Friday, June 11, 2010

Looking back and looking ahead.

In the movie “Gladiator”, the opening scene is quite powerful, but relevant to my overall experience in Costa Rica. In the movie, the Roman soldiers are attacking the final strong hold of a Germanic people. The violence of the battle is contrasted by a miraculously light and delicately powerful music. The duality of the scene captures the essense of my overall experience of walking the footsteps of an English language learner, minus the carnage of course. Despite the stressful nature of the experience, I was surrounded by the peaceful cinematography of mountains and clouds forests. While walking in the footsteps of an English language learner, and the enormity of stress that accompanied me every step of the way, the geography of my footsteps was soothed by good food, friendly people, and a sense of community I have not felt in many years. I often found myself searching for fragile connections to comfort with people I did not know in order to ease the tension. We talked about soccer, food, politics, and other things, but I was always limited by language. The conversations always felt inches away from success. My future students will experience this same duality.

English language learners are held captive by the promise of a better life, but at the same time, they are held captive by the limitations of language. It will be up to me to soften their stresses and build pathways to learning that are relevant to their experiences. I have walked in their shoes; I have felt the duality of promise and frustration. I have felt the tiny victories that occur when in a word a connection is made. I have also felt many defeats along the way.

Whether my students are form Central America, China, Europe, or the Middle East, their footsteps are similar, their direction the same, they want to learn. Costa Rica has often been described as a cultural, economic, and physical bridge between two continents. I will have to use my experiences of walking in the footsteps of an English Language learner to bridge the divide between frustration and learning that language can create

In a few months, I will be traveling to Kuwait to teach social studies to middle school kids. Although the nature of my experience will be different, the duality will still exist. Despite this, I will have stories to share, about Costa Rica, the United States, and all the other places my feet have taken me in the past. I will be learning and teaching at the same time.

The Geography of Soccer

Today marks the beginning of the World Cup and for the last few weeks while traveling across Costa Rica, I witnessed an incredible connection with soccer. Many of my conversations began with discussing the upcoming World Cup. Unfortunately, I often had to offer my condolences to Costa Ricans because their team was eliminated from the tournament in the qualifications rounds, but it has hardly tempered the excitement about the tournament. There are several South And Central American teams in the tournament including the powerhouse teams of Argentina and Brazil, among others. It is difficult to describe the importance of soccer unless you’ve walked the streets, sat in the café’s, and talked to the people.

Soccer has deep-rooted geographic qualities that I believe I can use to keep my English language learners, and all my students, engaged and focused on the big picture rather than succumbing to stress anxiety and discomfort that they may face on a daily basis. Geography has played a key role in the style in which soccer is played in different regions of the world.

Brazilians and many other South and Central American teams have played an entirely different style of soccer than Europeans over the years. In Brazil for example, often children grow up playing soccer on rocky fields. Therefore they tend to play a less physical and more finessed style of soccer to avoid falling down on the hard rocky surface. In contrast, in England, where the kids grow up playing soccer on deep rich and soft grass, as skilled as they might be, the English style has tended to be more physical for the simple fact falling down on soft grass does not hurt as much as a rocky surface.

How can this knowledge benefit a student in the 6th grade? How is this relevant to a middle grades student in North Carolina? Well, in the North Carolina standard course of study students’ focus on Europe and South America and geography is a key component of their study, and they compare and contrast the two regions on many different levels. Soccer is not only a cultural centerpiece of these two continents; it can serve as a geographical window into the exploration of the study of these two regions of the world. How will this relate to my English Language learner? I can use soccer as a connective device to maintain interest as well as an actual cultural stethoscope to explore what lies beneath the surface of the people of these regions.

By using the geography of soccer, students can learn social studies on a more relevant manner than merely looking at longitude and latitude. Social studies are more than geography, but the soccer though geography template is flexible enough to be interchanged with many other concepts. For example, Samba music is another cultural centerpiece of South American culture. (Particularly in Brazil) Samba is often described as rhythmic and flowing. Does this describe the culture of South America? Perhaps. There certainly is a different rhythm and flow to the style of soccer, popular music, and the movement of people in a South American city, compared to European cities. Using connections that are deeply ingrained in the culture of English language learners can help to maintain focus and attention in the classroom to create richer and more meaningful learning moments.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Looking for answers.

Until now I have only thought of questions and descriptions of how I have felt. I understand that my personal feelings and experiences can create empathy and understanding of my future English language-learning students, but I need answers. How can I translate those experiences into a teaching strategy? How can I overcome the temptation to simply focus on the language barrier rather than harness the intellect and experiences of English language learners to benefit their education and the entire class? How can I move beyond the individual component parts and challenges and capture the essence of the learning moments that all too often slip away in the confusion of the classroom?

