Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 2011--A new adventure!

Hola! We leave for Costa Rica in 3 days and for all that know me well, you know what my life is like right now! There will be 10 undergraduates, one graduate student--10 female and 1 male, and one other faculty member, Mahnaz Moallem joining me on this adventure. We have some special events planned such as a collaborative event with a UNCG group, the CPI Language Immersion School's 20th anniversary celebration, 2 service learning projects and a pizza party for our families. I'm currently working with the teachers to plan our lessons that we will teach out in the 4 schools. Two of the schools we spend a few days in each.

I am looking forward to seeing the eyes pop and the jaws drop, especially for the students that have never been on an airplane, much less traveled outside of the U.S. I think we have 4 that haven’t flown and 6 that haven’t been out of the U.S.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t continue my Spanish all this year like I planned, but I’m feeling more confident in going into my classes this year. I won't have Rich there to divert the teacher's attention off of the planned lesson. We learned so much about the culture last year and more Spanish by asking questions.

My host families will be the same as last year. If I don't communicate more this year, they will surely think I'm an idiot--what motivation! My silent phase has got to end. When I come home, please only communicate with me in Spanish.

This year, I'm taking my tape recorder to capture more of the students' voices in our discussions. I missed a lot of that last year. Hopefully, I can keep better field notes this year. I was taking in everything in the same way as the students last year, so it was difficult to take the time to write. As I read back over my interview notes and the student blogs, I don't feel that they still capture the depth of learning that occurred on this trip.

Better field notes may be useful in finding donors to sponsor scholarships for future students and faculty, a critical next step in supporting immersion experiences such as this one.

Stay tuned to the students' blogs. They will, without doubt, give you their fresh perspective on being immersed in a Latino culture.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Final Week's Reflections

When you come to the end of a very difficult struggle, you’d like to think that you learned a lesson that you will never forget. I have struggled, though I’ve tried not to show it and stay strong for my students. The lessons I have learned through these past 19 days are many. It was my intent to be able to come home speaking Spanish. Although I have learned so much about Spanish, I still struggle to put the language together in conversation. The effort that it takes to learn a new language is tremendous for me. It’s been 35 years since I took German and Latin in school. Thanks to Latin, I can at least read some Spanish. I’ve learned to congregate verbs, present, past and future. I’ve learned sentence structure, question words, words for time, prepositions, articles and conjunctions and mucho, mucho verbos y nombres. Throughout my Spanish classes and homework, I recognize that I can understand conversation when it’s slowed down and when I can ask questions about terms I don’t understand and have a restatement, a drawing, or to see the Spanish word written to help me make the connections. The more my instruction is related to my interests, answers my questions or occurs in the context of my experiences, the easier it is to make connections and to understand.

As I’m learning in class or struggling to communicate outside of class, I never stop thinking about learning, language learning, and how children learn language, learn about language and learn through language. I am only needing to learn a new language, but children who are English language learners need to also learn about language and through language----so much more, especially in the primary grades!
I can’t conceive of truly learning the language with just repetition, drill, and practice without personal meaning. Our first teacher repeated words, wrote them on the board, insisted that we copy them, and then were given homework to memorize the verbs and nouns. I could do this over and over and still not have any understanding of the words. The past two weeks, I’ve had a teacher who has broken with the standard curriculum and has begun allowing us to ask questions of interest to us and she will sometimes speak in Spanish for 3 hours explaining the answers to our questions. This explanation is supported with restatements, defining in context in Spanish, drawings, writing the Spanish word on the board, and as a last resort, the use of English. Although there is no pressure for me to ask my questions in Spanish, I’m finding more and more that I want to form questions and freely translate what is being said into English, even if it is not a literal translation. I’m not to the point of carrying on a conversation in Spanish, but continue to push myself to talk to my family in sentences in Spanish instead of the one word responses I was giving last week with lots of body language!

After yesterday’s visit to the Cloud Forest School, a bilingual school for local children, I am even more convinced that we have tipped the scale too far toward learning about language rather than learning through language. Children attending this school are quickly fluent in English with an emphasis on theme teaching and teaching language through conceptual learning. Our students are certainly seeing the value of this as they pursue their inquiry projects on topics of their choice in English and Spanish.

