new technologies as a means of advancing the sophistication of her Web site. “That she has taken on learning HTML, Javascript, audio and video, and now Web application technologies like PHP [a scripting language] shows her passion not only for technology but also for teaching,” McGlauflin said. “Her dedication to keeping the site fresh and interactive by learning new technologies is what makes her site so popular.”

McGlauflin’s got that right.

Since her early days struggling with HTML, Nelson has become a do-it-yourself Web guru. “I went to classes that were offered here, but there weren’t many of them then. I was a manual freak—I read everything I could get my hands on. And I experimented,” Nelson explained. She also credits McGlauflin for his encouragement as a Web design teacher.

Originally Nelson’s site was a private project supplementing the workbook in her class curriculum. Eventually, though, her friends and colleagues who knew about the site wanted to check it out. Word trickled out and the trickle soon turned to a torrent. Seven years and 285 countries later, it’s safe to say that spanish.language&culture has “gone public.”

In its current state, the site is exactly what Nelson sought to create—an accessible, interactive gateway into the world of the Spanish language and of Spanish-speaking cultures. Unlike most other Spanish grammar Web sites, Nelson’s offers grammar lessons within the context of a larger cultural lesson. Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Gary Aitken, at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, said in an e-mail, “Barbara has designed her material in a way that encourages students to engage in enjoyable and meaningful activities that expose them to not only the words and structures of Spanish but also the sights and sounds that bring the language to life.”

What inspired Nelson’s commitment to cultural exchange? Ecuador.

Of the 28 countries and territories that haven’t yet discovered Nelson’s site, eight don’t have access to the Internet.

Having traveled to Spain as an undergrad, Nelson admits she had never been especially drawn to Latin America. But upon her first visit to Ecuador, in 2002, she became fascinated by the culture and the people.

Every Jan Plan since 2004, Nelson has taught Colby students Intermediate Spanish I at the Andean Center for Latin American Studies in Quito. The course promises “a continued emphasis on interactive communication and cultural awareness,” she said.

Nelson created her Jan Plan class after she was struck by the lack of cultural exchange embedded in her curriculum. “My passion is that I want to give my students authentic experiences. To do that you need materials, and you need to actually go there and bring Third World culture back to them,” she said.

All nine of Nelson’s study modules except the basic grammar exercises (see sidebar) begin with audio or visual clips that introduce a cultural lesson. For example, her lesson about the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, is told in story form, and it allows students to practice the preterite and imperfect tenses. The module also begins with a song.

In Ojalá que llueva café (If only it would rain coffee), her study module about the hope for prosperity in the Dominican Republic, the final exercise asks students to practice the present subjunctive as they describe the world’s most pressing problems and their hopes for the future.

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  • On May 25, 2009, Bill Dennen wrote:
    I worked with Barbara back in the mid- to late-1990s (it sounds so long ago!) and she was truly ahead of her time. She had a vision for how she wanted her site to work and now, after many hours of hard work, it's wonderful to see her vision realized. Congratulations Barbara. You deserve it! Cheers!

  • On June 8, 2009, Judy Antoine wrote:
    I belong to a Unitarian Universalist society in Syracuse, NY. Our minister, Jean Wahlstrom, gave me a copy of The Spanish Lady. I facilitate a group of folks who meet every first and third Sunday of the month after our service to speak in Spanish and get to know one another. The levels of ability vary and I've passed on the article and Barbara Nelson's Web site to my group. I'm sure there will be many who are thankful for her time and effort.

  • On August 12, 2009, Mary Bennardo wrote:
    Your site is wonderful. Including songs really helps in learning the language. I recommend the site to my students.

  • On June 12, 2010, Dianna Galyen wrote:
    I'm so thrilled to have found the Spanish Language & Culture website! I am a non-traditional student studying for the Spanish Content Praxis. I am elated to use this website for my own practice and cultural awareness, and I look forward to using it when I have students of my own. I'm deeply grateful that the site is free, as I wouldn't even be able to consider being able to use it otherwise. (I work part-time as a bank teller to pay my tuition.)

    Many thanks for the years of hard work, and for your continuing efforts to make this available to students and teachers! I know what it is to give every available minute to an endeavor!


    Dianna Galyen