Ayrton Senna, the late formula 1 driver once commented that in a formula 1 car that there is a sembiance between driver and machine and balancing all your skills and training with your intellect and intuition is the difference between success and failure. I think the same symbiotic relationship is critical in the classroom. A teacher teaches and learns from the students. The students can learn from each other as well, and the teacher has to balance methods and experiences with flexibility. A teacher must find that symbiotic relationship between teaching and learning.

In many of my courses I have learned the importance of making connections with students. Last semester Dr. Shankar-Brown taught me that using a variety of different pathways to literacy is essential. She emphasized relevance and connections. She emphasized context and creativity. I think one way to do that is to look beyond the language barrier and tap the experiences of my English language learners. Rather than creating the perception they are somehow stifled by their language I can turn that perceived negative into a positive. I need to create lesson plans that allow that to exchange in the classroom.

Last night I was having dinner with my host family. Mi mama y papa Tico went out to dinner and I stayed home with the kids. Their children range from 14yrs old to 21yrs old. I was not surprised by their language skills because they learn English in school, and I was impressed by the richness of their life experiences. In addition they possessed and in-depth knowledge of politics, economics, environmental issues and other critical areas of social students. As a whole they had an in-depth knowledge of world affairs and understood specific US domestic and foreign policy issues-even to the extent of quoting specific pieces of legislation.

I have also noticed in the classroom that some of the most intelligent children are from Central America. I have also personally experienced how language can trap a person into a world where one cannot share those experiences. I have noticed that the Hispanic/Latino population normally comprises 10 to 15 % of the classroom population. So if I don’t create a path to share those experiences I am not only limiting the richness of the education of my English language learners, I am also stifling the education of my English language students.

So far I have learned three specific tools I can use. Soccer, popular culture, and geography, but there are many more. To be continued...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

La Carpiso

If you have ever lifted a rock out of the water and cracked it open on the ground you might have wondered two things. One, how long has the rock been in the water and why has the water not penetrated to the heart of the rock.

When I walked around La Carpiso I wondered how long has humanity been surrounded by terrible misery and yet as a whole the people’s despair has not truly penetrated our collective heart. (At least enough to call us to universal action.) I’m as guilty as anyone of this spiritual crime, but I met Gail today and she has dedicated her life to doing something about the lives of the people in La Carpiso. Many people can empathize, but few take real action like she has done.

La Carpiso is a sprawling shanty-like town outside of San Jose. The people of La Carpiso were, initially, exclusively, from Nicaragua. These immigrants came to Costa Rica in the 1980's to escape immeasurable poverty and misery inflicted upon them by revolution, natural disaster and poverty. They came in search of a better life, and despite the appearance of the shanty-town, they have built a community. The Costa Rican government has assisted, but groups like Gails’ Foundacion Humanitaria ( are fighting the good fight to make a direct and immediate difference in people’s lives.

We spent the afternoon meeting the kids at the day school and helping to build beds for those who need them. After a few hours of helping, I took a step back and watched the city. Despite the terrible living conditions, which have improved enormously over the years, there was a powerful sense of community. ALthough the people are poor, they are at home in this community.

For me there were many lessons to be learned beyond the obvious ones which compelled me to make a donation when I get back to the US. The hidden lessons were in the stories of the children and how my future students might come from similar, if not nearly as bad, of living conditions. How do we in the U.S. balance integrating communities for the greater good without destroying the connectivity that each particular community enjoys.

Is shipping kids across town a good idea when it takes kids out of their communities? We know the education system is not equal in the U.S. To think otherwise is delusional. If you grow up in a zip code that has money you have an enormous advantage. The cycle of inequity can be broken but it is not easy. It is a continuous loop of poor education that leads to more poverty and the continuation of inequity. However, is it fair to take kids from well to do areas and put them in more challenging districts? I guess those are questions for the politicians.

As a future teacher I have to ask: How can I improve kids ability to learn in my classroom. How can I be a better teacher to those that are out of there element. How can I take what I will learn and have learned so far in Costa Rica and create a working strategy for my classroom?

The last week or so I have been dealing with the questions, over the next few days I hope to begin to formulate some answers to some of these issues that will face me soon as a teacher.

Monday, May 24, 2010

relationship to things

The first few days in Costa Rica has been similar to an Alice in Chains concert. If you have ever seen Alice in Chains live you would understand that it is a wall of sound that seems to come in never ending layers. It is information overload.

