by, Emily Parkinson | Edison Elementary – Morton Grove, IL
For as long as I’ve wanted to be a teacher, I’ve also wanted to teach abroad, immersed in a culture different from my own. During a particularly stressful experience this past year, it occurred to me that spending my summers abroad could be a perfect way to satisfy that international craving. I want to tell you a little bit about my fellowship living, learning and teaching in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and the biggest takeaways that I will bring to my practice here in the US.
Around November of last year when I considered applying for a Fund for Teachers grant, I started searching for summer opportunities abroad, specifically in Latin America because a large percentage of my students are Latino and Spanish-speaking. My main goal was to become fluent in Spanish so I could comfortably speak with a parent or translate an individualized education plan (IEP). A Google search led me to a company called Common Ground International, a husband-wife team based in Colorado who lead Spanish immersion trips for teachers, medical professionals and high school students. The ‘Spanish for Educators’ program was perfect for me: living for four weeks in Nicaragua and Costa Rica – working with local education-related organizations and schools, taking intensive Spanish classes with a focus on education, and living with host families in both countries. I knew this program would push me out of my comfort zone and help me not only become more proficient in Spanish, but also become a more culturally-competent educator.
My fellowship began in the city of Granada, Nicaragua, a colonial city situated on the coast of Lake Nicaragua. Granada charmed me in every way imaginable, with its pastel colored buildings, bustling Parque Central, and breathtaking horizon filled with volcanoes and church steeples. What I loved most about Granada, however, was the people, including my hospitable host family comprised of three generations.
As for the work I did in Nicaragua, our days were split in half between educational outreach in the mornings and Spanish language classes in the afternoons. During the first week, we worked with an organization called House of Hope, a refuge and safe place for women who have escaped or are still experiencing forced prostitution. House of Hope works with some of the strongest women I will ever encounter in my life, who value their children more than anything but aren’t always comfortable parenting their children due to poor role models. Personally, the idea of being a white American going into another culture and trying to be a savior is something I have a lot of issues with. Who am I to tell these women how to parent, when I don’t even have children of my own? While that is a complicated issue, our program made a point to ask women what kind of support they needed so we could plan workshops that would actually benefit them. We ended up delivering workshops to the mothers about how to involve their children with age-appropriate chores. The women (pictured in a workshop below) were engaged, patient with our sub-par language skills and genuinely grateful for the useful information and resources.
During our second week, we worked with a local school on the outskirts of Granada that serves marginalized neighborhoods or ‘shantytowns.’ For families in these neighborhoods, money is scarce and education is often seen as a way out for their children. The students at the school are excited to learn and see a bright future for themselves. Since students were on break when we were there, we again put on workshops for parents. This time, the theme was more general: how to support your child’s education at home. My partner (Fund for Teachers Fellow Amy Holt from
Franklin H. Mayberry Elementary School in East Hartford, CT) and I focused on math development, and simple ways that parents can reinforce math concepts at home as part of their daily routines like cooking or walking to school. Again, the parents were eager to hear what we had to offer and willing to share their own input on how they talk to their children about math at home.
When not volunteering in the community, I took Spanish classes for four hours each day, focusing on education-specific usage of the language such as how to talk to parents about their child’s progress or how to address student behavior in the classroom. I even learned technical, IEP-related terminology and, by the end of the program, was able to translate an IEP! Goal accomplished!
Overall, Nicaragua left a huge impression on me. Observing people so dedicated to improving the lives of others through education was incredibly inspiring. Parents’ commitment to their children’s education, despite difficult circumstances, was unwavering. The two weeks I spent in Nicaragua went by way too fast, and before I knew it I was hopping on a bus for a nine hour journey to Costa Rica.
Costa Rica was drastically different from Nicaragua. I think the most emotionally challenging day for me was the day of transition between the two countries. The beautiful landscape I saw out the window was just as enchanting as Nicaragua, but as we entered the cities of San Jose and Heredia, I was struck by the economic differences. From the abundance of American fast food chains to the (relative) lack of stray dogs, to the style of dress, Costa Rica was in a very different situation economically. Overall, the drastic differences in the standard of living between two nations was shocking and tough to process.
