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Peter Monahan composition shot black and white

Sabbatical provides faculty with time to engage and recharge

The term “sabbatical” comes from the Hebrew word “sabbath,” meaning a time of rest. But for instructors at Yakima Valley College, sabbatical leaves are much more than a time to relax. The opportunity allows instructors to focus on things that may fall by the wayside during day-to-day teaching, including special projects, travel, research and pedagogy — the practice and improvement of teaching.

For Spanish Instructor Peter Monahan, a Fall 2022 sabbatical provided time to travel throughout South America and intensively practice the art of navigating language and dialects — something he teaches daily in his first- and second-year Spanish courses.

For the first phase of his travels Monahan was accompanied by his teenage son. The pair together experienced the countries of Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Argentina and Peru — expanding knowledge of the cultures and dialects used in these countries.

Peter Monahan and son Mateo crossing the Cordillera de los Andes border crossing from Chile into Argentina.

For the second phase of the trip, Monahan traveled to Morelia, Mexico. The visit allowed him to attend the annual Morelia International Film Festival, an event dedicated to support Mexican filmmakers, cultivate audiences and disseminate and spread the cinematographic culture of the area. For Monahan, who also works as a producer, director and editor for Zelig Films and has captured student voices on film projects for YVC programs, it was empowering to be in a space with so many professionals focused on Mexican culture in their filmmaking. In addition, he attended cultural events and connected with a former instructor who made an impact in his life.

The last leg of his journey included an extended stay in Brazil, where he spent time writing, reading and filming. In Brazil, where Portuguese is the primary language and includes the same core Latin foundation as Spanish, Monahan was able to use that foundation to communicate effectively without being fluent in Portuguese.

“In my classes I’m asking students to do exactly what I was practicing on this trip. I ask them to take their rudimentary Spanish skills to navigate language. I challenge them on how to work around not knowing the language,” says Monahan.

Peter Monahan and son Mateo in San San José, Costa Rica, at Women's World Cup tournament.
Peter Monahan and son Mateo in San San José, Costa Rica, at Women's World Cup tournament.

He feels these experiences will help highlight the power of communication and language foundations for his students.

“My goals of this sabbatical were to navigate with language and variations of language,” says Monahan. “The Spanish that is spoken in Chile is different than Spanish spoken in Mexico. When I left Chile, we traveled over the Andes Mountains to Argentina, then to Peru. The Peruvian language was different still, yet it was much closer to the Spanish spoken in Mexico. In Chile, where there had been linguistic isolation from the rest of the continent due to the physical barrier of the Andes Mountains, I found their variation of Spanish to be challenging and intriguing”

According to Monahan, in the classroom there is a focus on teaching grammar and vocabulary structure, but overall, the most important thing being taught is interpersonal communication.

“I had a lot of experience having traveled extensively in Mexico and in Central America in college, studying in Barcelona and Guanajuato,” he said. “My class foundation has never been just textbooks. These experiences are part of my textbook, and South America has been a missing piece. Just as all the other experiences I have had from my travels, this trip will help enrich the classroom experience on a daily basis.”

In Panamá roaming the backroads in Santa Catalina.
Monahan and others In Panamá roaming the backroads in Santa Catalina.

Through sharing this opportunity, Monahan hopes to inspire more students to travel — experiencing other languages, challenging them to bolster their communication and having first-hand journeys.

“As a professional educator teaching a foreign language, my greatest advice is to travel,” he said. “I will often hear from [former] students who have traveled to places like Europe, lived in Mexico, surfed in Costa Rica. I like to believe I am inspiring students to do things.”

For Monahan, whose previous travels to Latin and Central America were on his own, it was also different researching and arranging accommodations and experiences with his son in mind.

“When I would travel when I was younger, I would find lodging anywhere and not pay too much attention to neighborhoods or proximately to other places. I would just get there and figure it out. However, for this trip, because of post-pandemic travel and wanting to make sure it was a seamless experience for my son, I spent a lot more time researching and planning.”

The collection of experiences from this trip have already helped improve his teaching and student learning and Monahan is thankful for the time away from the classroom.

“Being given this opportunity to re-immerse myself in language, culture and exploration has been a wonderful gift. No question that the things I have done, seen, eaten, absorbed will be brought back into the classroom.”

The Andes Mountains at night.
The Andes Mountains at night.