The pale blue cinder block walls of Cara Bucciarelli's classroom are mostly hidden by verb conjugations and posters of Spanish-speaking countries and bins filled with textiles from Peru and other educational accoutrements.
"What I think about a lot is how you make the unfamiliar familiar," Bucciarelli, 37, said.
I visited her classroom recently at LaSalle II Magnet School, a K-8 school in Wicker Park that emphasizes world language education. The roughly 600 students can choose Arabic, Chinese, French or Spanish.
Bucciarelli is one of 45 educators from across the United States recently selected for a National Geographic fellowship that will take them on individual expeditions to Central America, the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Alaska and more. Bucciarelli's voyage, which kicks off in January, will take her to Costa Rica and Panama.
"I'm hoping to bring back all the sights and sounds of the rainforest for the students," Bucciarelli said. "I hope I'll be able to draw some parallels to Chicago and my students' neighborhoods and all the resources that are there – natural resources that maybe they don't see initially, like parks and forest preserves, but also what other resources are available to them that they may not be aware of."
Bucciarelli isn't the first Chicago Public Schools teacher to be selected for the 13-year-old fellowship, whose official title is the National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, named for National Geographic Society chairman emeritus Gilbert M. Grosvenor. The annual expeditions were donated to National Geographic by Sven-Olof Lindblad and Lindblad Expeditions in 2006.
Five CPS teachers have embarked on the expeditions in past years, though Bucciarelli is the first Spanish teacher to do so, according to a Chicago Public Schools spokesman. Most of the selected educators teach science or social studies.
"As a language teacher, my goal is to build connections and make comparisons and build communities around language," Bucciarelli said. "Whether we're talking about an indigenous group in Panama or we're talking about something that's closer to home, it's getting students to think a little bit outside themselves."
Each of Bucciarelli's grades focuses on a single Spanish-speaking country, which allows her to weave cultural learning into lessons about grammar and language.
"They have to learn to talk about something, so we talk about science, we talk about social studies, we talk about art," she said. "We talk about water scarcity. We talk about the water wars that happened in 2000 in Bolivia and whether water should be privatized and what does it mean to lack water. We talk about what it means for Peru or Argentina when glaciers are starting to melt."
Her eight-day voyage to Panama and Costa Rica, she hopes, will provide her with stories and photos and data and details to bring to her students. She'll share her ship with a group of naturalists, scientists and photographers. The group will spend time along the Osa Peninsula on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and travel along the Panama Canal.
Bucciarelli also wants her trip to feed her students' imaginations – about where they could go, about what they could see.
"I was a first-generation college student and I remember thinking, 'Oh! I could learn another language? I could go do these things that seem really challenging or far away?' I want them to see that you can pretty much go anywhere."
What a gift.
"What we want is to raise global citizens," Bucciarelli said. "What we want is compassionate, concerned, action-oriented kids who are going to be able to solve some of the problems that we've created."
Even if it means heading toward the equator to do so.
Join the Heidi Stevens Balancing Act Facebook group, where she continues the conversation around her columns and hosts occasional live chats.
(Contact Heidi Stevens at email@example.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)