The Experience of an Exchange Program

Blog, London

In my first year teaching English, I had the wonderful opportunity to help out with an exchange program to London. Twenty-one of our 16-year-old Spanish students travelled to London for four days where they stayed with a host family from a school in Surbiton, a neighbouring suburban city of London. The English students also spent four days in the students’ home in Badalona, a neighbouring city of Barcelona.

During the program, our students formed close bonds and friendships with the English students; it was truly beautiful to see young people with different mother tongues getting along so well. Many students were even in tears when they had to say goodbye to their new friends. They all, however, made a promise to keep in touch and see each other again.

For a few of our students, it was their first time on a plane and their first time travelling so far from home without their parents. At the tender age of 16, the program offered the students an opportunity to see a different country, to expand their cultural awareness and, of course, to learn English.

During the program, I saw significant improvements with a few of our students in regard to their ability to understand and communicate in English. Since the students lived with English-speaking families and still communicate with their English friends through WhatsApp, they have no choice but to apply their knowledge and dive right into the language. The English students’ level of Spanish, however, wasn’t as advanced as they have only been learning Spanish for two years while our students start learning English at three years old, which urged our students even more to use English.

The program puts the classroom into the real world and immerses the students in the English language. I believe this type of program is the perfect way to motivate young learners to foreign languages when they usually might be intimidated or embarrassed in a classroom setting. As I teach English to three-year-olds to 16-year-olds in Spain, I see that the hardest part is to motivate students to learn English. With an exchange program, the students interact and apply their learning to other people their age who are learning a foreign language as well. In this setting, the students became learners as well as teachers. It is an excellent way to teach leadership skills and encourage students to continue their language learning journey. It is important for young people to become a global citizen and to interact with people from different countries and learn about other cultures. A vital way to do this is to learn new languages, especially English, which is the most widely spoken second language in the world. An exchange program is a perfect way to mobilize learning to the real world and show students that the world is so much bigger than just their school.



About 60 kilometres outside of Barcelona the landscape transforms into a breathtaking mountainous range containing astonishing arrays of serrated pink peaks with patches of lush green trees. From each angle of the wonderous Montserrat mountain the peaks bend and morph into shapes and creatures of your imagination; be it a baby elephant or a rabbit looking at the sky. Montserrat sprouts from the ground and towers high above the surrounding Catalan Pre-Coastal Range, which makes the sand-castle peaks easily distinguishable as it bears no resemblance to the surrounding landscape.

The name Montserrat literally means “serrated mountain” in Catalan, which describes the mountain’s peculiar rock formations that can be seen from miles away. It is composed of pink conglomerate sedimentary rock and large-scale layering.  The main peaks of this rocky range are Sant Jeroni –the highest peak at 1, 236 metres –Montgrós at 1, 120 metres and Miranda de les Agulles at 903 metres.

Montserrat is Spain’s first National Park and a place of pilgrimage since 1025. It is well-known for its Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, which hosts a sanctuary for the Virgin of Montserrat. The origins of this sanctuary date back to the year 888 when the image of Our Lady of Montserrat, popularly known as La Moreneta (The Dark One in Catalan), was found. The Virgin of Montserrat is a 95-cm statue of a Black Madonna sitting on a golden throne wearing a crown and holding a golden orb in her left hand with a crowned black baby in her lap. She is a 12th-century Romanesque polychrome carving and one of Europe’s only Black Madonnas. Legend says that the Benedictine monks could not move the statue and thus had to build the monastery around her. She now sits atop an altar of gold at the back of the church on the mountaintop. Many people take the pilgrimage to visit the Virgin and kiss the statue. Montserrat, along with Sant Jordi, is the patron saint of Catalonia.

The Montserrat monastery is made up of about 80 monks who practice the Rule of Saint Benedict. The summit can be reached by funicular railways, which take people over the steepest parts of the mountain. Many people also hike the terrain and some even dare to climb the steep, serrated peaks. At the mountain’s summit, there is the Museum of Montserrat, Santa Cecília de Montserrat Church and art space, an interactive exhibition and Montserrat Library.

Montserrat is a natural Catalonian beauty and one of the most unique mountains in the world. It is no wonder that many Catalan females take the name of this majestic geological masterpiece.


Sagrada Familia


Cross the threshold into the world of Antoni Gaudí where every shape, colour and sculpture bursts with symbolism. For the last 40 years of his life, Gaudí dedicated his time to the construction of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.

At the centre of Barcelona with peaks that reach the heavens, Sagrada Familia is the perfect combination of nature and Catholicism. The unfinished Roman Catholic church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was even consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2010.

The massive basilica will have a total of 18 towers with the highest dedicated to Jesus Christ and surrounded by four towers representing the Gospels. One tower is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the other 12 to the Apostles. These towers exemplify an elevation towards God as the pinnacles fuse with the sky.

The basilica also has three facades that represent crucial events in Christ’s existence: his birth, crucifixion and resurrection, and his present and future glory. The facades are strategically placed as the Nativity Facade (the birth) faces the sunrise and the Passion Facade (the crucifixion and resurrection) faces the sunset.

