In the study of a language, understanding culture is as important as conjugating verbs. While a trip to the museum is a fine substitute for a trip to Mexico City for middle school Spanish students, too often even a short bus trip is prohibitively expensive.

No matter, says Nicole Salvia, a Spanish teacher at Alder Avenue Middle School in Egg Harbor Township. If she can't bring her students to the subject of their study, she'll bring it to them.

Thanks to a $350 grant from the Egg Harbor Township Education Foundation, Salvia was able to bring a traveling exhibit on famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera to the school for the week of Feb. 25. The exhibit, she said, offers a good complement to her classroom instruction.

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"Teaching culture is a really big part of teaching a language," Salvia said. "We can't really go on field trips so much anymore, so this was a way to bring something here that all of my students could enjoy."

Rivera, one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, was known as much for his intricate, thought-provoking murals as he was for his outspoken communism. His work was politically charged and often alluded to Mexican history, making his body of work valuable in teaching Mexican culture, Salvia said.

The exhibit, which was rented from education supplier Teacher's Discovery, consists of three of Rivera's best-known works - "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," "The Agitator" and "El Vendedor De Alcatraces" - printed on large tapestries, which were hung on a wall beside the entrance to the school's cafeteria.

Salvia, whose classes are working on using the past tense, had her students write short essays on their favorite of the three works and answer basic questions about them. Other Spanish teachers at the school brought their students to the exhibit for similar lessons.

Salvia had her students research Rivera, his life and his works in the weeks preceding the exhibit's arrival. Student Josh Faust said studying Rivera's work turned him on to details he wouldn't have noticed otherwise. The Alameda Park painting, for instance, includes nods to Rivera's political leanings, he said.

"You can tell just by looking at it, it has a story," Josh said. "The police are trying to get the poor people out so the rich people can have a party. There's a lot of symbolism."

Classmate Tiffany Ping said she wasn't much for art prior to studying Rivera, but she has become more interested in it since looking at the artist's work in such depth.

"I think I appreciate art a lot more than I did before, because now I know there's stories behind everything," Tiffany said.

Salvia said she hopes to bring a similar exhibit to the school next year, that one possibly featuring Frida Kahlo, Rivera's wife and equal on the 20th century art scene.

Regardless of what she brings in next year, Salvia said, she is glad she had the opportunity to give her students a level of cultural understanding they can't get through their textbooks.

"When you read about something in a book or see something on a page, sometimes it doesn't really stick with you," Salvia said. "I think actually experiencing it is something the kids are going to remember."

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