Professor Richard and I had a wonderful debate today concerning learning, one of the themes of the course. The debate is on-going and is also involving our students. The debate is over the term “fun.” The Spanish word for fun is divetido. This word has the same root as the English words divert and diversion. The first dictionary definition of fun is “to amuse, to entertain.” Dr. Huber says that learning must be fun. I argue that fun isn’t the correct word because it gives our students the wrong connotation of what learning really involves. We both agree that learning must be engaging. I believe that learning involves a bit of tension or even a struggle. Learning is the learner’s use of strategies to break through this difficulty or challenge and which produces a feeling of exhilaration and self-satisfaction. This risk allows the learner to take bigger risks in future learning experiences. Each success builds toward new successes in learning. Generally, the only way learners will stick with this process long enough to experience true learning is if they are engaged or have a need to know. The argument is if we tell our teachers that learning must be fun, do they miss the point of true learning and what engagement really involves. Can teachers think that children are engaged because they are involved in an activity and seem to be enjoying it? Does this equal learning? When we shift our emphasis to “learning involves some struggle,” it becomes an unpopular view. However, our students here in Costa Rica are celebrating the struggles and breaking through them. Having this debate sets a good example for our students to think through what they believe and why they believe that. It demonstrates that we may not always agree but we can be civil about those disagreements and learn from each other. Mostly, this debate is semantics, but it has caused us all to reflect more deeply on our own learning.

The beauty of being in Costa Rica for this immersion is that the students are also learning so much science and social studies. Rainforests, cloud formation, cloud forests, biodiversity, concern for the environment, alternative energy sources, earthquakes (we’ve experienced 3 so far), volcanoes (we’ve been to two active ones), Latino culture, fair trade, how exports are critical to a nation’s economy, etc., etc. are all topics discussed and experienced throughout the three weeks. Our guides have all been so knowledgeable. Dr. Huber had added to these rich experiences with more explanations.

This morning we had a discussion of poverty and resiliency. We have all seen poverty through new eyes. We have lived in homes of families with incomes much lower than we are accustomed to in our own families. We talked to one young man who was shot as a child and dumped in the street by the man who shot him. The child was placed in a home for years for mentally retarded children, though he was handicapped only from the waist down. His mother eventually abandoned him. Yet through the help and hope of an individual, he has become an artist. We have had numerous opportunities to learn about how difficult a life some people have, yet they find joy. Our service learning projects have allowed us to experience what people living in poverty experience. They often work together as a family to achieve a better life. They often take enormous risks, some life threatening, to provide a better life for their children. Most toil for long hours for little pay. Despite many stresses, sometimes abuse, sometimes single parenting, most children can find hope. All it takes is one adult in their lives—this might be a teacher.

Although we continue to have discussion about learning and language learning, our topics have shifted in the past few days to teaching strategies. I am confident that this experience has changed all of us as teachers. I hope that at some point all of our Watson professors can participate in this or a similar experience in some way.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Week One: An incredible adventure!

May 17, 2010
Last night may have been the longest and most awkward night I’ve spent in my life. My host family habla no Ingles and me no habla EspaƱal. One son speaks some English. A young man from Chicago, who has been studying Spanish in Costa Rica for 4 months is staying in another small connected apartment with his family for a few days. His mother is Latino and during her short visit with my family, translated some things about me. The son translated some things about his family. The papa was very frustrated with me, but the mama sat beside me and tried her best to communicate with me. At dinner, the father held up a plate: plato, fork: tenedor, cup: taza, etc. I felt like Helen Keller!

The common ground for my hostess and me is our grandchildren. Victoria’s granddaughter Sophia is two and, my grandson A.J. is duos anos. We also have sons, Arturo and Patrick, that are both 23.