Within the walls of the crafted structure are branching columns, colourful stained-glass windows and hexagonal figures on the ceiling to represent an enchanted forest. In this forest, Gaudí invites visitors to pray and worship God in a natural setting.

The origins of Sagrada Familia date back to 1866 when Josep Maria Bocabella i Verdaguer founded the Spiritual Association of Devotees of Saint Joseph, which purchased 12,800 m² of land in 1881. The first stone was laid on March 19, 1882, on Saint Joseph’s day. The original architect was Francisco de Paula del Nillar y Lozan, who resigned after a short while due to disagreements with the promotors and Antoni Gaudí replaced him in 1883.

Once Gaudí took over, he abandoned the Neo-gothic plan and developed an innovative structure with immense symbolism that conveys the teachings of the Gospels and the Catholic Church with a hint of naturalism in every corner. Subtle details like a turtle supporting a pillar, lizards sunbathing on the roof and animals supporting religious sculptures depicting Bible passages show Gaudí’s belief that God is in nature.
Since the construction of Sagrada Familia is solely based off of donations, Gaudí decided to construct the Nativity Facade first because it is richly decorated and ornamented; he felt that the Passion Facade would be rejected.

In 1914 Gaudí decided to exclusively work on Sagrada Familia and did not produce any other works. He became so involved in the construction of the Church that he lived his final months near his studio workshop. Gaudí was only able to see the first bell tower completed reaching 100 metres high and dedicated to Saint Barnabus because he died on June 10, 1926. The brilliant architect was hit by a TRAM streetcar and died three days later from injuries. He was buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia and his tomb can still be visited today.

Sagrada Familia has endured several periods in Barcelona’s history including the Spanish Civil War in 1936 where revolutionaries set fire to the crypt, burnt down the Provisional School of the Sagrada Familia and destroyed the studio workshop containing Gaudí’s blueprints. Regardless of the setback, construction continued according to Gaudí’s original vision.

Today, 136 years after the first stone was laid, the church is 70 percent completed. The holy masterpiece is set to be completed in 2022.

Gaudí’s masterpiece breathes life within its walls and transforms a simple stone into an elaborate work of art. Sagrada Familia demonstrates Gaudí’s ability to imitate nature and his devotion to God.

Parc del Laberint d’Horta


In the Horta-Guinardó district of Barcelona next to the Collserola ridge, lies the green jewel of the district, the oldest garden of the city, Parc del Laberint d’Horta. The garden is located on the estate of a former marquis family, the Desvalls, and is composed of an 18th-century neoclassical garden and a 19th-century romantic garden.

Construction began in 1791 when the owner, Joan Antoni Desvalls i d’Ardena, and an Italian architect, Domenico Bagutti, created the design for the neoclassical garden.This garden has three terraces: a lower terrace with a 750-metre hedge maze of trimmed cypress trees; an intermediate terrace with two Italian-style pavilions with Tuscan columns and statues of Greek mythological characters Danaë and Ariadne; and an upper terrace with a pavilion dedicated to the nine muses. The overall theme of the neoclassical garden is love and the hedge maze labyrinth gives the park its name.

In the mid 19th-century, the Desvalls family hired Elies Rogent to expand the garden. Rogent created the romantic garden adding flower beds, gazebos, a waterfall and small squares all under the shade of massive trees. The overall theme of the romantic garden is death as there used to be a small cemetery.

In 1967 the Desvalls family gave the city of Barcelona ownership of the park and it was opened to the public in 1971. The former home of the family –Torre Soberana, a 14th-century country house –is now an institute of gardening education with a specialized library.

Parc del Laberint d’Horta is a 9.1-hectare peaceful garden museum full of mythological sculptures hidden in every corner and beautiful Mediterranian forestry and flowers.

Montjüic Castle


As you linger towards the clouds atop Montjüic hill in Barcelona, you travel back in time to a 17th-century castle towering 173 meters above the Mediterranian Sea. You enter the castle grounds through a bridge that once extended above a moat that is now a parterre garden –a garden consisting of plant beds in symmetrical patterns in an ornamental arrangement. Castell de Montjüic, an old military fortress, provides breathtaking panoramic views of Barcelona and its port.

The foundation of the fortress was laid out in 1640 and only a year later saw its first battle during the Catalan revolt when the Principality of Catalonia challenged Spain’s authority. In 1694, the fort was demolished and redesigned by architect Juan Martín Cermeño who reconstructed the fortress into the currently standing castle and equipped it with 120 cannons.

Since then, the cannons of Montjüic were used to gun down the city of Barcelona and its citizens. The castle had been used as a prison and torture centre for political prisoners for three centuries. From 1936-1939, during the Spanish Civil War, both sides of conflict used the fortress to imprison, torture and shot political prisoners. Among these prisoners was the former president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Lluis Companys, who was executed by a firing squad in 1940 upon orders of the Franco regime. In the 20th century, dictator Francisco Franco converted Montjüic Castle into a military museum to serve as a reminder of the Catalan defeat to Spain.

In 2007, the castle came under the ownership of the Barcelona City Council and now belongs to the citizens of Barcelona. Castell de Montjüic is now a beautiful and peaceful place with 360° views of the city, but will always serve as a historical symbol of the repression of the Catalan people and of the city’s struggles during various periods in history.