The work I did in the community in Costa Rica was different, as well. Instead of working with parents, we spent most of our time working with students, which I was so deeply missing! Getting to interact with kids again, although challenging in my second language, brought me so much joy and energy. I was living in a small city in Heredia called Santo Domingo, a town where people say “hello” on the sidewalk and everyone seems to know each other. We spent our first week putting on an educational day camp for kids in Santo Domingo who were still on break from school. My colleagues and I set up separate learning stations and I decided to teach the kids some of my favorite math games from my own classroom. Their eyes lit up when they found out that they could actually practice math through games (pictured below). I asked if they ever played games in school and they laughed and shook their heads no. One student even got excited about a multiplication chart, something she had never seen before, exclaiming, “Ay, que chiva!!” (“Oh, how cool!”) We played dice and card games, practiced our multiplication facts, listened to the Moana soundtrack in Spanish, and laughed as the kids taught me some new vocabulary. Parting with these kids on the last day proved difficult. (One first grade boy even told us, “These were the best days of my life!”) Luckily, we would be seeing some of them the following week at their school.
Students in Santo Domingo were back in school the following week (my last week in Costa Rica) and we got the opportunity to work in a local public school. I got to assist the ‘Apoyo de Aprendizaje’ teacher (learning support) in her classroom where she worked with students with learning disabilities in small groups. This teacher was absolutely amazing. Everything was made into a game (unlike what students had told me the week before!) and students were so engaged and excited to learn. Overall, this school’s approach to Special Education seemed very effective. I observed a lot of collaboration between the special education teachers and general education teachers, and the school created an inclusive atmosphere, even though students who needed individual attention were serviced in a separate room when necessary.
Biggest Takeaways: Why Will This Matter in My Classroom?
The most important thing for me in this whole experience was developing skills to better equip me to serve my students. Here are a few major takeaways that I believe will make me a better, more culturally-responsive educator:
- Knowing how it feels to be an outsider: As a white person in America, my privilege protects me from the emotionally-taxing weight of being an outsider. My students, however, coming largely from minority backgrounds, feel this way every. single. day. It was important for me to have the opportunity to be a cultural outsider, feeling totally insecure in my use of the language and clueless about certain cultural norms. Learning a second language is incredibly difficult, and so many of our students in the US have to do it while we expect them to do so many other things. We expect our immigrant students to adjust seamlessly to the norms of our culture AND keep up with the same expectations as their peers. While I don’t believe in lowering expectations, it is important to be mindful of the emotional toll associated with adjusting to a new language and culture. I now know some of that myself and I will definitely be more sensitive to my students’ needs this year.
- Learning that you can’t judge based on one snapshot: This truth something consistently challenged me, both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I can’t count the number of times that something I had heard about education or culture in one of these countries was debunked. For example, I was told by numerous people (Nicaraguan and North American) that the standard of education is so low in Nicaragua, it’s unlikely to see high quality learning taking place. However, my Spanish teacher in Nicaragua was one of the most highly-skilled educators I‘ve met. Costa Rican adults and children told me how most of their learning is dry, repetitive and focused on rote memorization; yet, I worked alongside a Special Education teacher who made learning a game. I could go on and on about the misconceptions that I encountered, but all in all, I was reminded how important it is to take individual experiences as what they are: individual experiences, rather than a general notion about an entire culture.
- The importance of building community: What struck, especially at the local school in Costa Rica, was the family-like support of the community. For example, at recess students ran into the hallways and onto the field for free play without recess monitors! I didn’t see any student excluded, any fights or major issues. Why is it that in my Chicago school with hired recess monitors, we had to cancel recess because of too many unsafe issues? It really got me thinking about cultural differences and our approach to community building and social emotional learning. I sensed the familial love and respect in a classroom the second I walked in, and this is something I will work hard to build in my own classroom this year
Overall, I could not have imagined a more effective and energizing experience abroad, doing what I love most – teaching! My language skills improved drastically in only a few weeks. Most importantly, I met people with whom I will always remain connected, even though we may be many countries away. I am so grateful to Fund for Teachers for allowing me to have this opportunity and I cannot wait to start this school year off better than ever before!
Emily is a Special Education teacher in the Chicago area, educating students in a school with a high concentration of Spanish-speaking students. She is passionate about social-emotional learning and
mindfulness in the classroom. Emily is pictured at the top of this post (on the left) with Amy Holt; you can read Amy’s perspective on this same fellowship here.