Michelle Traub, an elementary and high school Spanish teacher in Canton, wants to excite her students to travel, to explore new places, and to communicate with others in their native language.
She often quotes Nelson Mandela, saying “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.”
But she wants to open their eyes to the many cultures represented in their own school community, too.
As founder of Canton Intermediate School’s Global Citizens Club, Traub tries to bring this diversity to the forefront, through cultural celebrations and presentations by students and their families.
Recently, the school held its first celebration of Diwali, the Indian festival of light. The entranceway was strung with twinkling lights and lanterns, and traditional Indian music played as students arrived at school. A student’s grandmother, who had learned about the celebration from the school’s principal, visited social studies classrooms and the Global Citizens Club to talk about how she celebrates the holiday in Canton and in India and to share some traditional Diwali food with the students.
Even students in the Global Citizens Club are often surprised by how much diversity surrounds them, Traub said. Each year, she shows the club a Ted Talk by Taiye Selasi, a writer and author of Nigerian and Ghanian descent who was born in London and raised in Boston titled, “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, Ask Me Where I’m Local.” It’s about multiple identities, and how an individual can feel at home in more than one place.
“Students start to think about where they are a local and often realize how much diversity we have in just our small group,” she said. “It also opens their eyes to the idea that diversity can be much more than what you see on the surface.”
Another way Traub introduces her students to different cultures is through her own travels abroad. She posts pictures of places she visits to her Instagram account and has found pen pals for her classes through connections in Spain, Ecuador and Mexico.
Students follow my travels and start to see new and exciting places that they might have never heard of before. Travel and exploring the world becomes a realistic dream for them because they see their teacher doing it.
One year, she assigned her Spanish 3 Honors students a community service project, then traveled to the Texas/Mexico border to volunteer as a translator at a center for refugees herself. She stayed in touch with her students through Skype and a blog.
“There was this awesome cultural knowledge that I was learning that I was able to share with my students,” she said.
Another year, Traub taught English and Spanish in Senegal through a Fulbright Fellowship called “Teachers for Global Classrooms,” bringing what she was learning back home to her students through virtual video sessions.
Most recently, Traub participated as a leader for the U.S State Department’s Youth Ambassadors program, which brings high school students and adult mentors from across the Western Hemisphere together to promote mutual understanding, increase leadership skills, and prepare youth to make a difference in their communities.
Now in her 11th year of teaching, Traub says she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. The daughter and granddaughter of teachers, and the oldest of seven children, she grew up playing school in the basement, with her at the front of the class.
When Traub was in second grade, students could earn tickets for doing positive things. The tickets could be redeemed for time in recess or prizes. But Traub wasn’t interested in those rewards – she cashed in hers for the chance to serve as the teacher for one of her class lessons.
She majored in elementary education in college, but studied abroad in Spain, inspired by a high school Spanish teacher who had shared her love of the country.
Traub hopes she can ignite that same spark in her students, many of whom are initially afraid to learn a new language. Most of her students’ parents are monolingual, and their memories of Spanish can be negative, along the lines of “I studied Spanish for four years, and I don’t remember anything.” Their kids pick up on that, and think learning Spanish will be hard, she said.
As they progress, her students often get more enthusiastic about speaking a second language, she said. Recently, one student, who works at McDonald’s, excitedly told her that he’d taken an order in Spanish. A former student found Traub on Twitter and proudly told her that she had majored in Spanish in college and had just interviewed an NFL player in Spanish.
One of the most rewarding things about teaching Spanish is being able to share my passion for language and culture with others, and having them gain that passion.
The Covid pandemic forced Traub to put her travels on pause for several months. This summer, she was able to travel for the first time since Covid struck, visiting the United Arab Emirates, Aruba, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. She returned to the classroom with fresh stories and a new way to greet her students: “Pura Vida”– a Costa Rican phrase that translates directly as “Pure Life,” and conveys a no-stress, no-worries attitude.
“I was so excited to travel again,” she said. “It rejuvenated me as a person.”