Yesterday we took a multiple choice test on Spanish. I don’t have my score, but I realized that I was using strategies that students who don’t know use. I was skipping, picking up on one thing I knew and trying to apply that to everything, and purely guessing. It was frustrating, but I realized that I didn’t really care because I knew that I didn’t know it. I hadn’t experienced quite that feeling of no guilt or shame for not knowing and just guessing. Usually, I would feel embarrassed or ashamed that I hadn’t studied harder. I’ve always thought that’s what children should feel. Now I realize that if it is so far over their head, they can just be relaxed about the assessment. I will have to explore this more. I’m learning that my students may not have the same emotions about learning that I have, especially if they have experienced lots of failure or just always feel that their learning is over their head.

My oral exam was a total blank! I don’t think I have ever felt so empty in the brain!

On a more positive note, the students and Rich have been fantastico traveling companions. We have toured for the first three days and had bilingual guides. It was good to hear the content in English, but they were good at giving us the Spanish, also. We have a primary contact person that is staying with us throughout most of the trip. This is helpful. I have asked her to gradually shift to more Spanish or Spanglish and to gradually allow us to figure out things amongst ourselves.

May 20, 2010
In case you hear that Costa Rica had a 6.2 earthquate today, I want you to know that all is well. We could feel it. We were in the classroom and the table, then the walls, then the building shook. They say it is common --maybe once a month. The epicenter was near the Pacific, but deep in the earth. On Saturday we were in the area where a larger earthquake hit in January 2009 and saw the results of all of the mudslides. Yesterday we were able to climb up and look down into the crater of an active volcano. Today we experienced an earthquake. What great geography lessons!!!

We are having an incredible experience. Tuesday and today we were in a very poor school in Heredia and followed the English teacher to his classes. He let our students teach. Tuesday, I delivered letters from children in Wilmington and the students helped the Costa Rican children read the letters and write back in English. They played Simon Says in English and taught them the ABC song. They came prepared today with books to read in Spanish and English. We translated the books yesterday in Spanish class. Today, they let the children read the books to them in Spanish. Then they read the book in English and had the children read along. It was a great experience for both the children and our teachers. They then taught a math lesson where the children had to estimate how many jelly beans of each color were in a bag. Then they counted using the English numbers and color words and graphed. The principal and assistant principal came down to see and invited us to come back next year.

This afternoon we met a couple from one of the 7 indigenous tribes left in Costa Rica. They taught us how to carve masks, weave, and explained their culture and issues they face today. Tomorrow we are doing a service learning project for the Humanitarian Foundation and working in a Montessori School for very poor Honduran immigrants. The Spanish classes have been a challenge for all of us, but the biggest challenge has been our homestays. It is so difficult to not be able to communicate the way you'd like with people you grow to really care about. This feeling of alienation has been experienced by all (by design of the course), and they are already understanding what it is like to be an English Language Learner.

The group has bonded very well, and everyone has really put a lot of effort into the course, into trying to communicate, into adjusting to families that have much less than they do, and to keeping up with a grueling schedule. We leave home in the morning by 6 or 7 (some of the students were at the school this morning at 5:45 doing their homework--that's AM!). We never get home before 6 or 7 p.m. Then we/they have at least an hour or more of homework. They are all trying to spend at least an hour over dinner with the family to try to use their Spanish.

Although this is the rainy season, and we've seen lots of rain, we have yet had to walk to school in the rain. We walk about 20-25 min. each way everyday. We all walk together or in small groups so that all are safe after dark. It's been a great time to debrief and think about how to say things you want to communicate to your family.

Saturday we will leave at 5 am for a well-deserved day and a half at the beach where the jungle meets the sea. Our bilingual guides have been great at teaching about all of the fauna, flora, geography, and cultural aspects of everything we have seen, explaining in English with the Spanish vocabulary mixed in. The students all came with questions for a personal inquiry: Politics, the educational system, environmental education, volcanoes, and ecosystems. They had to read prior to coming to Costa Rica, and then learn as much as they can while they are here. You see them sitting in a coffee shop with a local talking and asking questions in Spanish, questioning the staff at the school, questioning the guides, checking out books in Spanish. It is truly an amazing experience. We have two and a half weeks left and MANY, many more experiences in store. Sunday we travel to Monteverde to meet a new host family who will definitely be less well off than our families here in Heredia.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Preparing to Launch on Our Adventure!