My relationship to everyday things has been significantly altered, it seems by all this new information. My relationship to many things has changed. My relationship with time, space, communication, food, water and other normal activities has undergone a paradigm shift.

Now, that I’ve regained some clarity and understand these new relationships and how they might affect a student who is not fluent in English. Even though I understand this, I still cannot fully comprehend what a student has to endure because I have an ace of spades in reserve, I can always retreat to the safety of my group of the privacy of my bedroom. These are advantages that some of my future students might not have.

For example right now I am sitting in a café high above the Pacific Ocean and I am comforted by the serenity of the moment, a student will not have this advantage. A student does not have the ability to escape the difficulties in order to put perspective on the changing relationships to everything that is familiar.

In a few minutes we will be leaving Manuel Antonio for Monte Verde. We will be staying with a new host family for the next two weeks. We will also be pressing on with trying to learn Spanish and I suspect that will be more challenging, but each day I take one more step in the shoes of an English language learner. Despite the advantages I might have over a 10 year old kid, in just one week my respect and empathy for my future English language learners has advanced miles beyond where it was when I arrived in Costa Rica.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Costa Rica'n Students.

Tuesday May 18

We visited an elementary school today. Like any school of kids from 1st to 6th grade they were noisy and exited about being in school. A classmate and I got the opportunity to read to a class of sixth graders that were in an English class. We read to the kids and they repeated back. We brought letters that students in Wilmington had written to introduce themselves to the students in Costa Rica. When we finished reading we sat down and help them write letters back to students from Wilmington. The kids probably knew as much English as I knew Spanish, and we somehow were able to have a basic conversation.

I was talking about soccer and basketball to one kid and he asked me if I knew Michael Jordon and Kobe Bryant. I told him no but Michael Jordon grew up in Wilmington NC. ( I was attempting this in Spanish)

Not realizing my limited Spanish combined with their limited English something got lost in translation. All of a sudden several of the 6th grade boys wanted to know if I was a friend with other NBA players. I tried to tell them I did not know any NBA players but it did not seem to work.

I was back in our class the next day to learn more Spanish and I was thinking about the previous days experience. I wanted to tell these students so much about school, sports, and other things but I was constrained by my limited knowledge of Spanish.

The last few minutes of class really hammered the feeling home. Our teacher was teaching us Spanish through a children’s book. Although this method was extremely effective and our Spanish teacher is excellent, it was a strange feeling. I was reading a children’s book to learn. Bruised ego aside, I thought this was another example of what an English Language learner might go through. Imagine an intelligent kid trapped in the confines of not being able to communicate. How frustrating would that be?

Casado con Pollo

Three days of Spanish classes and six days total in Costa Rica and we’ve seen some incredible sights. The experiences are starting to gain depth and breadth, but they are only peripheral elements of what the trip is really about. I am here to walk in the footsteps of an English language learner. What does that mean? This experience cannot be captured or understood in any book, photograph or simple explanation. It can only be lived. It can only be felt, tasted, and seen. It can only manifest itself in the tiny victories and defeats one feels on a daily basis when your entire frame of reference has been shaken to the core. The experience encompasses all the senses.

To truly understand what it is like to walk in the shoes of an English language learner one has to go through the tensions, frustrations, and joys of someone who does not know the language. I have experienced that so far through an informational, and sensory collage of sights and emotions. I have experienced it in the difficulty in communicating, the mind numbing onslought of mental overload that comes from not knowing a language, and the frustration of completing the simplest of tasks.

There have been moments of triumph as well. For example: I went to a restaurant by myself the other night and from begging to end I spoke only in Spanish. The strange thing was that a few days before I had the same meal in the same restaurant with my classmates, but somehow it tasted better after ordering it entirely in Spanish. This basic task, which anyone would normally take for granted, turned into a monumental victory. This all adds to the authenticity of what a child in school who is an English language learner faces everyday.

As I was eating my Casado con Pollo, one of the national dishes of Costa Rica, I realized the dish itself is a reflection of my experience. Casado con Pollo is a combination of rice, beans, chicken, fired plantain and salad. There is nothing spectacular about each individual component part of the dish, in fact it is relatively bland, but taken as a whole it comes together to form a rich culinary experience. Like Casado, each individual experience as a person that does not know the language, is not very important, but taken as whole they have imprinted an unforgettable image in my mind of what it will be like to teach students who are English language learners. And I have only taken a few footsteps so far.