I'm sitting at my desk state side, anticipating our trip to Costa Rica. All of our students are excited, but most realize that they will likely experience frustrations along the way. I’ve asked them to conduct a content study or action research project about a topic/problem that they are very interested in or passionate about. They’ve asked how they can discuss their topic with Ticos when their ideas are sophisticated, but their language is basic. That’s one of the things we want to find out. ELLs are faced with this issue—how do they negotiate the situation? My goal for the course is for the students to experience what it is like to be an “other” in a new culture with a new language so they can develop the empathy for their English language learners.

Dr. Rich Huber is joining us on this adventure. I am so thankful to have him join us. His international experiences will be invaluable. We are planning on having the students help us conduct some science/math/literacy workshops for teachers. Thanks to my UNCW students, colleagues and 3rd grade students in Mrs. O’Brien’s class at CFCI, we are taking a duffle bag of books and school supplies to the schools we are visiting.

I asked the students to read “The Development of Empathetic Dispositions through Global Experiences” by Suarez (2003). Suarez also took her preservice teachers on a study aboard, full-immersion program, much like ours. Her students’ reflections were similar to in-service teachers’ traveling to Guanajuato, Mexico with Diane Catlin, Poudre R1 Colorado Schools’ TESOL Director. Diane, one of my former students, has been taking classroom teachers to Guanajuato for the past 8 or 9 years. Each year I receive a video of their exit interviews. One comment in particular has stood out for me. A very experienced male, elementary teacher said that this experience was the best and the worst experience of his life. He went on to explain that the experience has changed him forever as a teacher of ALL children. He also said that learning on this trip was the hardest thing he has ever done, and he now understands what it feels like to be a struggling learner. Harriet, one of Suarez’s students said, “I learned a lesson in this. I will always know how hard it is for the ESL students because I’ve been there.” Throughout this blog, I’m hoping that students will share what strategies and techniques work for them and what frustrates them.

My goal is to study how these 4 pre-service teachers and one experienced teacher learn language and learn through a language, then introspect about how they are learning. In my blog, I will be trying to document that.

I personally do not speak Spanish. I will be learning alongside my students. I have attempted numerous self-taught programs to teach myself Spanish over the years and even audited part of a semester of SPN 101. I lived in Colorado for 15 years and in Miami for 1 year, surrounded by Spanish speakers. I know some vocabulary, but I’ve been in the silent phase for 20 years! When my Peruvian daughter-in-law and her mother carry on a conversation, I try to follow, but quickly shut down and quit listening. Our group will be taking 60 hours of Spanish, 4 hours a day, in groups of 2-4 at our assessed in accordance with the ACTFL guidelines. I’m certain we will be pushed to our limits, but the course is not about how proficient we are in Spanish when we return. I’m prepared to be in the entry level of instruction, but I’m wondering if I will feel like the children feel who are placed in the “Buzzard” reading group?

In order for our students to experience “otherness,” we will each have 2 home families, 5 days with a family in Heridia and 10 days with a family in Monteverde. These families are chosen because they have limited English to allow us to practice speaking Spanish outside the classroom. In addition to our school visits and Spanish classes, I have planned guest speakers on education, school visits, history and cultural lessons by locals, dancing and cooking lessons, 2 service learning projects, and numerous opportunities to talk with the local people. We will be experiencing first-hand the rainforest, the jungle and volcanoes, concepts that most people only read about. Our guides will all be bilingual, so our students will hear information in Spanish and English.

I am very interested to learn more about this country that gave up its army and invested in education. The per capita income in 2007 for this 50% urban and 50% rural population was $5, 200, yet the education level, life expectancy and infant mortality rates are par with most developed nations, due to their national health system and public education system. Poor families are paid to keep their children in school. Costa Rica has an official policy of neutrality. One guidebook describes the Ticos as peaceable people ready to compromise and with a strong desire to please. Recently, they were voted the “happiest” people in the world. Ecotourism is critical to the economy. They have just elected their first woman president. I think we have much to learn from this culture!

Pura vida,